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Slave labour - a hidden wrong
Petina Gappah
Extracted from the IBA Human Rights Violations in Zimbabwe supplement
December 10, 2004

*Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean international trade lawyer who has works for an international organisation in Geneva that assists developing countries to defend their interests before the WTO. The views expressed in this short opinion are the personal views of the author.

Since President Robert Mugabe’s disputed victory, the Zanu PF government has gained in brute strength and overwhelming confidence. In its increasingly successful bid to further shrink the democratic space, it has come up with legal precedents of such intellectual dishonesty, and legislation of such outlandish ludicrousness as to be hysterically funny, were the consequences not so farreaching.

Moral bankruptcy
The true horror of the current Zimbabwean government is that it is deliberately fostering a situation where notions of human decency are debased, and where this debasement is celebrated. In my view, the policy that best illustrates the moral bankruptcy of this regime is one that has received little, if any, attention in the media, namely, the use of forced labour on redistributed farms. The Minister of Justice, Patrick Chinamasa, confirmed in a report in the state daily, The Herald of 19 November 2004, that through the Zimbabwe Prison Service, the government has been offering ‘new farmers’ prisoners to work on their farms.

There can be no question that such a programme of lending out prisoners as labourers to farmers is morally repugnant in the extreme. To force prisoners to work for the personal enrichment and profit of individuals and companies amounts to sanctioning slave labour

Contempt for international standards
Rather than address unemployment, especially among dispossessed former farm labourers, the Zimbabwean government encourages the use of unpaid prisoners. The policy confirms the greed and hypocrisy of a regime that is so niggardly that it will institute state-sanctioned slavery rather than pay a decent wage to farm labourers.

It is a perfect example of the myopic and poorly thought-out policies that are a hallmark of this regime. It bears testimony to the contempt for international standards and norms that is typical of this government.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO), of which Zimbabwe is a member, has strict standards prohibiting such use of prison labour.The ILO Convention Against Forced Labour stipulates clearly that authorities ‘shall not impose or permit the imposition of forced or compulsory labour for the benefit of private individuals, companies or associations’. Zimbabwe ratified this treaty in 1998. By ratifying this treaty, the Zimbabwean government understood that it is immoral for private individuals to profit from labour performed by prisoners.

Short-term expediency
And yet, in defiance of its own consent to be bound by this international treaty, the Zimbabwean government has decided that shortterm expediency should trump its international obligations. Answering questions before Parliament on 17 November 2004, the Minister of Justice informed parliament that his Ministry had for the time being suspended the programme ‘pending a policy framework which would be used should farmers require prison labour’. At no point did the Minister explain what must be known to him, that this scheme is a violation of Zimbabwe’s international obligations. On the contrar y, the minister assured colleagues that the necessary framework having been put in place, the programme would be resumed. At the same parliamentary session, Zanu PF parliamentarians bemoaned the suspension of this programme in view of the urgency of the fact that the tobacco crop was soon to be harvested.

Both perpetrators and beneficiaries
And there we have the crux of the problem. The very people responsible for the implementation of Zimbabwe’s international obligations in this regard are themselves beneficiaries of the violation of those obligations. The Minister of Justice, officials in his ministry and in the Attorney General’s office, government ministers, several judges and parliamentarians have all benefited from the land reform programme. Is it not likely that these are the very same people benefiting from prison labour?

A trading ban to follow?
It appears to have occurred to noone that if prison labour is used in the farming of tobacco, the country’s chief agricultural export, Zimbabwe’s trading partners would be well within their rights to ban the sale of such tobacco. Rather than ensuring the prosperity of the new farmers, this ill-advised scheme risks alienating Zimbabwe’s tobacco and other agricultural products from the international market. When this happens one can be almost certain that the Zimbabwean government will point the blame to some western conspiracy against Zimbabwe.

What hope?
As a Zimbabwean it is painful to me to realise that human rights standards in my country have been so debased that no one questions the morality of this scheme of slave labour. The current situation in Zimbabwe is not new: the abuse of prisoners for personal gain merely illustrates the ruling elite’s worldview in which the poor and the vulnerable exist only to further the interests of this elite. If the Zimbabwe government is willing to bypass international obligations that it signed up to in this cavalier manner, what hope is there that it will implement to the letter the SADC Protocol on electoral standards? 

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