“We wonder who will protect farm workers against exploitation by employers when even the first family abuses its workers. Two weeks ago more than 50 workers at the Dairy Project and others employed in the fields were ordered to stay at home as ‘business was low’ at the farm.Affected workers would not be paid monthly wages and their food rations were ceased. They were instructed to stay put in the compound and would be called for duty possibly at the start of the next farming season,” said a source at the farm.

The workers would find life very difficult as they had no other source of income, he added.

“Working conditions at the farm are hostile. A brutal police officer, Mupambi, was reportedly transferred from Bindura to harass and discipline ‘mischievous’ farm workers. He would put accused workers in hand-cuffs, remove their shoes and beat them under the feet. Workers earn an average $40 per month. We thought since the farm operated on a commercial basis and was owned by the head of state, wages would be higher,” commented a businessman at Mazowe Shopping Centre.

He said there was no school at Gushungo Farm, and this, combined with the poor wages  forced many children out of school and onto the farm as child labour.

The staff compound is old and ramshackle and has no electricity. Workers use firewood and candles for cooking and lighting.

Workers said they never saw President Robert Mugabe at the farm and doubted whether he was aware of their misery.  His wife, Grace, reportedly visits the project every week and runs the farm.

The farm manager, identified as Nhare, could not be reached for comment as his mobile phone was continuously unavailable.

Grace Mugabe has been a major beneficiary of the chaotic and corruption-riddled land “reform” in Zimbabwe. Her properties total about 12,000 acres, but her most important is Gushungo Dairy Estate, formerly known as Foyle Farm, in Mazowe.

Other dairy farmers, who have also been forced off their land, said that the previous owner of Foyle faced a campaign of violence over several months in 2003 until he was forced to sell his property to the Agricultural Rural Development Authority (Arda) for a fraction of its worth.

Grace has built a new residence on the farm, remodelled the original farmhouse and constructed an office block, workers said. The dairy produces 6,500 litres of milk a day, according to The Herald, which is only about 35 per cent of its output under the previous owner, who produced 6.5 million litres a year, more than any other dairy in Zimbabwe.

Last year, The Zimbabwean established that Guth South Africa had supplied to the Mugabes a large-scale dairy plant, believed to cost US$13,5million, to process the milk.