By Faith Muiruri
Decent work is widely considered as an important strategy to fight poverty and foster development. In fact, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has sustained a decent work agenda campaign over the years to offer the basis for a more, just and meaningful improvement on workers welfare. However, this campaign has largely remained superficial and has not brought any significant change to the working poor.
Delegates who spoke during a side event organised by Hivos in the just concluded African Regional Forum on Sustainable Development Goals in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe painted a grim picture on the plight of workers in the floriculture industry. The delegates drawn from different African countries said that workers in this sector still have to grapple with poor pay, harsh working conditions, lack of maternity or sick leave, sexual harassment and lack of trade union representation.
According to Naome Chakanya, Senior Researcher from the Labour and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe (LEDRIZ), the flower business is labor intensive and attracts low skilled laborers who are employed in large numbers, the majority of whom are women from predominantly rural areas. She cited a research conducted by the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union (GAPWUZ) in Zimbabwe, which revealed that women occupy the least skilled and most poorly paid jobs, frequently in areas where joining trade unions is difficult. In addition, most of these jobs are characterized by increased casualization and outsourcing and other forms of workers rights violation.
These women, according to Chakanya, have been compelled to accept any pay from their employers as African countries jostle for more investments and creation of job opportunities in the sector for the majority of the unemployed. “Our governments continue to emphasize on reforms for favorable investments by abolishing or suspending minimum wage, turning blind eye to living wage concept, providing tax relief and creating a hostile environment for social dialogue,” adds Chakanya, a panelist at the side event.
She says that their situation is further intensified by sexual harassment and the fear of being sacked on becoming pregnant. “Women lack power in such situations and this makes it difficult for them to even articulate their grievances, let alone struggle against them.”
Chakanya noted that most of the agricultural farms are located in rural areas where gendered norms are very harsh. “Women find it very intimidating to speak out against sexual violations. Those who report are stigmatized and this is worsened by the fact that very few women are in managerial positions and therefore most of these cases are handled by men.”
When it comes to promotion, she said that women who get promoted do not enjoy the same pay as their male counterparts. “We found that women do not get the same wage as their male counterparts but majority appear to be satisfied because they have a new job title.”
For greater economic empowerment, she said that women need to acquire necessary education and skills to compete effectively in the sector. “We need more women in decision making positions to enable them express their feelings and share their concerns with others in the same situation.”
In Zimbabwe, she said that the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union (GAPWUZ) has helped to establish women structures at the farm level which have served to not only build a strong movement for the same women but enabled them to take up issues that directly affect them at the workplace.
During the side event Leah Eryenyu, who is a Research, Advocacy and Movement Building Manager at Akina Mama wa Afrika (AMwA), argued that the struggle against negative cultural representations must be seen as an important part of the broader process of empowering women. She spoke extensively on the need to embrace social protection systems that promote inclusivity. “We need to ensure that women enjoy working conditions that are safe and promote fair remuneration.”
Eryenyu also delved into unpaid care work. She noted that women are most disadvantaged and bear other responsibilities that deny them opportunities at the workplace. We need to change the way we look at care work. We can never say that the market is going to decide because the market only responds to the powerful. We need to invest in human capital and education that actually responds to realities.”
Dorothy Otieno of FEMNET, also a panelist at the side event, underscored the need to take advantage of the legal instruments such as the ILO Convention 190 on violence and harassment in the world of work to fight for the rights of workers. “We need to make governments and employers accountable through sustained advocacy and campaigns for meaningful improvement of the workers welfare.”
In a rejoinder, Kuria Kimani, a Kenyan MP who attended the side event expressed the need to put all the issues around women into law so that we do not have to beg. “I have always wondered why it is easy to find condoms in public toilets but not find sanitary towels in a public school. It is about policies and putting this in the budget, it is about making it known and not begging for it. Data is important: if you are not counted, you are not planned for.” He challenged those who were delivering gender programs to position themselves strategically.
Davies Malombe, the Deputy Executive Director at the Kenya Human Right Commission proposed the adoption of political economic models to development. “Until we get there we will not be able to get key factors which drive local politics and economies. In Africa, we have governments driven by mechanical economic models which are extremely gender blind. We need to turn these conversations into political, social and economic policies.”
Mary Kambo, a labor adviser at the Kenya Human Rights Commission who also spoke during the plenary said enforcement of legislation however remains a major challenge. “We do not need a proliferation of laws. In Kenya we have adequate laws. The challenge we have been grappling with is enforcement. We need to focus our energies more on pushing for enforcement.”