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Sugarcane cutters’ horror experiences in the field
September 25, 2015
CHIREDZI – A pair of sooty-faced men with greased khaki clothes, are camouflaged in a burnt sugarcane field. Without sun hats, no protective gloves, one with overused shoes, and a threadbare shirt that liberally lets the sun steam up the naked flesh on the back even as early as 8am, they had been furiously hacking down the cane.
Their hands are caroused and no one would dare pick up fight with them. At intervals, they adjust the wrapped strings of cloth and dirty bandages wrapped around their palms, which stand as substitutes for protective gloves.
The bandages shield them from blisters as the machetes do not have handles.
They say sweet comes from sweat, but not literally so for these cane cutters, who are among thousands that toil daily in the vast, lush green cane plantations, but are living bitter lives, which are in exact opposite to the sweet product they oversee.
Living in overcrowded, filthy compounds which leave them prone to disease, the cane cutters, largely employed by new farmers resettled by the government, are facing exploitation, according to a report by the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights).
The report also cites neglect, low pay, dangerous working conditions, without protective clothing as contributing to the breakdown of families and ultimately, misery.
“The Zimbabwe Human Rights Association witnessed, during a fact-finding mission from Wednesday to Friday last week, the humanitarian crisis first-hand.
“This was after the cane cutters complained during a provincial people’s conference in Masvingo on August 21, 2015, of the looming disaster at the estates, which prompted the visit,” reads the report.
A huge pile of sugarcane lies behind them, where two toddlers play, also blackened by the soot of burnt cane.
“Water stopped running more than four years ago,” one of the compound residents, a middle-aged woman, volunteers. “The problem is that there is no electricity to run the pumps. The ‘settlers’ (here that’s what the government-resettled black farmers are called) disconnected it.”
But near the off-colour whitewashed houses, pylons stand on the western edge deceivingly upright, transmitting no electricity.
The compound’s single toilet, used by over 90 families, with its cracking walls, presents the worst disaster. Raw effluent is logged on the filthy floor and there is no pit on the two squatting holes.
This was supposed to be a system where water washes everything away through a tunnel, now uncovered, as residents try to undo blockages caused by dryness.
As one exits the toilet with great regret for having inquisitively ventured in, another female resident says something that will hurt the Zimbabwe government’s pride – for having spearheaded the agrarian reform programme that brought the resettled plantation owners.
“The white farmers were better than these settlers. They do not care at all,” she bitterly lets out.
Most of the resettled farmers are top government officials, Zanu PF stalwarts and feared members of the State security institutions.
Here a Member of Parliament, there a brigadier, and next an influential government security agent.
“These are influential people, who now own these plantations.
“If you ask for better living conditions or pay, you will be fired from your job and evicted from your house,” the woman said.
Although some have had the farms for 13 years, they do not know how to treat workers properly.
“We get as little as $50 per month, but we sometimes moonlight to other farmers who pay $5 for a heap of cane which should amount to a tonne,” says one cane cutter.
Women walk about 3km distances with heavy containers on their heads to fetch water. A male resident revealed that overcrowding in houses is having its toll on children, especially girls.
“Because children see their parents being intimate in the overcrowded rooms, many of the girls are marrying in their childhood. They can’t be stopped,” he said.
“Parents can’t deal with it because their children are getting exposed to sex early. Parents have no privacy when they engage in sex due to the overcrowding in the houses.”
“It is a no-brainer that the ‘settlers’, or ‘comrades’ as they are called by their farm labourers, are seeing sweeter days, after annexing the sugarcane plantations.
“They have inherited the beautiful farmhouses that were built by the white commercial farmers. Their gated houses usually behind tall palm trees still have lawns, water and electricity.
“If anything, they are still striving to keep the luxurious places as cosy as they were when they seized them at the expense of workers’ compounds.
“What is plain undeniable is that the ‘comrades’ are ensuring that come storm, come hot sun, fellow Zimbabweans work the sugarcane plantations as hard as they can with little to nothing in return.
“Comparing the lives that the sugarcane cutters live with those of the resettled indigenous farmers who live in the farmhouses, there is a difference which evidences the neglect of the employees by their employers.
“Most of the plantations in question are owned by people mostly linked to government institutions and to the ruling party.
“ZimRights would like to express its grave concern on the plight of farm workers at the Lowveld sugarcane estates in Hippo Valley and Triangle and urges the government, through the Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare ministry, to intervene,” ZimRights said.