What happened to farm workers following Zimbabwe’s land reform?

Previous blogs have discussed the fate of workers who had worked on the large-scale commercial farms that were distributed during land reform, both in relation to the total numbers affected, and the new livelihood strategies that have been pursued. The role of labour in the new farm structure is a crucial and under-studied issue, as it is more generally in agrarian and livelihood studies. However we now have some data from our own fieldwork that sheds light on these issues.

Over the last few years we have been working in the Mvurwi area of Mazowe district as part of the Space, Markets, Employment and Agricultural Development project. We have carried out similar surveys to those that we had done before in Masvingo (and now more recently in Matobo) to find out how similar and different these sites are, and how the experience of land reform has affected different people in different places.

In Mvurwi we have been looking at what has happened on a series of A1 farms (involving a sample of 220 households), as well as a few case studies of A2 farms nearby. We have also been investigating what happened to farm workers who have either got land as part of A1 settlements or are still living in the farm worker compounds.

Across the three farms where our A1 sample is located, there are four farm worker compounds, with around 370 farm worker families currently living in them – half are original workers from those farms, the rest were displaced from about 25 other farms (notably A2 farms), from Mazowe district and beyond, where new owners have expelled former workers, as they have restructured their operations.

Former farm workers are not a uniform category of course. There are some who managed to get land under the fast-track process and since, and are part of our A1 sample. Of this sample 10% were former farm workers, from the farms concerned or from further afield, as many had to move. Others were compound dwellers with small plots where they were growing food, and indeed tobacco, and they were engaged in regular work, being employed by A1 or A2 farmers. Others had carved out new livelihoods, sometimes combining piece work on farms, with other activities such as building, carpentry or fishing (see below). However others have no jobs or other forms of livelihood, and are struggling. Some have gone to communal areas and have reinsterted themselves into social networks there, but many do not have access to these, being ‘foreigners’ originally from Malawi, Mozambique or Zambia for example, and with no rural home, despite having lived in Zimbabwe for generations. It is a diverse experience, and one that deserves more research scrutiny.

Among our sample of A1 farms, on average each household employed 0.8 permanent workers and 4.2 temporary workers, both men and women. Many of the permanent workers are drawn from where the household previously came from, often nearby communal areas, bringing in relatives and others. However, new A1 farmers growing tobacco have also hired in permanent workers from the compounds. These are often the skilled farm managers and others who can help with their new tobacco businesses. Others say they prefer to hire from the compounds as the labour is skilled and disciplined, and they are happy to avoid being tied to relatives. Permanent workers include both men and women, and the same applies to temporary workers. These are nearly all drawn from the compound, and are hired for particular production tasks. Wages are low especially for temporary work, and workers are not organised or unionised, and so have little bargaining power. Not all compound households can find work for all the time, and so must develop more diversified livelihoods. Land reform was 15 years ago, and a whole new generation has grown up in the compounds since. This group of youth have not learned the skills of their parents in tobacco growing, and so are not hired so often. They must seek out other income earning activities to survive.

The table below offers some average household social profiles and backgrounds of A1, A2 and farm worker households. The A1 households are split up into ‘success groups’ (more or less successful according to local informants), while the others are lumped together.

Table: Profiles of A1 (Success Group 1-3), A2 and Farmworker households in terms of characteristics of household head/land, crop outputs, income sources; assets and their accumulation.

  A1-SG1 A1-SG2 A1-SG3 A2 FW
Educational level of household head (% above Form 2) 54 51 58 80 19
Age of household head (% above 50 years) 42 48 33 60 40
Land area allocated [ ha ] 5.4 5.6 5.6 51.9 0.6
Land area cultivated (ha) 3.6 3.7 2.4 7.8 0.6
Maize production (kg), 2014 4805 2931 2232 18400 419
Maize sales (kg), 2014 3279 1384 973 14280 0
Tobacco production (kg), 2014 1338 1460 880 4700 246
Remittance income (percentage receiving) 13 17 16 60 15
Cattle sales (%) 33 39 22 40 1
Local piece work (%) 8 8 14 0 44
Vegetable sales (%) 27 52 49 60 34
Building, thatching, carpentry (%) 12 24 32 0 54
Fishing (%) 8 11 22 0 19
Cattle ownership (N) 9.8 6.9 4.7 10.0 0.5
Car/truck ownership ( %) 47.9 23.2 30.1 20 2
Bicycle ownership (%) 58 60 59 80 35
Cattle purchased (N) in last 5 years 1.2 0.9 2.1 0 0.2
Cars purchased % in last 5 years 27 19 21 0 0
Bicycles purchased % in last 5 years 25 35 44 80 23
Cell phones purchased in last 5 years (N) 3.4 3.2 3.8 6 1.6
Solar panels purchased (N) in last five years 1.1 1.1 0.9 0.8 0.8
Water pumps purchased % in last five years 0.25 0.52 0.34 0.2 0.2

Comparing farm worker households to others, we can see that across variables, farm worker households are badly off. They have very small plots of land (average 0.6ha), all of which is cultivated. They do this intensively although in 2014 only realising 400kg of maize on average, and 250kg of tobacco. Maize is all consumed, while tobacco offers some additional income. This is complemented by a range of other sources of income. Local piece work (including the temporary farm labour discussed above), building/thatching/carpentry and vegetable sales (for women) dominate. Fishing is also important in one of the farm dams for some. Compared to the other sample groups, asset ownership is very limited, although a few have livestock, and some are buying new animals. By contrast to the more successful A1 farmers, the possibilities of accumulation are limited, although farm worker households have bought bicycles, cell phones, solar panels and water pumps.

There is little doubt that former farm workers are extremely poor and often have precarious livelihoods. However, in the absence of alternatives, they are surviving, often through a combination of intensive agriculture on garden sized plots and other work. The compounds across what was the large-scale commercial farming areas of the Highveld are home to many thousands of people. The long-term future of this population remains uncertain, but for now their labour and skill is an important element of the success of some of the new resettlement farmers, and some are managing to find ways of getting their own plots.

Next week, I will share a few case studies of former farm workers from this area to show how different people are making a living.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland


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One response to “What happened to farm workers following Zimbabwe’s land reform?

  1. Pingback: Migration and changing disease dynamics in the Zambezi valley | zimbabweland

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