Tapiwa Mumverenge* is nine. Dressed in tattered clothes and worn-out plastic shoes, Tapiwa emerges from lofty stacks of sugarcane. Despite his age, he has worked for the past six months at a sugar plantation.
He was just seven when he first had to find work, after both his parents died in 2017. Now Tapiwa works to feed himself and his elderly grandmother.
Drenched in sweat, he furiously swings his makeshift blade, hacking at sugarcane plants twice his height.
“I’ve never been to school. This is all I do,” he tells the Guardian in a shy voice. “I am helping my grandmother. If I don’t do it, we will die of hunger. My grandmother does not want me to go hungry, so she encourages me to work. It is tough, I get sick sometimes.”
Tapiwa is joined in this “maricho” (menial work) by his grandmother. They both earn $2 (£1.5) every fortnight.
Mukwasine, a sugar plantation in Zimbabwe largely made up of farmers who resettled under late president Robert Mugabe’s 2000 land reform programme, has seen the practice of child labour grow in recent years.
According to a US Department of Labor report published in September 2018, children in Zimbabwe engage in what they define as the “worst forms” of child labour, including mining and agriculture.
The report notes that the deterioration of Zimbabwe’s economy has contributed to an increase in child labour. Lack of access to basic education may also increase the risk.
The lucrative sugar business has been rattled by an upsurge in cases, with the government threatening to begin an investigation.
“We are worried. The ministry is concerned with such a development because we are signatories on the conventions on the rights of the child. We also have a programme which we are running to end child labour. We will do as a matter of urgency an investigation into the case to ensure the protection of these children,” labour and social welfare minister Sekai Nzenza told the Guardian.
Zimbabwe Sugarcane Farmers Development Association chairman Edmore Veterai says his association prohibited farmers from hiring children. “We hear this now and again. We always say people should give us evidence. People who come … for work always come with their children, which does not relate to the farmer.
“It is strictly prohibited to use children under the age of 18 because our sugar will be called “blood sugar”. Since we sell our sugar around the world, it will not look good on us,” Veterai says.
In May Zimbabwe ratified the protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, demonstrating its commitment to combating forced labour in all its forms.
An estimated 168 million children engage in some form of work globally, with 98 million in agriculture and 12 million in manufacturing and industry.
Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest number of child labourers in the world – 59 million children between the ages of five and 17 – with the International Labour Organisation estimating that more than one in five children in Africa are employed against their will in exploitative or hazardous work, such as at quarries, farms or mines. (Source: The Guardian)
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the child.