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Child Labor in Zimbabwe: a Policy Brief

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On his 5-hectare farm near Shamva, Oliver Namangwiya produces 4,300 kilograms of cured tobacco every year, earning at least $9,000 each season — 10 times the average annual income in the Southeastern African country of Zimbabwe. He rotates crops, plants 1.5 hectares of maize every year and also sells that on the local market. Globally, small land holdings like Namangwiya’s are widely seen as part of what can make agriculture uneconomical compared to massive, mechanized farms. In Zimbabwe, though, small-scale tobacco farmers are emerging as part of the solution to a long period of economic stagnation and people are seeing tobacco farming as an opportunity to earn enough money to feed their families and survive. However, the policy that has enabled the tobacco farming industry to flourish in Zimbabwe has had unintended consequences that could affect the future of the country if the issue is not addressed.

In the past decade, Zimbabwe has gone through significant economic and political growth and change. In 1987 Robert Mugabe came to power and redistributed land owned by a small number of white people to hundreds of thousands of black Zimbabweans. This project was meant to redistribute opportunity and wealth in Zimbabwean society and it was successful in that many black Zimbaweans were granted the opportunity to start their own family farm and earn a living. In 2017, Mugabe’s rule came to an end and his former deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, came to power (Human Rights Watch 2018). Mnangagwa’s main focus has been improving the economy through agriculture just as Mugabe’s was. Mnangagwa said, “Our economic policy will be predicated on our agriculture, which is the mainstay. Our quest for economic development must be premised on our timeless goal to establish and sustain a just and equitable society firmly based on our historical, cultural and social experience, as well as on our aspirations for better lives for all our people” (Human Rights Watch 2018). And while the country continues to focus on economic prosperity through agriculture, literature suggests that the poor execution of the land distribution project caused the country to remain just as impoverished and unequal as before. One of the major unintended consequences of this policy is the issue of child labor on tobacco farms.

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For the purpose of this paper I will discuss the tobacco industry and its role in the country of Zimbabwe as well as education and the role it plays in Zimbabwean society. I will then discuss how the tobacco industry and education system in Zimbabwe interact to oblige children to leave school prematurely and, ultimately, deprive children of the opportunity to attend school. Next I will discuss what is known globally about about child labor on tobacco farms, what is known by the Zimbabwean government and people about this issue, and the implications of this issue for policy makers in Zimbabwe. I will then propose a few interventions for Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Education and Ministry of Labor and Save the Children that could help to resolve this problem or mitigate the effects of it from a child protection standpoint.

Tobacco as an Economic Solution

The tobacco industry is a trillion dollar, global industry and it is highly competitive. Tobacco grown in Zimbabwe enters into the supply chains of some of the world’s largest tobacco companies such as Boostafrica, Intercontinental Leaf, and China National Tobacco Company (HRW 2018). And tobacco companies are constantly trying to find places they can cut production costs and increase their profit, so they often find countries with devastated economies, high poverty rates, and flexible labor laws to obtain the cheapest labor they can. With nearly three quarters of the population living below the national poverty line and a deteriorated economy, Zimbabwe is a great target for these companies (Wines 2007). But this work does not only turn a profit for big tobacco companies. Economically, tobacco farming has been beneficial to the people of Zimbabwe in that it allows them to put food on the table, pay school fees, and buy clothes or school supplies they may need. Tobacco is Zimbabwe’s most valuable export commodity—generating US $933.7 million in 2016—and the crop is particularly significant to Zimbabwean authorities’ efforts to revive the economy (Human Rights Watch 2018; Dall 2017). Oswell Mharapara, assistant general manager of Zimbabwe’s Tobacco Research Board (TRB) even said “It is a really happy story for the country and the farmers,” because the tobacco industry has shown so much promise recently.

However, harvesting tobacco is labor-intensive and hazardous for the workers who come in close contact with it every day. In order to grow and harvest tobacco, there are workers needed to prepare the seedbeds, plant the tobacco plants in small beds, spray fertilizer and pesticides, pick the tobacco leaves by hand, carry them to the curing barns, bundle and wrap them, and hang them in the curing barns where they are heated and dried out, and then maintain the fires that dry out the leaves, and sort the different grades of leaves after they are dried out (Human Rights Watch 2018). Because workers come in close contact with tobacco daily they often experience symptoms of nicotine poisoning, which can range from dizziness, headaches, fatigue and nausea, to fainting and vomiting (Human Rights Watch 2018). These symptoms are significantly worse for children who come into close contact with tobacco because of their size and because they are less likely to have developed a tolerance for nicotine (Human Rights Watch 2018). Nevertheless, many children work on tobacco farms in Zimbabwe for hire or for their families. Recently, Human Rights Watch released an extensive report on child labor on tobacco farms in Zimbabwe that revealed how commonplace child labor is on tobacco farms in Zimbabwe and also explained how this common practice puts children at risk of missing school, falling behind their grade level, and poses a significant health risk for them. In order to understand the relevance of this report, though, it is important to understand the state of education in Zimbabwe.

Education in Zimbabwe

Education and children’s rights to education are highly valued in Zimbabwe, but there are barriers that prevent Zimbabwean children from achieving the highest education possible. Government officials ratified the UN Convention for the Rights of a Child and passed the Education Act and Children’s Act in order to set the standards for education and child rights in Zimbabwe. In the Education Act it says “children have a fundamental right to education…tuition in schools in should Zimbabwe be the lowest possible fees consistent with the maintenance of high standards of education, and the Minister shall encourage the attainment of this objective by every appropriate means, including the making of grants and other subsidies to schools. (Education Act 25:04). However, education is not free and children are not required to attend school after sixth grade (EPDC 2006). Primary education is about $10- $15 per term and secondary education is roughly $150- $200 per term, so it is usually unlikely that families can pay the school fees in addition to the uniform fees and book fees (EPDC 2006).

As a result families seem to have two options: they can work hard and try to make money farming to pay for school, or the children can drop out of school. Because education is valued so highly children try to work on farms to pay school fees and then they will attend school when they have the time, but this means that their attendance is spotty and makes it difficult for them to receive a high quality education. This absenteeism makes it difficult for teachers to teach information and for children to learn and retain any information, which ultimately leads to poor performance in the classroom and gaps in their education. This is evident in that only about 32% of primary school students are in the appropriate grade for their age and the on-time proportion declines in the higher grades (EPDC). Overall, this literature suggests that the majority of children are missing significant amounts of school and struggling to complete each grade, which suggests that there is a barrier preventing them from completing each grade successfully. Much of the literature surrounding education in Zimbabwe suggests that the barrier to quality education is poverty, lack of social services, and poor enforcement of legislation. As a result, 13 percent of Zimbabwean children are engaged in child labour which the International Labour Organization (ILO) defines as work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally harmful to children and that interferes with their schooling (IRIN 2011).

Based on the most recent Human Rights Watch Report, this issue is clearly an issue of child protection in that child labor on tobacco farms violates several articles of the U.N.’s Convention for the Rights of the Child. Zimbabwe ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, but the reports from the Human Rights Watch and other testimonies argue that they are currently violating article 4 (protection of rights), article 6 (right to health), and especially articles 28 (right to education) and 32 (right to protection from child labor) (Convention on the Rights of a Child). Article 28 says that “all children have the right to a primary education, which should be free…discipline in schools should respect children’s dignity…without the use of violence…young people should be encouraged to reach the highest level of education of which they are capable” (Convention on the Rights of the Child). According to “A Bitter Harvest,” primary education is not free in Zimbabwe, and there is a significant amount of physical. One example of this is a testimony from a 14 year old boy, Davidzo, who said ““I had to absent myself from school because I needed school fees.” When he returned to school, he was punished by his teachers. “I was beaten…. I was so disappointed because I was trying to make an effort to work to raise my school fees. I thought I was doing good for myself” (HRW 2018).

Article 32 says that the government should protect children from work that is dangerous or might harm their health or their education…if children help out in a family farm or business, the tasks they do be safe and suited to their level of development and comply with national labour laws. Children’s work should not jeopardize any of their other rights, including the right to education, or the right to relaxation and play,” but these rights are clearly being infringed upon. Teachers in tobacco growing regions told Human Rights Watch that their students were often absent during the tobacco growing season, particularly during the labor-intensive periods of planting and harvesting, making it difficult for them to keep up with their school work. Joseph, a grade 5 teacher in Mashonaland West, said one-quarter of his 43 students worked on tobacco farms. “It causes a lot of absenteeism,” he said. “You find out of 63 days of the term, a child is coming 15 to 24 days only,” he said (HRW 2018). Additionally, children work long hours during the tobacco harvesting season, do not have time for play or school, and often get sick from the work they are doing so it is clearly affecting their health and well-being (Convention on the Rights of the Child).

Global Knowledge

Although the issue of child labor has been a problem in Zimbabwe for over a decade, the issue only seriously came to the attention of the global community when Human Rights Watch released their most recent report. However, this issue is familiar to the global community in that Zimbabwe is not the only country that practices child labor. Many other countries including Indonesia, Malawi, and the United States also have high rates of child labor on tobacco farms. Indonesia’s situation is fairly similar to Zimbabwe’s in that poverty is the driver for child labor, but Indonesia had a change in government in 1975 that expanded primary education and placed an importance on consistent attendance. This change in education accompanied with a change in family size allowed families to be able to pay for further education for their children, which expanded opportunity for economic mobility for them. Indonesia also saw improvement in the economy during this time, which boosted their ability to move away from the practice of child labor. However, Zimbabwe is a unique situation in that the people have little knowledge about the effects of child labor on their health, well-being, and education and the government refuses to acknowledge or adequately combat the issue.

Local Knowledge

In Zimbabwe, citizens do not have the resources for adequate health care and they were not informed about the dangerous side effects of nicotine poisoning until recently, so they continue to work on farms and continue to let their children harvest and handle tobacco as long as it benefits them financially. Now, as the issue gains more and more attention from human rights groups the people of Zimbabwe are beginning to understand how hazardous this work is. Nevertheless, tobacco is essential to the improvement of Zimbabwe’s economy and they know that they must harvest all of the tobacco they can in order to sell it to big tobacco companies and put food on their tables. However, most tobacco farmers cannot afford to hire workers and pay them decent wages. In HRW’s report one man’s testimony describes the difficulty they encountered in hiring workers. This tobacco worker, Panashe said, “We face the problem of labor. In tobacco, you cannot work alone…. I cannot manage to hire workers because I don’t have anything.” As a result, he relied on help from his 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old niece. “They do everything,” he said. “They are overworked” (Human Rights Watch 2018). This is a common practice for farm owners during the harvesting season and it affects their workers’ education. But people in Zimbabwe view tobacco farming as a family affair.

Most farms are small and family owned and operated and it is so labor-intensive that it requires many workers throughout the harvesting process and parents often cannot do it alone. If there is no one to harvest the tobacco then the family does not have enough money to send the kids to school or to eat, so families do not view this work as child labor (Morrow 2018). Instead they view this work in the same way that another family may view chores around the house–as a good way to learn responsibility and hard work. However, now that families are gaining more information about the dangers of nicotine poisoning, the issue is a little more complicated. Families are stuck because two adults simply cannot do all of the work on the farm, they cannot afford to hire workers, and the children really should not do the work. However, there is no enforcement agency or major consequence for child labor, so families often resort to utilizing their children or other children hired for cheap wages. According to the Human Rights Watch report, more than half of the 64 small-scale farmers interviewed said that children under 18 worked on their tobacco farms—either their own children or family members, or children they hired to work on their farms (HRW 2018). Nevertheless, this is clearly impacting children’s education and health, so this work does not qualify as child work, so it is crucial that the government officials of Zimbabwe intervene (Morrow 2018).

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