DOREEN NAWA, Lusaka
SUBSTANDARD housing is a common feature for farm workers.
Not only do many workers live in crowded and unsanitary conditions, but they often lack basic amenities.
Furthermore, they live in isolated areas far away from important services like health facilities, grocery stores, and public transportation.
Mr James Kabungo left Mumbwa in search of work. He found a job as a farm worker in Lusaka West.
Mr Kabungo says because of the fear of remaining unemployed, he has had to accept whatever accommodation is provided by his employer.
“The housing conditions here are pathetic, but I have no choice. I just have to live in what has been provided by my employer,” Mr Kabungo says.
There are different types of housing that farm workers live in, varying widely based on geographic location, the size of the farms as well as their position at work.
“The housing units that are here differ according to one’s position. We have one-room, two-room and three-room houses here. The housing units are not in a good state,” Mr Kabungo says.
For Mr Kabungo, on top of accommodation challenges, he also has to grapple with the lack of protective wear.
He often gets onto the field without gumboots or any other protective wear.
“I understand that my safety is paramount but I cannot afford to buy safety boots from my salary. I get between K900 and K1200. My salary fluctuates because I sometimes get salary advances,” Mr Kabungo says.
Currently, there seems to be no support from various trade unions on the welfare of farm workers countrywide.
Given the close relationship between housing and health, it is impractical to address the health needs of farmworkers without addressing their housing needs.
Another farm worker in Lusaka’s Nine Miles area, Best Chirwa says poor housing can be a significant source of stress for farmworkers.
“We depend on our employers for housing because most of us come from far places like rural parts of the country. We have no one to speak for us. We cannot ask our supervisors to push for better housing for us because we are scared of losing jobs,” Mr Chirwa says.
Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU) public relations manager Calvin Kaleyi says most farm owners in Zambia provide accommodation for employees that choose to live on the farm.
“This accommodation may not be flashy and expensive, but it is accommodation that is habitable. It is housing that meets health and safety standards. One such place is Golden Valley in Chisamba, the workers at that farm have decent accommodation,” Mr Kaleyi says.
But Sustainble Innovations Africa (SIA) Executive Director Wesley Wakun’uma says most commercial farmers in Zambia do not provide decent accommodation for the workers.
Mr Wakun’uma says the lack of better housing for farmworkers has resulted in increased public health risks and health disparities.
He says living conditions for farm workers mainly in commercial farms in Zambia are a prerequisite to their output on the farms.
The importance of safe and accessible housing for farm workers cannot be doubted.
As a matter of human decency and because of the importance of economic protection for the agricultural sector, better housing seems to out-weigh all.
While the availability and affordability of housing for farm workers varies from one farm to another, it still remains a challenge.
Zambia Farm Employers’ Association (ZFEA) chairperson Richard Denly says it is not a rule for farm owners to provide accommodation for their workers but it is something that is agreed upon between the employer and the employee.
“The provision of housing for farm workers is something that is agreed upon by the employer and the employee. As an association, we have 245 paid up members (commercial farmers) and we have a collective agreement that takes care of workers’ conditions of service,” Mr Denly says.
Mr Denly says that for a farmer to invest in housing for unskilled workers, it has to earn a better return than investing in technology that can do the same work as the workers.
According to the collective agreement which runs for three years from 2015-2018, if an employer does not provide housing, a monthly housing allowance is paid to the employee on percentage basis depending on whether the employee is permanent, contractual or seasonal.
Casual employees are not entitled to housing allowance. Where wages are calculated by reference to a period of less than one month, housing allowance will be paid on a pro-rata basis, according to the agreement read in parts.
As investment in Zambia’s agriculture sector continues to grow, the supply of housing for those who work on the farms has outstripped the demand.
If agriculture is to survive, then it should have farm workers and those workers need decent and affordable housing.
The need for better housing for farm workers in Zambia is a matter of economic common sense because decent housing motivates a worker, leading to increased productivity.
DOREEN NAWA, Lusaka