$1 a week: the bitter poverty of child sugarcane workers in Zimbabwe

Children as young as seven are doing hazardous work for meagre sums on sugar plantations

Tapiwa Mumverenge*, in a sugarcane plantation
 Tapiwa Mumverenge*, nine, works at a sugar plantation, but hopes to attend school one day. Photograph: Nyasha Chingono

The blistering sun beats mercilessly on the Mukwasine sugar plantations near Chiredzi, in south-east Zimbabwe. It is Sunday morning and the soothing sound of hymns reverberate from a nearby church.

For most of the children living near the estate, it is time for Sunday school and listening to Bible stories.

But for Tapiwa Mumverenge*, nine, it is another day of toil. In tattered clothes and worn-out plastic shoes, Tapiwa emerges from lofty stacks of sugarcane. Despite his age, he has worked for the past six months at the plantation.

He was just seven when he first had to find work, after both his parents died in 2017. Now Tapiwa works to feed himself and his elderly grandmother.

Drenched in sweat, he furiously swings his makeshift blade, hacking at sugarcane plants twice his height.

“I’ve never been to school. This is all I do,” he tells the Guardian in a shy voice. “I am helping my grandmother. If I don’t do it, we will die of hunger. My grandmother does not want me to go hungry, so she encourages me to work. It is tough, I get sick sometimes.”

Tapiwa is joined in this “maricho” (menial work) by his grandmother. They both earn $2 (£1.5) every fortnight.

This goes towards buying food and soap. “I would want to go to school one day so that I [can] buy my grandmother what she wants,” Tapiwa says.

This is life for the poorest young boys at the plantations. Mukwasine farmers have been criticised for underpaying labourers who constitute a critical part of the sugarcane industry in Zimbabwe. In cane cutting season, local farmers want cheap, casual labour.

Across the field, a group of children take turns to hold a fishing net in a pond, hoping to catch kapenta fish for dinner. They have all worked on the sugarcane farms.

During school holidays the young labourers work in the cane fields for a meagre $10 per month.

“If I need schools fees, I have to go for maricho,” says one. “Our parents cannot afford books and other things we need for school so we have to work hard.”

The monthly wage for cane workers is $180, according to the Progressive Agriculture and Allied Industries Workers’ Union of Zimbabwe.

Children of Tapiwa’s age work without protective clothing in the plantations, infamous for diseases and dangerous snakes.

Last year, a young girl, a pupil at Hippo Valley High School, was burnt to death in a fire in a sugarcane field in Chiredzi.

Moses Sihlangu*, 14, says he has since quit his farm job after working for a year without pay.

Sihlangu, who now works as a herd boy, told the Guardian that his employer had denied him his wages. “I had to leave because I was working for nothing. He promised to pay but never did. Children are being used here and it’s not fair. Kids my age are being ill treated in these plantations because of desperation.”

Mukwasine, a sugar plantation largely made up of farmers who resettled under late president Robert Mugabe’s 2000 land reform programme, has seen the practice of child labour grow in recent years.

According to a US Department of Labor report published in September 2018, children in Zimbabwe engage in the what they define as the “worst forms” of child labour, including mining and agriculture.

The report notes that the deterioration of Zimbabwe’s economy has contributed to an increase in child labour. Lack of access to basic education may also increase the risk.

The lucrative sugar business has been rattled by an upsurge in cases, with the government threatening to begin an investigation.

“We are worried. The ministry is concerned with such a development because we are signatories on the conventions on the rights of the child. We also have a programme which we are running to end child labour. We will do as a matter of urgency an investigation into the case to ensure the protection of these children,” labour and social welfare minister Sekai Nzenza told the Guardian.

Zimbabwe Sugarcane Farmers Development Association chairman Edmore Veterai says his association prohibited farmers from hiring children.

“We hear this now and again. We always say people should give us evidence. People who come … for work always come with their children, which does not relate to the farmer.

“It is strictly prohibited to use children under the age of 18 because our sugar will be called “blood sugar”. Since we sell our sugar around the world, it will not look good on us,” Veterai says.

In May Zimbabwe ratified the protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, demonstrating its commitment to combating forced labour in all its forms.

An estimated 168 million children engage in some form of work globally, with 98 million in agriculture and 12 million in manufacturing and industry.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest number of child labourers in the world – 59 million children between the ages of five and 17 – with the International Labour Organisation estimating that more than one in five children in Africa are employed against their will in exploitative or hazardous work, such as at quarries, farms or mines.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the children.

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