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Giving Farm Workers a Voice in Zimbabwe

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Gertrude Hambira doesn't look like someone who gets arrested regularly. Nor do the other women and men in suits who work with her at the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ), formed in the mid-1980s to protect farm laborers. But arrest, harassment and even torture have been regular occupational hazards for Gertrude -- the General Secretary of GAPWUZ -- and her staff for many years.

Unfortunately, things have not gotten much better since the 2008 elections when President Mugabe refused to cede power to the democratically elected Morgan Tsvangirai, a former union leader himself. The resulting power-sharing agreement has left the two sides battling for control as the nation plummets deeper into unemployment and poverty. At least 90 percent of the population is not part of formal workforce.

Meanwhile, land reform policies have left many farm workers (about 1.5 million) without a source of income as farms are divided up -- with many tracts given to Mugabe supporters. While Zimbabwe's land reform was initially intended to decrease the number of white-owned farms in the country and provide land to the landless, it's done little to help the poor in rural areas. "Land was taken from the rich and given to the rich," says General Secretary Hambira. The rich farmers are, however, not utilizing the land, she notes, leading to lower agricultural productivity, higher prices for food, and widespread hunger.

Hambira says that as rural areas become a target for government reforms, "farm workers have become voiceless." But giving them back their voice is what GAPWUZ is trying to do, by helping reduce child labor, by educating members about their rights in the fields and on the farm, by educating workers about HIV/AIDS , and by helping women workers gain a voice in decision-making. And, unfortunately, that's why General Secretary and her staff often get arrested. Shortly after I met with her, the GAPWUZ office was raided by government police and she was forced to go in hiding to South Africa for several weeks.

But GAPWUZ isn't just working to protect the rights of farm workers in Zimbabwe, says Hambira. By "looking at the plight of farm workers," the union is helping to build productivity on the farm and to build a strong agricultural sector -- one that will be needed more than ever as Zimbabwe struggles to rebuild and restore democracy.

This post is also published here, at the Worldwatch Institute's "Nourishing the Planet".