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Caught between a rock and a hard place

As workers’ rights are being violated by Kenya’s Export Processing Zones [EPZs], the government has taken a back seat, fearing that its intervention will scare away foreign investors.
Roseline Orwa

During the French Revolution, Burke, a principle advocate in the French parliament, said: “On entering society, men bring with them a certain number of inalienable rights, for the defence of which political society is instituted”. Speaking of political expediency, Burke must have had in mind the industrial unrests that rocked the Export Processing Zones [EPZs] in Kenya experienced soon after the change of guard early last year.

The workers in these factories, that export mainly textile to the US under the African Growth and Opportunity Act [AGOA] joined in the euphoria that enveloped the country soon after the National Rainbow Coalition [NARC] took over power. In what was later dubbed “wild cat strikes”, the workers downed their tools protesting poor working conditions, measly wages and sexual harassment, just to mention a few.

But as the strikes spread from Nairobi’s Ruaraka to the neighbouring Athi River and even to the far-flung Mariakani in coast province, the government was caught between a rock and a hard place, with questions being raised about its stand on labour interests and the need to attract foreign investment.

Trade and Industry minister Dr Mukhisa Kituyi dismissed the strikes He threw all caution to the wind and maintained that such strikes would scare off as “barbaric and acts of hooliganism”. Even the Central Organisation of Trade Unions [COTU] – the workers’ umbrella organisation - declared the strikes illegal since the workers’ union was not recognised by the factories.

But amidst all these, the number of operating enterprises has been growing steadily, from 18 in 1998 to 54 in 2002 with 12 garment making factories in Nairobi and Athi River. Last year, Kenya overtook Mauritius to become the third main exporter of textiles to the US under AGOA

The government stands accused of compromising labour laws to appease investors. The EPZs have thus been left to abuse the laws and violate workers’ rights to maximise profits. The situation is compounded by the high unemployment and poverty levels and lack of information among workers, 80 per cent of whom are women.

Though the government set a low minimum wage of KES 3000 [US$38] per month, the firms have a leeway of exploiting employees by setting high production targets and other conditions, contrary to international labour regulations.

The workers’ revolt in the EPZs thus transfixed the nation and raised a pertinent issue: “Should investor privilege compromise workers’ rights?” The answer is unavailable today as it was in last year when the workers downed the tools. Silent issues have remained buried in the muddle.

Soon it has become business as usual, either sacked or underpaid behind piles of garments destined to lucrative markets abroad, with set targets for these workers on a given working day being extremely high. Nothing could illustrate this better than a report released in February by the Kenya Human Rights Commission [KHRC].

The report titled “The manufacture of poverty: The untold story of EPZs” chronicles tales of excessive production targets, broken homes, sexual harassment, unfair dismissals, overwork and underpayment in factories.

Factory managers, mainly from Sri Lanka, India, Taiwan, USA, China and Hong Kong connive with senior Kenyan managers to overwork, unlawfully dismiss and withhold payment to workers for such reasons as talking to colleagues at work. In April, one company in Ruaraka dismissed six women for the mere fact that they were pregnant. Their pleas to the effect that the pregnancies were still at an early stage fell on deaf ears.

Strangely though, the boisterous COTU secretary general Francis Atwoli said on Labour Day that the government has given the workers all the things they had been asking for over the years. But the harsh reality is that nothing has changed at the EPZs. In many companies, cases of workers collapsing due to fatigue were reported. Many are denied overtime claims and time to spend with families, as they have to meet high production targets.

Journalists covering the stories during the unrests were lost of words when they met a woman running out of the premises in torn clothes having been raped by one of the Asian directors of the company she worked for. Strangely, no one raised a voice, even the co-workers present. One is left to ask why? Are these the voices of the voiceless? Will the fear of poverty and loosing a job stop these people from saying ‘No’ to the violation of their rights?

Speaking to an African lady manager, in one of these companies, who sought anonymity, one finds out deeper ethical issues. On application for a vacancy one must declare their tribe on the application forms. Qualifications are important, but tribe plays a major role. If one is from a tribe that is considered outspoken then the application is as good as closed

In the meantime, there is a growing silent discontentment among the human rights activists that what goes on in those go-downs is not only an abuse of labour laws and workers’ rights but an abuse of human rights too, especially women, who make 80 per cent of the work force. These go-downs are extremely guarded except for workers who must only come in and come out.

Sometimes, workers are locked in the factory on the night shift while the directors have their much needed rest with the keys, not caring what would happen in case of an emergency, say an outbreak of fire. The workers are not allowed access to telephone facilities, nor are they allowed to receive visitors.

But as the exploitation of workers continues unabated, Dr Kituyi and his counter part at the Ministry of Labour, Mr. Ali Mwakwere, are caught in a tragic dilemma – whether to protect the workers’ rights or lose foreign investors, what with the government’s promise to create 500000 jobs annually?

Marking this year’s Labour Day, Mwakwere raised the minimum wage by 11 per cent – a mere increment of US$6. The plight of EPZ workers is far from over. But the pertinent question that remains on the lips of Kenyans is: Is it an evolution or a revolution?”

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