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Labour and union issues in the Zimbabwean agricultural sector in 2004

Timothy Neill

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The shape of commercial agriculture in Zimbabwe has changed fundamentally as a result of the fast track land reform programme begun in February 2000. Production has declined massively and many workers have lost their jobs. This loss of employment opportunities in agriculture may well be irreversible given the world wide general drift off the land into the urban areas. The drift is particularly pronounced in modern agriculture where mechanization has reduced the demand for labour.

The Management Question this research seeks answers for is:

“For commercial agriculture to recover its place in the Zimbabwean economy what are the proper concerns of farm labour and the Union, The General Agriculture and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe, that need to taken into account by the various stakeholders for a productive agricultural sector to reemerge.”

Understanding what this dissertation explores

Whatever may be said of commercial agriculture in the past the pressures for land re-distribution, the demand to put profit before people, the inequalities of luxury and extreme poverty side by side on the same farm meant that as it was it could not continue indefinitely. The research objective is to uncover, from a labour perspective, now that the land has largely passed out of white hands, the issues government, management, farm labourers and Union have to either address or prepare for or do for there to be a significant shift in the status quo historically and currently felt by labour away from the poverty and ignominies of the past and in the direction of real dignity and growing prosperity for these workers on the farms.

In order to comprehensively answer this question on proper concerns of labour the dissertation begins with four chapters that explain the key features from the past
  1. the fundamental changes in agriculture from the fast track land reform programme. By weaving this together with trends in the economy vital dimensions of what has become a crisis situation for the country are better understood. This examination gives substance to the preamble on which the management question is based.

  2. the historic positive and negative issues relating to farm labour and to the Union.

  3. the fundamentals that have dis-empowered labour generally in Zimbabwe.

  4. what do labourers and the Union highlight as their proper concerns through the use of questionnaires in the field and a focus group with union officials.
Synthesizing the findings from the secondary research (1 to 3 above) with (4) the dissertation isolates the concerns and develops strategies for workers and the Union. It takes cognizance of the need to somehow integrate labour interests with concerns of management.

A matrix for analyzing the issues would look like this:



The research question is in relation to future re-emergence of commercial agriculture. Secondary research examines how that future is being shaped by past and present basic relevant issues. Field research using questionnaires sought to collect data for analysis to gain insights first hand into farm labour issues. A focus group with GAPWUZ union officials sought to understand the Union and labour issues in greater depth.

Key Findings

  1. Constitutional and Legislative Dimensions
    1. The Constitution of the Republic of Zimbabwe is a critical source of labour dis-empowerment. Everyone in the labour movement is affected by the Constitution’s deficiencies over the right to strike and the right to free collective bargaining. The Constitution needs to incorporate those basic rights if workers are to be able to have their rightful share of the country’s national wealth and democratic freedom in any sector whether agriculture or otherwise.

    2. The Labour Relations Act is also in need of fundamental revision. Particularly, the procedural requirements for a legal strike which are so convoluted that here has never been, since Independence, one legal strike in Zimbabwe.

  2. Political and Policy Dimensions
    1. The present land tenure system following fast track land reform is all acquired land is now state land. Settlers only have a “right to occupy and use” their farms. This impacts job security, employment patterns and welfare of farm workers. Labour and tenure issues are tied together.

    2. Farm workers have been almost totally disregarded in the land reform process, less than 3 per cent have been given land. The numbers employed has dropped greatly since land reform. The research found those workers who are in A1 settlement areas are in desperate poverty. Not accessing land has added to their plight.

    3. The undermining by government of the wage negotiations at National Employment Council is causing wages to be agreed at which are for the average worker less than the poverty datum line.

  3. Issues for Farm Workers
    1. Poverty, hardship and dis-empowerment are facts of life for farm workers. In most agricultural settings farm workers depend on having accommodation on the farm they are employed on. When this is combined with the constitutional and legislative flaws the result is that workers are forced to live with what are poverty level wages or less unless they are on agri-business farms. Even there their wages are, on average, not enough to feed a family of three.

    2. The trend of the early years of the land reform process towards nonpermanent forms of employment seems to have changed. A growing proportion of workers are becoming permanent employees.

    3. The workers committees are functioning and are getting a better deal for workers.

    4. The dimension of availability of secondary schools for children of farm workers needs to be addressed because of the loss of potential lifelong earnings for children of farm workers.

    5. While wages are at below or near the poverty datum line present interest rates of 50% to 250% a high labour cost could fully erode reasonable returns on investment. Labour, the union and management are going to need to restructure the reward systems so that monthly wage bill are minimized but total annual remuneration increases. Recovery for agriculture will have to be accompanied by a change in the present practice of poverty level remuneration. Total annual remuneration through some sort of profit sharing will keep labour affordable.

    6. Women workers are significantly disadvantaged in employment opportunities and status. The research found that they generally stay out of worker committee involvement, and if that changed their employment and their prospects are more likely to improve.

  4. Issues for the Union
    1. The Union suffered a massive loss of members in the year 2000 but has steadily rebuilt constituency in spite of hostility from government and problems created by ‘rogue’ unions.

    2. The indicators from the research are that the Union can expect to continue to grow and, especially if constitutional and legislative changes take place, the employer/labour interface will change markedly as the farm workers become increasingly unionized. The research established that the general model of paternalistic domestic government on farms is evolving with workers committees achieving a better deal for workers. One of the needs that will arise will be for industrial relations training for management since union members were found to be more militant and aware of their rights.

    3. The Union until now has only the tactic of skillful negotiating in Collective Bargaining Agreements and wage negotiations at the National Employment Council. The threat or actual collective job strike action to get a better deal for labour has not been possible. The dynamics of the collective bargaining process at the National Employment Council will significantly change in democratic free society.

    4. The Union is being negatively affected by the large numbers of ‘free riders’ causing capacity problems for it and undermining its effectiveness.

    5. The continuing practice of using child labour and the plight of old workers calls for further follow-up research.


In December 2001 the organization that I direct, Zimbabwe Community Development Trust, began humanitarian assistance work with farm workers, focusing especially on those who had been displaced from their homes as a result of the farm invasions. We experienced, first hand, shocking tales of torture, rape and the systematic deprivation of basic human rights of farm workers at the hands of war veterans and state security agents. But the history of hardship for farm workers reaches right back into the colonial period. This work is borne out of a desire to see a new and better deal for farm labour.

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