Nwoya — After nearly one and a half hours of driving on a dusty murram road from Nwoya District headquarters, we arrive at Rigil Agro Tech Uganda Ltd Union Farm, one of the many Indian owned commercial farms in Leb Ngec, Lungulu Sub-county.
It's a sunny Monday and the sight of vast ploughed land that stretches for several kilometres beautifully catches one's attention.
We meet one of the casual laboures on the farm, Agnes Aloyo (not real name) who is donning a blue T-shirt and black skirt with patches of dirt on it.
Aloyo looks exhausted and shy. Her scaly and dry lips suggest she had not had anything to eat or drink for hours.
The 17-year-old came to the farm from Lira District without her mother's approval, after being convinced that she would earn a monthly pay of Shs180,000 as a casual labourer in October last year.
But after her first month of work, she found out the reality, her salary is only Shs25,000.
"I dropped out of primary school in 2017, my father passed on and I was being taken care of by my mother. I did not see anything to do, my mother's health is not stable and we weren't doing well financially so I decided to accept working on the farm," Aloyo narrates as she breaks down in tears.
Aloyo says she was last paid her salary in February, adding that the farm managers instead threaten them if they ask for what is due to them.
Now "trapped" at the farm, Aloyo says she does not have enough money for transport to Anaka Town Council where she can board a taxi to Lira.
"I want to leave this farm and may be continue with studies but I cannot raise enough transport. I also don't know what my mother will do to me if I meet her because she did not approve of my current work," she says.
Juliet Afoyo (not real name), 17, is another child labourer from Nebbi District working on the farm.
She too dropped out of school in Primary Six and began working at the farm last year after being duped she would earn Shs120,000 monthly. Like her other colleagues, she also found out that her salary is a paltry Shs25,000 a month.
Afoyo says ever since she came to the farm, the conditions have been dire since they work for longer hours without proper feeding. She says daily food is Posho and boiled beans, which is eaten only once for lunch and porridge for breakfast.
"We are being treated here like slaves, we get little pay yet we work hard," shem adds.
Mr Jesspreed Singa, the farm of manager Rigil Agro Tech Uganda Ltd Union Farm, said they got approval from the district to operate.
Although he did not present any written documents to defend his claims, Mr Singa denial all accusations of poor working conditions at the farm.
At Vineyak Agro Farm Ltd in Alingiri Village, Nyamokino Parish, sitting on 6,000 acres piece of land and also owned by Indian investors, the situation is not any better.
Isaac Obote, 17, who hails from a family of six in Adok Parish, Agwata Village in Dokolo District, says he was hired as a cook for other casual labourers at the coffee farm.
Obote says he was forced to join the farm in 2018 to look for money after dropping out from Assa Memorial Primary School. At the farm, he earns Shs4,000 a day for his work of cooking for more than 45 casual labourers.
"The situation is not good here, we are paid little money, drink dirty water, and sleep in very untidy houses and above all, and we eat posho and boiled beans. If you work here for even 100 years, it's most likely that your diet will be posho and beans," he adds.
Martin Labeja, 28, who works on the farm, says cases of abuse of minors by managers is rampant.
"We witness a lot of things here but we cannot raise our voices because we are just working," he says.
Lack of health facilities
In the two farms Daily Monitor visited, there were no health facilities for treating the causal labourers in case of health complications.
The acting manager of Vineyak Agro Farm Ltd, Mr Kamal Sharma, said they inform the district when intending to hire labourers.
He refuted allegations that there are cases of abuse of minors by managers on the farm.
The Nwoya District officials have now suspended operations of the two Indian-owned commercial farms over alleged recruitment of child labourers and gross human rights violations.
The decision to suspend the operations of Vineyak Agro Farm Ltd and Rigil Farm Limited was arrived at on Tuesday during a council meeting held at Nwoya District council hall.
Early this week, a section of district councillors carried out an impromptu visit at the two farms after Save the Children, a non-governmental organisation, raised a red flag over human rights violations.
At the council meeting, Mr Fredrick Okecha, a councillor who was part of the fact-finding team, told the council that many children and women were found at Vineyak farm at the time they arrived.
"Breastfeeding mothers testified that their salaries were deducted once found breastfeeding during working hours while workers with mobile phones and national identification cards had them confiscated," Mr Okecha said.
While reading the 10-point resolution, Mr Tonny Okello, the district speaker, ordered that the two farms be closed and a labour audit be carried out in all the commercial farms.
"Vinayak and Rigil farms are closed for now due to the evidence provided by the committee that visited their farms.
"All commercial farms in the district should establish mini clinics to treat their workers and all farms that will be found employing children, will be fined not less than Shs500,000 to Shs10 million to be given to their families as fine," the resolution reads.
It also stated that the labour office will supervise all the farms in the district to ensure labourers are not paid less than Shs160,000 per month as well as strengthen border monitoring to stop child trafficking.
Mr Patrick Okello Oryema, the Nwoya District LC5 chairman in an interview with Daily Monitor, said the two farms will remain closed until they put into action what was recommended.
District officials speak out
The officer-in-charge of Child and Family Protection Unit at Nwoya Central Police Station, Ms Margaret Apolo, said they have been getting complaints of minors being employed at the commercial farms in the district but they had transport challenges to intervene.
She said gender-based violence at homes and high rates of poverty among families is forcing some children to become breadwinners in their homes.
The district labour officer, Ms Esther Alimo, told Daily Monitor in an interview on Wednesday that her office is availed less resources to facilitate and coordinate activities, among them following up on child labour cases.
She said many investors are illegally recruiting children from other districts to work in their plantations.
For instance just two weeks ago, children from Lango and West Nile walked on foot for 50 kilometre from a farm in Nyamokino Parish and camped at Nwoya Central Police Station seeking help after decrying poor work conditions at the farm where they were illegally employed.
She also disclosed that last year, 100 children ferried from Karamoja Sub-region by unidentified investor, became stranded in the district after being duped that they were being taken to work in Kampala.
Ms Agnes Akello Ebong, the Nwoya Resident District Commissioner, said they will intensify a crackdown on the employment of children in commercial farms, adding that they would not hesitate to arrest farm managers engaging in the act.
2018 report and 2011/2012 survey
Nwoya District's fertile land and favourable climatic conditions have attracted several commercial farmers to set up big commercial farms in the area.
To-date, there are more than 35 commercial farms set up in various parts of the district dealing in large scale farming.
According to statistics from the district, there are estimated 600 children drawn from various parts of the country, especially Lango and West Nile sub-regions working as casual labourers
A 2018 report published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nation indicates that the number of child labourers in agriculture worldwide has increased substantially from 98 million to 108 million since 2012.
In Uganda, a 2011/2012 survey documented by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics found that more than two million (16 per cent) children are engaged in work considered to be child labour.
The government in 2016 introduced a law that criminalised child labour. The Children Amendment Act criminalised child labour although it has failed to stop exploitation due to inadequate implementation. More than 2 million children in Uganda are estimated to be affected.