The change from predominantly white farm owners to mainly black farmers brought about by the President Robert Mugabe's fast-track land reform programme, launched in 2000, had not improved the lot of farmworkers and was condemned by human rights lawyers in a recent statement, The Legitimisation of Contemporary Forms of Slavery - The Case of Farm Workers in Zimbabwe.
"Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights [ZLHR] joins like-minded Zimbabweans in condemning, in the strongest of terms, the treatment and conditions which Zimbabwean farm workers have had to, and continue to, endure," the ZLHR said.
It called on the government and farmers to "be cognisant of the harsh and ever-deteriorating economic environment present, and the need for the workers to survive," a sentiment echoed by the General Agriculture and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ).
"The main problem is that farmworkers have, for a long time, been treated with contempt by their employers. They are viewed as belonging to rural areas whose people do not need much money to subsist, but the bottom line is that they are workers just like those working in offices, and deserve the respect due to employees," GAPWUZ deputy secretary-general Gift Muti told IRIN.
Although GAPWUZ secured a wage hike in May this year, most farm owners kept paying their employees the old salaries. Under the new wage structures, the highest paid farm workers, timber plantation workers, should be paid a monthly wage of Z$300,000, (US$3.65 at the parallel market exchange rate of Z$82,000 to US$1), those in horticulture should be getting Z$200,000 (US$2.43), while general labourers involved in the production of maize and wheat should earn Z$96,000 (US$1.17) a month.
Less than a dollar a month wages
In terms of the old salary structure, which is still being adhered to, a general farm worker earned Z$30,000 (US$0.36) a month - enough to buy two loaves of bread at current prices - and far below the country's poverty datum line, estimated at Z$3.5 million (US$43).
Zimbabwe's seven-year recession has created an unemployment rate of 80 percent, and an annual inflation rate of more than 3,700 percent - the highest in the world.
Earlier this year farm workers and a joint parliamentary committee on agriculture and labour blamed the poor wages on the failure of GAPWUZ to sufficiently represent their interests.
Mulandu Bauleni, 44, who works on a maize and wheat farm in Mashonaland Central Province, told IRIN: "In the last three years, we have not been visited by any representatives of the unions and our views are never sought when negotiations are being carried out. I fail to understand how they can succeed in ensuring good wages for us when they don't understand the plight we have."
Bauleni said his two children were supposed to be in grade two and four respectively, but were no longer in school because he could not afford to buy their uniforms or pay the fees of Z$25,000 (US$0.30) per term.
"Sometimes I think God has condemned us to a life of poverty. My parents were virtual slaves on white men's farms before the blacks took over. Now it seems worse for me, and I don't have any hope for my children or their own offspring getting out of the trap," said Bauleni, who was wearing tattered overalls, his only clothes.
'Life is getting worse'
The farm Bauleni works on was taken over by a senior government official of the ruling ZANU-PF party in 2001. He is still living in a shack and the family survives on two meals of maizemeal porridge per day, sometimes supplemented by fish caught in the farm's dams or streams by his children.
Bauleni said his employer had told them he would not adopt the May wage increases because of the drought. "But that is a lie. His crops are irrigated and the dam is half full, despite the poor rains. Besides, we have helped him get high maize and wheat yields, and there is evidence that he is getting lots of money from our sweat, since he has bought a new car and two tractors."
On a nearby farm, Joyce Muzondo, 30 and a single mother, said they worked long hours but were not paid overtime and sometimes went for months without receiving any wages.
The workers got no sick or maternity leave and many were leaving farms in search of better paying activities, such as illegal gold panning, beer brewing and prostitution.
Samual Rundori, a tobacco and maize farmer in Mashonaland Central Province, who was given 400 acres by the government in 2003, admitted that some new farmers were treating their workers like captives, but defended the low wages he was giving his employees.
"It should be realised that, as new farmers, we are operating under difficult conditions. Whereas the former commercial farmers had large pieces of land, our plots are smaller and we don't have adequate infrastructure for money-spinning farming," Rundori told IRIN.
"Besides, we are finding it difficult to access loans from banks that require us to produce collateral security, which we currently don't have, while at the same time we have to repay the government for the inputs it has been giving us."
The government began issuing 99-year leases in 2006 and said farmers would be able to use them as collateral, but most banks are rejecting them, arguing that the leases don't guarantee repayment in the event of default because the land remains state property.
10,000 farmworkers may have died
A report on human rights violations incurred between 2000 and 2005, Adding Insult to Injury, by the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum and the Justice for Agriculture Trust, both non-governmental organisations, said the government's land-reform programme had cost the country billions of US dollars, and as many as 10,000 farmworkers may have died as a result of being displaced by farm invasions.
A survey examined 187 formerly white-owned commercial farms over a six-month period between 2006 and 2007, of which 94 percent had been parcelled out to new owners.
Researchers found that about one percent of displaced farmworkers and their family had died, which, if "extrapolated to the entire population of one million farmworkers and their families, 10,000 people could have died after displacement from the farms."
The report estimated that the total financial losses incurred by the commercial farming sector as a result of the land redistribution amounted to US$8.4 billion and that about 1 in 12 Zimbabweans had suffered at least one human rights violation, while "many experienced multiple abuses".
The survey suggested that "a plausible case can be made for crimes against humanity having being committed during these displacements", and identified the perpetrators as war veterans, ZANU-PF members and police officers, as well as parliamentarians, officials from the presidency and other government representatives.
"These finds point to an organised seizure of land planned by officials, not a spontaneous seizure carried out by landless blacks, as government claims," the report said.