Zimbabwe: Child labor on farms

Experts report an increasing number of children under the age of 16 working in the agricultural sector in Zimbabwe. An estimated 20,000 children work for long hours on cotton and timber plantations, tea estates and tobacco farms, sometimes with hazardous chemicals and always for very low wages.

Wellington Chibebe, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, told the Zimbabwe Standard that the children work under conditions of slavery. The head of the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe described the problem as rampant and said it is hurting school attendance.

Children unable to pay school fees turn to farm work as a way of supplementing their families’ incomes. In one district, children join a program called “Earn and Learn,” where they work in the agricultural sector in exchange for free schooling later.

UNICEF reports an estimated 246 million working children globally. In sub-Saharan Africa, about 29 percent of children below the age of 15 work.

Indonesia: Labor leaders imprisoned

Five trade unionists from PT Musim Mas Palm Oil plantation and refinery in Sumatra were sentenced to prison last week in a labor dispute between the union and one of Indonesia’s largest palm oil firms. When the company persistently refused to comply with a wide range of legally mandated minimum working standards, the union organized a series of demonstrations and industrial actions.

The company responded with strikebreaking actions, mass dismissals and police intimidation.

According to The Asian Food Worker, Suyahman, secretary of the PT Musim Mas Union, addressed the court. “We are not criminals,” he said. “We are workers oppressed by the despotic employers in our workplace. Is the law and justice in this country … not for the ordinary people and the workers like myself?”

The International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF) denounced the sentence as a “hideous travesty of justice.”

Germany: Public sector workers strike

About 10,000 workers in the service industry went on strike in southwestern Germany last week and union leaders warn work stoppages could spread across the country. In a strike vote, almost 95 percent of the members of the ver.di trade union voted for a work stoppage.

The workers object to attempts to extend the workweek from 38.5 to 40 hours per week with no raise in pay, equivalent to a 4 percent salary cut, according to the union. Union officials insist regional authorities should implement public service wage agreements scheduled for October 2005.

They argue that extending the workweek would increase unemployment. “On the one hand Germany has 5 million unemployed, and on the other the employers want to prolong the working week for those newly employed,” ver.di chief Frank Bsirske told Deutsche Welle.

The strike is the first widespread service industry strike in 14 years.

Panama: New energy policy demanded

Two coalition movements in Panama joined forces last week in a demonstration against rising utility costs. The National Front in Defense of Economic and Social Rights (Frenadeso) and the Movement for National Dignity and Unity have called for the re-nationalization of electric and telephone companies, a national energy policy that reduces Panama’s dependence on foreign oil and a condemnation of the free trade agreement with the United States.

The groups’ demands include a reduction of oil prices, salary increases for workers and substantial reductions in gas, oil, electric and telephone bills.

Frenadeso unites trade unions, civic organizations, students and the professional sectors and, according to Prensa Latina, stresses, “The people must protest against the voracity of foreign companies that control power generation and distribution.”

Frenadeso led strikes in Panama in 2005.

Britain: Church issues apology

The Church of England general synod opened last week by commemorating its role in the abolition of slavery in 1807 and then, prompted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, engaged in a debate on the church’s complicity in the slave trade and the huge profits gained from it.

According to the Guardian UK, the Rt. Rev. Tom Butler, Bishop of Southwark, told the group, “The profits from the slave trade were part of the bedrock of our country’s industrial development. No one who was involved in running the business, financing it or benefiting from its products can say they had clean hands.”

When slavery was abolished on the church’s Barbados plantation, both the church and the then Bishop of Exeter received huge sums to compensate for the loss of slave labor.

The meeting voted unanimously to issue an apology, although it did not endorse reparations or other financial compensation.

World Notes are compiled by Pamella Saffer