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10 labourers hospitalised after use of toxic pesticide at China-Zimbabwe farm

In a scenario reminiscent of the slave era, workers at this farm jointly owned by Zimbabwe and China have been exposed to high levels of a toxic chemical without adequate protection, in contravention of both local and international laws. Complaints have been met with deaf ears and some worker leaders have been dismissed for airing their grievances.

As the cock crew in the early hours of the morning, Address Makaya (39) knew it was time to leave the comfort of her blankets and get to work. Makaya, a farm labourer at the Zim-China Wanjing Agricultural Development Company, a joint venture of the Chinese and Zimbabwean Defence Forces (previously known as Agricultural Rural Development Authority [ARDA] Sisi Farm), had to rush to the fields and report for work. She and the other farm workers were applying Temik to the tobacco fields that day.

As the morning turned into noon, Makaya started to feel dizzy and her body became weak, with sweating and blurred vision. She collapsed. She was rushed home but then had to be taken to Banket District Hospital when her condition worsened. Makaya lay on a hospital bed for the next three days.

Makaya is among more than 10 workers at the farm who have fallen sick from the alleged use of the toxic pesticide, Temik, which they were handling. Temik is used on tobacco in Zimbabwe to kill nematodes or pests to prevent plant foliage and insects from compromising plant health.

Temik uses the active ingredient Aldicarb, a powerful nerve toxin that if used in high doses can kill on skin contact or by ingestion. The highly toxic insecticide is used to kill pests on cotton and it has been banned from use on several crops by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) due to its toxic effects on humans and the environment.

In October 2014 more than 10 employees at the farm were taken ill by some unknown sickness that resulted in the death of one employee. According to Esnath Gengezha (42), secretary of the workers’ committee at the farm, Goodluck Ngoroma fell sick, was rushed to the hospital and unfortunately died a few days later.

‘Ngoroma was vomiting and he was weak and sweating, a curse that has not just befallen him alone but other employees at the farm. Unfortunately, he succumbed to the disease,’ says Gengezha. Though still unconfirmed, the cause of death is believed to be exposure to Temik.

The Zim-China Wanjing Agricultural Development Company owns vast pieces of land (1000 hectares) in Raffingora, which is 109km from Harare (Zimbabwe’s capital) in Mashonaland West Province. The farm undertakes various agricultural projects including production of tobacco, wheat, soya beans and maize. According to workers at the farm, they started planting tobacco for the first time last year after the takeover by the new owners in 2011.

Makaya feels that she was unfairly treated as she had to solely bear the cost of her sudden illness. ‘I am yet to be reimbursed the money I used to procure medical services for an illness I got as a worker in the farm; this is very disheartening.’

Effort Tindika, a member of the workers’ committee, has been at the farm for the past 13 years, and noted that the incident occurred as a result of workers applying a very harmful chemical without protective clothing. ‘Despite the incident we still work without protective gear and some of us are forced to buy our own gear for fear of dying while on duty. The employers are only worried about their profits, not our safety.’

There has been no attempt by the company to address the grievances of the workers; however, there are those that have been sacked for being too vocal about their health and safety concerns. The chairman and vice chairman of the workers’ committee at the farm have been dismissed for speaking out on the ill-treatment of workers by the employers.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), workers in developing countries are at especially high risk due to inadequate education, training and safety systems.

Edgar Dzehonye, a labour activist based in Harare, feels that subjecting workers to harmful working conditions is reminiscent of the slave era, when people were seen as tools by employers who did not value human life, only their profits.

‘This is tantamount to murder as they are contravening the fundamental laws of workers as stipulated in the supreme law of this country,’ Dzehonye says.

Section 65 (4) of the Zimbabwean constitution states that every person is entitled to equitable, just and satisfactory conditions of work. Subsection (3) further highlights that an employee has the right to participate in collective job action, including the right to strike, sit in, and withdraw their labour and to take similar concerted action.

The largest documented episode of foodborne pesticide poisoning in North American history occurred in July 1985 from Aldicarb-contaminated California watermelons, when more than 2000 people were affected by Aldicarb poisoning. More than a thousand probable causes were reported in California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona and Canada. The spectrum of illness attributed to Aldicarb ranged from mild to severe and includes cases of seizures, cardiac arrhythmias, severe dehydration, bronchospasms, and at least two stillbirths occurring shortly after maternal illness.

According to the EPA, Adicarb no longer meets safety standards and may pose unacceptable risks especially to infants and young children. Furthermore, the EPA has classified Aldicarb in the highest toxicity category and has defined strict control over its use and delivery. Aldicarb intoxication has been said to be severe.

Rhoda Masukwedza, an entomologist with the Tobacco Research Board (TRB), noted that the TRB has withdrawn the use of Aldicarb in tobacco production for reasons stemming from scientific research and the toxic effects of the pesticide on human life and the environment.

‘Temik is neurotoxic and poses a lot of environmental and health hazards,’ according to Masukwedza.

Speaking to the pesticides registrar from the Pesticides Registration Unit in the Agriculture Technical Extension Service Department (Agritex), Kwadzanai Mushore states that ‘the chemical is highly toxic and full protective gear is recommended for users.

‘As a country we have stopped registering new users of the pesticide and we are in the process of phasing it out,’ says Mushore.

He further admits that Aldicarb is a restricted-use pesticide and as such cannot be handled by people not properly trained. Again, Mushore hints that it is difficult to enforce restrictions on such harmful pesticides as people are selling the chemical everywhere, even in the streets.

‘Employers must ensure they provide information to their employees, a safe and just working environment, and ensure they are wearing full protective gear especially when using Temik,’ says Mushore.

According to ILO, there are about 1.3 billion workers active in agricultural production worldwide and the majority of them are found in developing countries. About 170,000 agricultural workers are killed every year, thus agricultural workers run twice the risk of dying on the job as compared with other sectors.

The labour organisation noted that millions more agricultural workers are seriously injured in workplace accidents involving agricultural machinery or poisoned by pesticides. However, widespread under-reporting of deaths, injuries and occupational diseases in the agricultural sector means that the real picture of the occupational health and safety of farm workers is likely to be worse than official statistics indicate.

Fanuel Mutengo, the farm manager, concurs that workers were not wearing protective gear at the time of the incident and this resulted in the death and hospitalisation of some staff members. He notes that the management has stopped using the chemical because of its fatalities.

However, workers at the farm feel as long as they are not given protective clothing, they will continue to suffer unnecessarily. ‘The management is reluctant to buy us protective clothing, in some instances we are made to even exchange respirators,’ Tindika says.

According to ILO, occupational safety and health in agriculture needs to be addressed with a well-defined strategy and must be integrated into a rural development policy involving both commercial (plantations) and small-scale farming. The extension of occupational safety and health to workers in agriculture can be done progressively through its integration into rural development projects.

* Promise Ndlovu: The actual name of the author of this article has been withheld to protect his identity.