When the dust settles on the cotton industry in Zimbabwe, it will be remembered as the year of cotton, says Tony Parker
In April 2016, Tony Parker took a job with the Zimbabwe Cotton Commission.
He and other cotton workers were the first farmers to take their pay cheques and go on strike, demanding a wage increase and better working conditions.
The strike was a direct response to the high prices charged for cotton, and it led to the deaths of dozens of farmers.
Parker recalls his first day on the job.
“The boss came into the office, asked me to come with him to his house, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come with me to the cotton factory?
The price of cotton is going up by about $50 a tonne.
We’re going to increase the wages of the workers, and if you want to come back to work you need to pay for the difference.
I’ll give you $50 and I’ll pay for your shift, and you can go home’.
I was so upset, I told him, ‘If I can’t work, I’m going to stay home and beg for food, I’ll starve’.
I came back to the factory the next day with a big sack of money.
I asked the boss, ‘How much do you think the workers will make?’
He said, $20 a day.
I said, I can make $25, but you have to pay the workers.
The boss told me, ‘This is how much I want to pay you, so don’t complain about it, because you’re my boss, I won’t lose my job’.
And so I worked for five months, and I paid for my wages.
It was a good experience, but I left the cotton field with a lot of resentment.”
Parker is a cotton farmer in the small town of Marikana.
His first day at the cotton plant, he was the first worker to take his pay cheque and leave.
“He told me that if I didn’t work hard and pay my wages, he would leave the cotton fields,” he says.
“I was scared, I didn`t know what to do.
I was very nervous.
I thought, what if I die?
I don`t want to go to work, but what if someone dies, and my family gets hurt, and then I can`t get my salary, or if I can`, say, get $20.
I didn”t work hard, I was lazy, I wasn`t paid properly, I never made enough money, I`ve been working here all my life, and to go back to my village and live with my family and then not have money to eat was very hard for me.” “
But when I was done working, I realised that this is what I have to do to get a living.
I didn”t work hard, I was lazy, I wasn`t paid properly, I never made enough money, I`ve been working here all my life, and to go back to my village and live with my family and then not have money to eat was very hard for me.”
Parker’s experience is not unique, and other farmers have also left the industry, claiming they were denied pay rises.
“Some farmers who have been working for years now have left the job,” says Tony.
“A lot of them are poor, and some have kids and families.
They have children and work with their kids.
I understand their feelings, but it`s a matter of principle, and they`re not doing it for money.
If they want to work and get paid, they should be able to.”
The cotton industry is one of the world’s most lucrative industries.
In 2015, it generated more than $200 billion in revenue.
And in Zimbabwe alone, around 50,000 workers work in the cotton sector.
But the impact of the recent strike on the industry has been particularly damaging.
Tony says the strike has affected the livelihood of farmers, and affected their livelihoods.
“It`s affecting their ability to feed their families, and also their ability for them to pay their rent.
They`re now not able to go out to the market, and when they go out they`ll find the price of a cotton seed is double what they paid.
A major cause of the rising price of the cotton is a severe drought, caused by climate change. “
So they`d lose the crop, and we`ll have a big hole in the economy.”
A major cause of the rising price of the cotton is a severe drought, caused by climate change.
“We`ve already lost about 1.5 million tonnes of crop in the last few years.
It`s been a catastrophe, and the damage that we`ve done to the country`s agricultural sector is very, very, severe,” says Parker.
“And the impact has not only been on the farmers, but on the entire economy.
We are the only ones left, and so we have to fight.” “
There`s no one else left.
We are the only ones left, and so we have to fight.”
The strike has also been a catalyst for a debate about the future of the industry in the country.