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Women next in the line of exploitation...

Zimbabwe's tobacco industry has been dogged by a myriad of challenges forcing otherwise honest individuals to turn to unscrupulous ways of making money. Having recently visited the tobacco auction floors, I noted some worrying trends and have a hunch that women are next in line for exploitation.

Due to the early start of the tobacco selling season in Zimbabwe this year, there is a shortage of packaging materials for wrapping the product. The packaging, commonly known by the manufacturer’s name as propaks, consists of khaki paper and sacks. Ordinarily, a roll of khaki paper should cover 60 bails while one huge sack will cover a bail of tobacco. The season normally starts in May but this year, Government made a decision to start in February. I won’t go into what we have been told are the pros and cons of the early start. However, one thing is for sure, farmers were ill-prepared for the early start to the season and so were other service providers, as evidenced by the shortage of propaks and the chaos that ensued, including snaking queues just to off-load the leaf at the auction floors earlier on in the season.

The pressure for the propaks, which are produced by one company, was quite serious and the monopoly had to enlist the support of the riot police first and later the ordinary police to maintain order as people jostled and almost turned riotous while trying to get the precious material. Without the packaging, farmers cannot transport their produce to the auction floors, which means they can not sell so their livelihood is affected and the business grinds to a halt.

As a result of the short supply of the propaks, people have to queue for hours on end for one roll of khaki paper and a maximum of 20 used sacks.

Naturally, where there is inefficiency, some individuals will look for ingenious ways to beat the system. In an effort to beat the system and having grown tired of queuing daily for more than four hours to buy the propaks, some merchant decided to use their ingenuity. They figured that since people with disabilities are sometimes exempted from queuing, perhaops it would make sense to hire blind “farmers,” whom they would accompany as “visual aids” and buy the packaging materials without hassles.

The “visual aid,” trick, however, did not work. Some like-minded people also who figured that since people over the age of 65 don’t usually queue, they might as well hire someone elderly whom they could claim was their frail grandfather and use him to jump the line.

However, what seemed like a good plan almost caused a riot and the tricksters, both visual aids and grandsons, were sent scampering to the back of the queue. Sadly, none of the tricksters were farmers. They were traders who capitalize on shortages and create a parallel market where they resell scarce products at inflated prices. Given the prevailing situation with the propaks, it is not surprising that a parallel market has sprouted. While on the formal market a roll of khaki paper costs US$135, a brand new sack costs $3.50 and a used one costs $2.40, on the parallel market the khaki paper costs $130 but will cover less than 60 bails and a sack costs $8.

I wonder though, if the dear souls who were willing to rent out their disability and age were paid the full sum, seeing as their services were not fully utilized.

This points to a worrying possibility as I noticed that there is a separate queue for women, which is more orderly and moves faster hence all women managed to buy their propaks without difficulty. I suspect a lot of male traders will invest in recruiting women “farmers” to buy propaks on their behalf. I imagine the line of “women farmers” quiuing to buy propaks will soon be longer than that of the “male farmers.”

Given the economic challenges that many women face as a result of the use of multiple foreign currencies in Zimbabwe, the few dollars that these merchants may offer women could go a long way in providing much-needed income. My only advice is that the women who agree to be exploited should ensure they get paid in full.

Mmmm, isn’t it amazing though, what people will do for the love of money?

By Matilda Moyo
4 June 2010

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