Unicef estimates that 13% of Zimbabwean children are engaged in child labour, a problem spurred by the demise of the country's manufacturing sector.
The company closures, downsizings and retrenchments that have led to the demise of Zimbabwe's manufacturing sector in the past decade, and particularly in recent months, are forcing parents and guardians to send their children out to work to augment household incomes, say labour experts and economists.
An assessment of the manufacturing sector's performance by the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI), a membership organisation that represents the industry, described the situation as "a crisis" and noted that many companies have downsized or closed their doors in 2012. A 2013 report by CZI found that businesses were operating at less than 40% of capacity.
The National Social Security Authority, a Zimbabwe government body, estimates that between July 2011 and July 2013, 711 companies in the capital, Harare, went out of business, causing 8 336 workers to lose their jobs.
Chronic power shortages, a loss of markets and a lack of capital to invest in new technologies and machinery have been forcing businesses to scale back or close down in the last decade, but according to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), the rate of retrenchments increased in the second half of 2013.
This followed the general elections in August, when President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party won a landslide victory. A coalition government with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) that had helped stabilise the economy after a protracted period of political and economic instability, was dissolved.
"Children, together with women, are bearing the brunt of company closures that, according to findings by our retrenchment committee for the period from July 2013, have resulted in an average of 300 workers being laid off per week," said Japhet Moyo, ZCTU's secretary general.
"The situation is likely to get worse in 2014, and while we don't have figures for children who have been forced to get into commercial work, the figure is certainly set to be higher than the child labour statistics that are officially available," he noted.
Zimbabwean law, which defines children as persons under 18 years old, prohibits any form of employment for children under the age of 13, while those between 13 and 15 years old can work only as supervised apprentices. Children aged between 16 and 18 may be employed commercially, providing they are supervised.
However, the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) estimates that 13% of Zimbabwean children are engaged in child labour, which the International Labour Organisation defines as work that is harmful to children's physical and mental development and interferes with their schooling.
A global child labour index for 2012, released in late 2013 by Maplecroft, an international risk analysis firm, ranked Zimbabwe among the 10 worst performers, out of 197 countries surveyed worldwide, for the frequency and severity of its reported child labour incidents.
"Whenever companies downsize or fold, household incomes suffer and the tendency among parents and guardians is to look to children to help raise money for upkeep by forcing them to engage in commercial work," said Moyo. He noted that child labour is common on farms and sugar plantations, and in the retail and mining sectors, while girls are often employed as domestic workers – all occupations "where the wages tend to be very low", he added.
The US department of labour's 2012 report on child labour in Zimbabwe noted that children engaged in mining "work long hours and use dangerous chemicals such as mercury, cyanide and explosives", while those involved in fishing "perform demanding tasks, and face dangers such as drowning".
"While the law is clear on child labour, policing is the problem because the relevant departments lack manpower, and government has no alternative ways of fighting poverty among affected families," said Moyo.
Tatenda Sibanda* (12) is among scores of men, women and children who go to Lake Chivero, some 25km southwest of Harare, every day to catch fish, which they sell on the side of the road as well as to shops and households.
Tatenda helps his father cast a net into the water and drag it out when they have made a catch. After two or three sizeable hauls, they come ashore and start sorting the fish and loading them into buckets, which will go to a fishing company based at the lake. Tatenda earns US$5 a day for his work, while his father earns $10.
"The job is a hard one, but my parents have told me that it is the only way in which I will be able to get money for school fees when we go back to school this year," said Tatenda, who started fishing at the lake at weekends and during school holidays when his father lost his job.
"I would have wanted my son to rest and play with the other kids, but since I am out of employment, he has to help," said his father. Tatenda's 14-year-old sister is working as a vegetable porter at a busy market for $2 a day. "If it were not for this fish business and the little we get from my daughter and my wife's vegetable vending, we wouldn't have been able to buy anything during Christmas," said Sibanda.
He was working at a textiles company when it closed down in October 2013 and he was laid off, along with nearly 200 other employees. Sibanda had been receiving less than a third of his monthly salary of $350 for eight months before his job came to an end, and when the company finally shut its doors he did not receive the back pay he was owed, or any termination benefits.
Innocent Makwiramiti, a Harare-based economist and former chief executive officer of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce (ZNCC), said retrenched employees often lose numerous benefits besides their salaries. "In most cases, when they are retrenched, breadwinners would have [already] gone for long periods without receiving their salaries, [they] can no longer access medical aid and, in some cases, they forgo school fees allowances they would have been getting," he said.
"While companies have been struggling over the years, even under the government of national unity (formed in early 2009 and dissolved in August 2013), it seems an unusual number have been folding since last year's elections." Makwiramiti said many other companies are struggling to pay employees their full salaries, while public service employees often receive such poor salaries that they rely on their children to supplement the household income, and even top managers who have fallen on hard times are doing the same.
Kurai Chipamaunga (37), a single mother with two children, who is also responsible for her late sister's three children, worked as a senior accounts clerk for a bank in Harare until it closed in 2013. "When the bank was placed under liquidation, most employees did not get anything … all of a sudden, I have no source of income," she told IRIN. During the Christmas period banks faced a liquidity crisis and placed severe restrictions on cash withdrawals.
"I had no choice but to make two of my sister's children go to work," she said. They go door-to-door selling cell phone chargers and batteries, snacks and cutlery that Chipamaunga bought for resale with the little money she had when the bank closed. Her own children, aged seven and four, are too young to earn money.
Chipamaunga has started a small garment-making project, but fears she will struggle to raise enough money for the children's school fees and uniforms this year. "All the money I saved is trapped in the bank," she said. – IRIN
* Not real name