Farm labour after land reform in Zimbabwe

A paper by myself, the late BZ Mavedzenge, Felix Murimbarimba and Chrispen Sukume is just out in Development and Change (available open access). We asked, “What happens to labour when redistributive land reform restructures a system of settler colonial agriculture?” The answer is not obvious and, surprisingly, the question is not widely debated in Zimbabwe.

Debates about farm labour in southern Africa have not caught up with the times, we argue. Discussion of ‘farmworkers’ is often framed in terms of dispossession and victimhood, focusing on the significant displacements that occurred during land reform, but has not explored what has happened next. Labour unions and NGOs, meanwhile, emphasise formal labour rights, assuming a full-time work-force under a single employer. Neither of these perspectives help in getting to grips with how those former workers on large-scale, white-owned commercial farms, often still living in farm ‘compounds’, gain their livelihoods in the post-land reform setting. This is a vital issue and, with the exception of work by Walter Chambati, Sam Moyo and a few others, has largely been ignored by researchers in recent times.

How do former farmworkers gain a livelihood?

Based on several years of work in the tobacco growing area of Mvurwi in Mazowe district, the paper – Labour after Land Reform: The Precarious Livelihoods of Former Farmworkers in Zimbabwe – documents how a sample of former farmworkers currently gain a livelihood. We asked, how did farm labour — formerly wage workers on large-scale commercial farms — engage with the new agrarian structure following land reform? What new livelihoods have emerged since 2000? What new labour regime has evolved, and how does this transform our understanding of agricultural work and employment?

The survey and biographical data show how diverse, but often precarious, livelihoods are being carved out, representing what Henry Bernstein calls the ‘fragmented classes of labour’ of a restructured agrarian economy. We identified four different livelihood strategies, differentiated in particular by access to land. There are those who were allocated plots during or after the land reform and are now A1 land reform settlers, but were formerly farmworkers (or their sons). There are then those living in the compounds with plots of more than one hectare, including rented-in land. Then there are those with plots/gardens of up to one hectare. And, finally, there are those without land at all (or just small gardens by their houses), who are highly reliant on labouring and other livelihood activities.

These varied combinations of land access and labour practices make up diverse livelihoods, suggesting very different experiences of former farmworkers. Indeed, selling labour as a ‘farmworker’ is only a part of a much more diverse livelihood portfolio today, and the term ‘farmworker’ is in many cases redundant.

The analysis highlights the tensions between gaining new freedoms, notably through access to land, and being subject to new livelihood vulnerabilities. Vulnerabilities are considerable, and the precarity of this diverse and numerous group of people living in the new resettlements and working on the farms allocated during land reform is emphasised through an analysis of household assets and activities. But within our sample, there are big differences. Despite access to limited land areas, and making use of skills developed when working on large commercial farms, some are accumulating and investing, provoking a process of differentiation, as some become more like smallholder petty commodity producers than ‘workers’.

Changing labour regimes: wider implications

The findings from Mvurwi are discussed in relation to wider questions relevant to Zimbabwe and southern Africa more broadly. As we observe, across southern Africa, and beyond, agricultural labour regimes are changing from more formal, regulated systems, centred on wage-work, with clear conditions of employment, to more informal systems, where ‘work’, as paid employment, is only one element of a range of livelihood activities, part of a complex bricolage of opportunities put together often under very difficult conditions.

This poorly understood reality is increasingly common, a consequence of wider processes of change under deregulation and neoliberal globalization. The reconfiguration of labour regimes, away from a clearly exploitative dependence on a commercial farmer, towards a more flexible, informal arrangement, does not mean that patterns of dependency and patronage disappear of course, as new social relations emerge between workers, brokers and new farmers, inflected by class, gender and age, affecting who gains what and how.

The question of wage labour, combined with self-employment and farm work, in agrarian change processes is frequently poorly understood, we argue. Yet the emergence of fragmented classes of labour, centred on diverse livelihoods, is a common phenomenon the world over, reconfiguring our understandings of labour and work in developmental processes. By understanding how former wage-earning farmworkers adapted to the radical agrarian restructuring that followed land reform and how they became incorporated in the new agrarian economy offers, we argue, important insights into the changing pattern of agrarian labour regimes, with relevance far beyond Zimbabwe.

Policy challenges

More specifically, our findings have important implications for policy thinking. As we note, tobacco production, now the mainstay of Zimbabwe’s fragile agricultural economy, is highly reliant on labour, yet this must be secured under a very different labour regime to what went before.

Some important new questions arise that need urgent attention. What labour rights do those living in the farm labour compounds have? What is the future of the former labour compounds in the new resettlements, where significant populations live? What other livelihood support is required, including access to land, to sustain the livelihoods of former farmworkers, now increasingly integrated in a new agrarian structure? Will, in the longer term, a more formalized, wage-work regime become reinstated, or will an informal wage economy combined with small-scale agriculture, involving diverse classes of labour, persist?

We hope that the paper will help open up debate about farm labour, going beyond the standard narratives and engaging with the empirical realities on the ground. Land reform has thrown up many next-generation challenges, and that of farm labour is one of the most crucial.

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

 

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