The high levels of poverty in Zimbabwe are pushing children into working to survive.
Orphaned at age 9 and now just eleven years old, Shupi Dambudzo* has taken over the responsibility of fending for her two siblings aged 3 and 6 years to supplement the meagre earnings of her aunt, who is their sole guardian.
Shupi wakes up early every morning to join other young girls and boys to be hired by local recyclers to collect empty plastic bottles and are paid around 20 Zimbabwe dollars (R2) for a 50 kg bag.
“On a good day I can make up to ZWL 50 if I manage to collect many bottles. I have to be at the dump sites very early in the morning because there are others who also collect the bottles,” she says.
Shupi is just one of many children in Zimbabwe who are forced to work to supplement family income. High poverty levels in Zimbabwe have led to spiralling cases of child labour amid calls for government to create an environment that removes children from unsafe conditions.
Despite laws that prohibit child labour and set the minimum age for employment, high poverty levels have forced families to scavenge, making it difficult to implement the law.
While the tobacco sector has for years been the biggest culprit, a new sector, plastic recycling, has emerged, with children as young as 10 years old working as plastic collectors for meagre earnings.
Scenes of young children foraging for plastic bottles at dump sites have become commonplace in the capital Harare, which is also facing service delivery challenges that have seen dumps sprouting everywhere.
The chief culprits in all this are the agents who contract desperate locals to collect plastics on their behalf so they can sell these on to recycling companies.
According to the Coalition Against Child Labour in Zimbabwe, CACLAZ , an organisation monitoring child labour activities in the country, one in every five children is working with the situation having been exacerbated by the lockdown.
CACLAZ national coordinator, Pascal Masocha, says the organisation is currently running programmes to assist affected children with identification and withdrawal, returning to school, psycho-social support, counseling and awareness raising.
The organisation is also paying school fees for some of the children and providing them with food while imparting children’s rights knowledge.
“To date we have withdrawn 4,050 children from work and sent them back to school,” he says
But the Zimbabwe Chemicals, Plastics and Allied Workers Union general secretary, Stephen Nasha, says while most recycling companies were guilty of exploiting child labour, it is difficult for the union to monitor the situation on the ground as the companies contract unregistered agents to collect the empty plastic bottles on their behalf.
“I agree with the view that there is child labour taking place in the plastics industry and there is quite a number of children picking used plastics for recycling purposes, but the challenge is how to stop it as the children are being assigned to do so by their respective families,” Nasha says.
The state of the economy
The sorry sight of working children paints a gloomy picture of the Southern African nation’s economy, which has been on a downturn over the past 20 years
“Zimbabwe is in turmoil and the state of the economy is seen in the face of children, youths and women roaming the streets eking a living,” says Japhet Moyo, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU).
Moyo says that while there are laws to protect children from child labour, the enforcement mechanisms and inspections are very weak.
“The solution lies in creating decent jobs for breadwinners and tightening of enforcement mechanisms. Enforcement of legislation that prohibits the use of child labour is the responsibility of the Ministry of Labour and the mechanisms should be in place but if they are underfunded then they would not be able to do their work,” he says.
Parents are also culprits
Point person for child labour at the ZCTU, Fiona Magaya, however, reckons that the parents of the affected children also play a significant role in fuelling child labour as they try to alleviate hunger.
“The families we interviewed claimed their children go to school after working on farms because they want to teach them to be industrious and self-dependent. Follow up programmes need to be done to educate these parents and to remove these children from labour. The challenge is their parents are culprits and we can’t take away a child from its family. So sensitization on the law may be necessary,” she says.
Magaya says there has not been much effort in implementing programmes to remove children from areas of abuse and to support families so they can sustain their lives.
“We have had rapid studies in different sectors as the tripartite partners over the years. For instance, in agriculture and the tobacco sectors child labour is very high. More than 60 percent of families use their children to plough, plant seeds and during harvest time children are used to harvest maize or tobacco,” she adds.
It has also rumoured that male tobacco farmers marry up to four wives so they can sire children who will serve as human capital on their farms when they grow up.
“This makes the farmer rich in terms of labour to grow and harvest more tobacco. These children miss school and if they go to school it will be after working on the farm and this impacts negatively on their performance at school,” she says.
Magaya contends that laws like the Children’s Act Chapter 5:06, which prohibits abuse of children, the use of children for hard labour and sets a minimum age of employment in hazardous work, have not been fully implemented and that government needs to facilitate the removal of such children from areas of abuse to safety.
Families need to be supported
Labour and Social Welfare Minister, Paul Mavhima, acknowledged there is a rise in cases of child labour but believes that the situation is not very bad.
“It becomes worrying when a child drops out of school to supplement family income. We have carried out surveys and noted that children have been working on tobacco farms and even in mines, but I don’t think the statistics are as bad as some would want to portray,” he says.
Mavhima notes that government needs to take decisive action to provide a cushion for the poor. “Any child who drops out of school or is forced into hard labour is one too many. We need to make sure that families are supported with social protection,” he says.
The minister believes that the country has good laws but they are not being implemented.