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Baiting life for less: Study on Living and Working Conditions of Private security guards in Malawi - Report by Wonderful Hunga

1.  Introduction and background

This study is about the living and working conditions of private security guards in Malawi. The researcher engaged nine private security companies, two of which have a multi-national presence in Africa and beyond. The study identified the security workers as a vulnerable sector and therefore sought to unravel the issues that characterise this vulnerability. Through understanding and analysing the issues that affect the security sector, the study came up with recommendations that are geared towards restoring the dignity of the workers in the sector. 

The study was conducted in Lilongwe City, Malawi’s capital and utilised focus group discussions and key informant interviews with security workers as well as their employers. Lilongwe was preferred as the study setting because of its status as the Capital City and its level of business activity as it is the hub of the administrative functions of the Government and therefore a home for most companies. A tailor made questionnaire was developed for use in soliciting information from the participants. Among other areas, the questionnaire sought to understand the worker compensation schemes for the security guards, compliance with local legislation and international standards in terms of treatment of the workers.

The inquiry also managed to get a glimpse of gender issues that affect the sector and the general well being of the security guards considering their prevalent working conditions.  While the study managed to get more information from the security guards themselves, some companies were reluctant to avail their information such that the researcher had some of officers from the security companies speaking on the deep background. Not withstanding this, the researcher corroborated information with a number of sources.

2.  Country context and labour legislations

a.    Country context

Malawi is ranked as one of the poorest nations in the World, trailing at position 170 out of 188 countries on Human Development Index (HDI) according to the 2016 UN Human Development Report. The HDI measures and ranks countries according to their standard of living, the higher ranking of Malawi implies abject poverty is deep-rooted in the Southern African landlocked yet peaceful country.  The Report states that Malawians continue to live in acute poverty as only 56.1 per cent of the population being multidimensionality poor while 27.2 per cent live near multidimensional poverty[1].

The country has an estimated population of 18.5 million, with almost half it made up of young people according to the CIA World Factbook 2017 estimates. Youth unemployment is very high in the country standing at 13.8 % in 2014 (World Bank) and with studies indicating that 80% of secondary school graduate returning to their villages due to lack of employment (Molutsi, 2012)[2]. World Bank defines youth unemployment as “the percent of 15-24 year olds who are part of the labor force but are unemployed.”[3]

The lack decent employment for the youth has led to most young people taking up jobs that were previously thought to be odd jobs. As a democratic country, Malawi boasts of a progressive legal and policy environment that promotes human integrity, as one of Constitutions Principles protects and promotes human rights of all people as enshrined in Chapter 4, the Bill of Rights, of its 1995 Constitution.[4]

b.    Labour legislative framework in the sector

Unlike other jurisdictions such as South Africa, where there are specific laws for the private security sector, in Malawi there are no specific legal provisions to regulate the sector. Instead, there is a general legislative framework on labour issues. While not being particular, the prevailing legislative framework, which is made up of various statues is considered adequate for the protection of the rights of workers in the sector. The following is a general summary of the laws and policies that affect the private security sector. 

i. The Malawi Constitution, 1995

The Constitution is the supreme law of the land whereby all laws and acts must conform to it (Chapter 1, Section 5). It accords the respect for human dignity as a national principle (Chapter 3, Section 4); guarantees and recognises the right to work and guarantees the freedom of association, fair and safe labour practices, fair and equal remuneration, right to form and join unions and protection of children from economic exploitation (Chapter 4 and its associated provisions).

It states that gender equality as a Principle for National Policy and states: “The State shall actively promote the welfare and development of the people of Malawi by progressively adopting and implementing policies and legislation aimed at achieving…gender equality…ensuring full participation of women in all spheres of Malawian society on the basis of equality with men; the implementation of the principles of non-discrimination and such other measures as may be required; and. the implementation of policies to address social issues such as domestic violence, security of the person, lack of maternity benefits, economic exploitation and rights to property”. The Constitution also stipulates that the state shall also provide a healthy working environment…” provide a healthy living and working environment for the people of Malawi” (Chapter 3).

ii. Employment Act, 2000

This spells out principles on labour practices, anti-discrimination, equal pay, for example, section 6 of the Act states: “Every employer shall pay employees equal remuneration for work of equal value without distinction or discrimination of any kind, in particular, on basis of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, nationality, ethnic or social origin, disability, property, birth, marital or other status or family responsibilities.” This is a fundamental principle of employment in Malawi.

Further, Section 7 of the Act provides for remedies for infringement of fundamental rights. The act also provides for the labour commissioner, labour officers, employment of young persons restrictions. In addition, it defines and categorises labour contracts (Section 25), hours of work weekly rest and leave (Section 36), Overtime (Section 39) wages, discipline and dismissal processes (Section, 28-31).

iii. Occupational Safety, Health and Welfare Act, 1997

This sets the standards and the scope for Occupational Safety and Health, for labour inspection and investigations of accidents and working environments. 

iv. Labour Relations Act, 1996

This is described as “an Act to promote sound labour relations through the protection and promotion of freedom of association, the encouragement of effective collective bargaining and the promotion of orderly and expeditious dispute settlement, conducive to social justice and economic development.” The Act provides for the right for the employee membership to labour unions and employer associations in Sections 9,10,11, 12,13,14,15,16,17,18,19,20,21,22,23 up 24. It also spells out procedures for resolving labour disputes in Sections 42,43 up to 54.

v. Pension Act, 2010

This makes provision for mandatory pension, and for matters relating to the supervision and regulation of pension funds and umbrella funds. Under this, all companies are expected to have a pension scheme for their employees. Section 6 (3) of the Act states:  “Every employer shall make provision for every person under his employment to be a member of the National Pension Scheme.” Failing to comply with this provision is subject to penalties according to Section 9 (3) of the Act.   The Act includes provisions for information whereby members of a Pension Fund need to be given information about the scheme before they join and after they have joined as spelt out in Sections 58 (1) and (2).

vi. Workers’ Compensation Act, 2000

This provides for compensation for injuries suffered or diseases contracted by workers in the course of their employment or for death resulting from such injuries or diseases. For example Section 4 (1) of the Act states verbatim: “If an injury, other than the contraction of a schedule disease, arising out of and in the course of his employment is caused to a worker, his employer shall, subject to this Act, be liable to pay compensation in accordance with this Act.” This gives recourse for workers’ compensation in the event of injury of disease in the line of duty

vii. Gender Equality Act, 2013

This act is described as a step towards addressing gender inequality present in the Malawi Society. The act promotes equality between men and women in all sectors of life including employment. It builds from the principles of equality outlined in the constitution and the principles of national policy (Chapter 3 of Malawi Constitution). It sets principles for elimination of gender stereotypes. Section 4 of the Act provides for equal pay and work irrespective of sex and discourages discrimination based on sex.   

3.  Working Conditions and impact

a. Wages and minimum wages

Effective January 01, 2016, the Malawi Government gazzetted MK687.70 (0.96 USD) per day as the minimum wage for 8 hours of work. The number of days a person can work per week is six (6), as provided by Section 36 of the 2000 Employment Act. This translates to a minimum accrued monthly wage of about MK16, 504.80 (USD23.15). Accordingly, where employees work overtime, and calculations should be based on this daily wage in line with Section 39 of the Act. Employers who abate the gazzetted wage are flouting the law and liable for government punishment.  

The study found that most security companies pay their employees a wage that is just slightly above and sometimes below the Government minimum wage. For example, the study found that the least paid security guard would be paid MK15, 000  (USD 21.04) and the highest paid was MK50, 000 (USD 70.13) as gross salary per month for a 12-hour shift.  Thus there are cases of abatement of the minimum wage by some private security employers, which makes them liable to sanctions. According to Section 50 (2) of the Employment Act: “Any employer who pays wages in contravention of subsection (1) shall be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine of K50, 000 (70.13USD) and to imprisonment for ten years…”

The reward system for security companies is not harmonised and depended very much on the security company one worked for. Meanwhile, the study also found that wages are deducted for an unreasonable absence from work and being caught sleeping on duty.  However, the study found cases where pay was deducted without justification contrary to Section 52 (2) of the Employment Act which provides for circumstances under which wages may be deducted with justification such as through a court order, contributions to Pension schemes or labour unions as specified in Section 36 of the Labour Relations Act of 1996.

The study also found that there are companies that are in habit of delaying salaries for their employees. In some cases, such companies would give split wages to employees over time. Described in the lingua franca as “Kunyema malipiro”, literally meaning “payment in portions”, the researcher defined split wages as partial payments of wages made to the employee. There were also companies that have accrued arrears to their employees. In most cases, companies that failed to pay their workers in good time received payments from their clients for the services that security guards have rendered but due to poor leadership such financial resources were squandered.

The study found that owing to the low pay, the private security guards face serious socio-economic challenges. In other cases, 8 in every 10 guards who participated in this study reported to have been evicted from their rented homes due to failure to pay rent. The failure to pay rent and the resultant evictions place so much emotional burden on their families and sometimes destabilizes their marriages. Furthermore, the security guards have a tendency to borrow money from loan sharks some of whom are their superiors. The loans that they usually get attract interests as high as 50% of the money borrowed. The resulting situation is that the security guards are perennially in debt, which not only affects their families but work performance. The study came across cases where some guards have absconded work to avoid loan sharks whom they owe money to.

In some cases, the security workers barely have time to rest their bodies, as they scavenge for menial jobs whenever they are free. The study found that there were security workers who were running bicycle taxi businesses during the day whenever they are on night shifts. While this was seen as an innovative coping mechanism, the study found that it actually affected the work performance of the guards in that they were usually too tired to work effectively. Consequently, almost all companies (N=9) that were sampled for this study, complained that most of their guards sleep on duty, and this was also found to be a reason why others lost their jobs.

b. Working hours

The allowable number of working hours in Malawi according to the Employment Act is 8 hours. The Act also provides for paid overtime work. The study found that the majority of the security companies have 12 hour shifts and workers are informed that they will be working from 6AM to 6PM. Employers usually treat the extra 4 hours of work as overtime and pay their security guards for the same. However, the study found that although the employers said that they paid for overtime, their calculations were illusive. Thus there was a need for active trade unionism around overtime payments and calculations.

Besides that, the study found that some security guards have staff that work for 24 hours to cover for their absent colleagues. Meanwhile, for such daylong shifts, the security guards still got the overtime pay for 4 hours. There were few security companies with proper timesheets to calculate the overtime and in most cases, there were discrepancies in overtime data between the employer and employee with the later often feeling short-changed. Often times, the employees used data on log books available at their workstations, where they recorded the time they were in for work and the times they knocked off. It came to the observation of the researcher that these log books were not properly reconciled with the payroll system of the companies. Indeed the researcher also noted that with exception of the 3 multi-national private security companies, the six other companies in study did not have qualified accounting or human resource personnel or even any human resource or accounting system in place.

c. General conditions of employment

Sections 4 to 7 of the Employment Act, 2000, sets out the general conditions and principles that employers and employees are supposed to abide by. In terms of the private security sector the study found that employers flout most of the employment conditions but still respect some. For example, the Employment Act state general principles for employment, which include non-discrimination, equal pay for equal work and respect for workers’ rights. In terms of non-discrimination, the study found that the majority of the companies did not employ certain groups of people such as those with albinism. People with albinism are considered security risks for the companies owing to a growing practice in the country of hunting and maiming albinos for their body parts and using the same in rituals to amass wealth. While, it could be argued that such position of the employers would be in the best interests of the albinos, the implementation of such a policy smacks of discrimination. The study was unable to contact a person with Albinism who has gone through such an experience but this was understood as an unwritten policy statement from some of the private security companies.

In terms of Equal Pay principles, the study found that there are no harmonised salary structures for private security workers. This could be attributed to a perceivable low-level activity and engagement of the sector players by the Textile Garments Leather and Security Services Workers Union (TGLSSWU). It is to be mentioned that, almost 90 of the security guards who participated in this study said they have never heard of TGLSSWU but could explain in detail of organisations that had paid them a visit such as Savings Credit Cooperatives (Saccos). Furthermore, there are no clear employment terms spelling the duties and responsibilities of the workers in the sector.

The failure to provide the terms of reference for employment is contrary to the Employment Act, which mandates employers to set out the duties of their employees. The study found that such omission of terms of employment leads to burdening of the security workers with tasks that are outside their work. For example, it was observed that security workers at some work placements worked as banking assistants, supporting bank customers to operate Auto-Teller Machines and helping in cleaning up surroundings, which would have a different job description all together. While the security guards did not complain about the extra work, they communicated their expectations on performing the work. The anticipations included monetary rewards. The study found that if not managed properly, the extra work performed by the security guards led to verbal scuffles with clients.

Finally the study found that the private security guard companies are in violation of Section 46 (2) of the Malawi Employment Act of 2000, which provides for sick leave with pay but 5 out of 9 companies surveyed are not complying. In most cases the errant companies deduct pay for absence and argue that whenever one is unwell, they spent even more money to find a temporary replacement.

d. Job security

According to International Labour Organisation (ILO): “Employment security is about the protection of workers against fluctuations in earned income as a result of job loss.” [5]  Within this context, there are employment security indicators, which include presence of legislation safeguarding employment of workers. In this case, the Employment Act in Malawi provides for safeguards for employment contract termination, which ensures that workers are protected from unfair dismissals.

The study found that there were varied perceptions of job security among the private security workers depending on where they were employed. For instance, security workers for multi-national private security companies felt that their job secure because most of them or their colleagues had been with the company for a longer time, such as a period of not less than 4 years.

In addition, the workers of these companies said that they had contracts and were contributing to a pension scheme, which implied to them that their employment could not be terminated anyhow. The contracts ensured that the employers should be bound by certain terms whose violation would lead to legal sanctions. Indeed even for the employers, it was observed that they were reluctant to fire their workers willy-nilly for fear of legal repercussions that such actions would bear.

The study found that there were a number of court cases where individual security workers had successfully challenges unfair dismissals[6]. The publicity of such rulings seems to have cemented the security of workers particularly with respect to unfair dismissals.

However, the study also found traits of job insecurity particularly with smaller security companies with an operational history of less than five years. Three of such companies were part of the sample chosen for the study. The study found that all these companies have no employment contracts with their employees and do not deduct Pay As You Earn (PAYE) nor make any mandatory pension contributions for their workers. A senior officer at one of these security companies said that they do not sign any employment contracts with their guards because “ security workers are an unpredictable and can leave any time they want.” Thus the avoidance of contract was deliberate on the part of the employer as it would not bound them to honour formal employment terms such as severance pay at the termination of contracts.

The study also found that while the security companies that sign contracts to their employees comply with taxation law requirements, they do not explain to their workers the profile of their pay including their pension contribution. Further, the study found that these companies do not give copies of the contracts to their employees because almost all the security guards who said they had signed a contract admitted that they did not get a copy of their contract. This is worrisome because companies can deliberately change contract terms in case of disputes, or workers may not have a reference point whenever they feel aggrieved.  Therefore, while the presence of the employment contract would guarantee security for the employment, the failure for full disclosure of contract terms has potential to thwart worker’s rights or even their employment security.

Meanwhile, the study found that security workers were willing to change their job if ever a better opportunity presented itself. Most of them felt dissatisfied with their employment terms. Literature from the Wage Indicator, describes the tendency of employees of willing to change jobs or indeed of searching for other employment opportunities, as a sign of employment security. Thus in general, there is little job security in the private security sector.

e. Gender and women's issues and sexual harassment

The study found that there are women who work as security guards for various companies in Lilongwe City. This was particularly interesting because traditionally security provision has been an abode for men in Malawi. The private female security guards said that that they get the same pay as men so there is some level of adherence to equal pay for equal value of work principles in the sector.

However, the female security guards reported that they face unique challenges because of their gender. Among the challenges that the female security guards face includes sexual harassment whose perpetrators were their co-workers, supervisors or even some clients. 

The female guards are approached by their superiors for sexual favours in exchange for better conditions of work and treatment. For example, a female guard reported that she had had a relationship with a supervisor at her security company so that she would enjoy certain privileges. She alleged that when she had an affair with her supervisor, she had a company vehicle taking her to and from home unlike her colleagues who either had to walk or pay a minibus fair to their workplace. In addition, the female guard said that whenever she was late for work, she could not be scorned and her excuses could easily be entertained.

Further, the female workers said that if one is having an affair with their superiors, then they stood a chance of getting better work placements. The guards said that there are certain places that are attractive to guard because there is usually less security threats and the people around them are generous. To be placed at such places is taken as a big favour, which is easy to come by if one is in good terms with their superiors.  

The study also found that there are certain private security companies that have not yet fully opened up to women. These security companies have fewer women, as little as 6 out of a workforce of 100, who are employed for specific work placements such as shops, entertainment joints like Casinos and offices where they are required to search other female employees and clients. The companies with fewer women employees admitted that they get many applications from women but they are unwilling to employ them because “women are weak” (sic), and that the work of the security guard requires a strong person. Interestingly, companies that have more female workers parried away such thinking. 

However, the security companies failed to produce conditions of service for their female employees. They were unable to say if they provide maternity leave days and if at all there are special considerations for expectant female security guards. One company said that they would rather fire a security guard who has fallen pregnant because they would not be able to manage their jobs as expected.  This would be contrary to ILO standards based on the Convention concerning Termination of Employment at the Initiative of the Employer (1985), which considers termination of employment due to pregnancy as unlawful.

Most security companies only allow female security guards to work in the afternoon shifts despite requests from other female workers to work on the night shift. Incidences where female workers are granted night shifts include where they work in nightclubs to search female patrons.

f. Health and safety issues

The study looked at the health and safety issues affecting security guards in Malawi. Since the security guards provide services to premises other than their own work places, the study concentrated on their workstations. It was found that the security guards are responsible for securing various premises and properties in forms of locations and institutions. The work place conditions examined were therefore of the workstations where the security guards are placed.

It should be stated that in Malawi, the Occupation Safety, Health and Welfare Act of 1997 sets standards and the scope for Occupational Safety Health and for labour inspection and investigations of accidents and working environments. The study found that some security guards other than those placed at public facilities where sanitation facilities are provided for at no fee, work at places where there are no sanitation facilities. This is contrary to section 27 of the 1997 Occupation Safety, Welfare Act, which mandates that employers ensure that there are sanitation facilities for both men and women at the work place. The absence of these sanitation facilities compels the security guards to sometimes practice open defecation, which takes away their respect and dignity.

Further, the study found that there is no insurance for security guards against injuries that they may suffer in the course of their work. It was also found that employers are willing to provide insurance for property that is being guarded and never for the guard who is entrusted with securing the insured properties. When quizzed about such a state of affairs, some security company personnel said that the duty of the guard is to protect people and property, and there is no way such a person should be hurt or they will be failing on their duties.

The study found that the guards are provided with uniforms, which include a trouser, jersey, belt, cap and shirt as well as boots. All security companies engaged in the study had uniforms but it was found that there were some with insufficient stock of uniforms and that the guards needed to share the uniforms. The study found that some security companies do not have laundry rooms at their premises where the guards can wash, dry and iron their uniforms, which was deemed contrary to the stipulations of the Occupation Safety Health and Welfare Act. Further, the researcher observed some guards in worn out uniforms with the guards complaining that they do not get new uniforms and the companies accusing the workers of stealing uniforms and failing to take care of their work regalia.

g. Impacts on Workers and their families

The working and living conditions of the security guards impact both on them and their families. The study came across a set of permutations of such impacts, which are mostly negative. Firstly, the poverty wage that some of the security workers get means that they live in abject poverty in spite of their employment. The case below provides insights into the plight of security workers.

Case Box 1: The Plight of the guards 

Maliseni Ibrahim (not real name) is a security guard with a multi-national private security company whose February pay was MK17,500 for his 8 hour shift.  His company placed him at a Fuel Station in City Centre, the heart of Malawi’s Capital City, Lilongwe. He lives in Area 23, a populous settlement in the outskirts of the City. He has a family of three and his wife is unemployed. She looks after the children at home. Maliseni lives in a rented one bedroomed apartment without electricity and pays MK7, 000 per month. He has to leave money for food, every day for his wife and two children to eat. He says he needs between MK 500 and MK1,000 for food, but that cannot even buy a decent meal in Lilongwe.

At times, Maliseni needs transport money to work. It costs about MK300 to get to his workplace on a minibus. Every time, Maliseni has paid his rent, his income falls by almost 40%, and he cannot meet all his other expenses. Like most other security guards, their little wages results into what is called rental induced poverty, because housing takes a bigger chunk of their earnings so much so that there is too little left for them to meet other necessities. 

In order to get away from such situations, security workers like Maliseni send their families to their villages so that they hustle with the City life on their own. One time Maliseni sent his wife and children to their village, he was all alone at home. He became a drunkard to “forget his problems” and started sleeping around with other women. Instead of making better of his money situation, his new life style made it worse. Like many other security guards, Maliseni said alcohol abuse offers him some temporary relief from his boredom.

While such is the case for Maliseni, other security guards placed at entertainment joints and other public places have found miserable ways of improving their incomes. For example, in Lilongwe and Blantyre Cities, whenever a person has parked a car in a public car park, a security guard employed to secure those premises will usually provide themselves to privately look after the car with expectation of a “tip” in form of cash as a thank you for the service. The truth however is that the guards want to earn extra money to cover up their low wages.

Thus in general, the impact of the working conditions of the security workers was found to grave consequences on the dignity of the workers.

4. Conclusion and recommendations

The study looked at the working and living conditions of security workers in Malawi. In general terms, the legislative environment in the country looks fairly tuned and progressively addresses issues affecting the private security guards. However, there are critical violations that go unreported, which is somewhat institutionalizing a culture impunity among the private security companies in the country. It is very clear that this is a vulnerable sector as evidenced from the labour violations and the limited rights that the workers in the sector enjoy.

It is deplorable and unacceptable that there is wanton abatement of critical employment provisions such as those related to the minimum wage and paid overtime in the sector. Such situations account for the poor living conditions that have come to characterise the lives of the private security guards in the country. 

While the workers can speak out about such conditions, the unpalatability of those concerns among their employers would account for their nausea that would elicit threats of employment termination, which makes employees to live in fear and dread. In such a case, collective bargaining championed through a strong unionized force would suffice.

However, the study found no workers who are actually affiliated to any trade union despite the presence of TGLSSWU, which is the voice of all security workers. A few security workers said they are aware that such a trade union exists but it has never approached them. It would therefore be in the best interest of the private security services sector workers for the TGLSSWU to take deliberate steps to reach out to all security companies.

Based on these findings, the study therefore recommends the following:

a) Empower security guards to negotiate for better conditions of services through collective bargaining

b)  Raise awareness of the security guards and their respective companies on best labour practices and their nexus to increased productivity in the industry

c) The security workers trade union needs to build its capacity to effectively engage with employers for fair labour practices.

5. References

Hunga, W. (2013). The agony of the night watcher. Available online: http://wonderhunga.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-agony-of-night-watcher.html?m=1. Accessed March 28, 2017

Government of Malawi. (2000). The Malawi Employment Act. Available online: http://www.ilo.org/dyn/natlex/docs/WEBTEXT/58791/65218/E00MWI01.htm. Accessed March 25, 2017

International Labour Organisation (n.d). Employment Security. Available Online: http://ilo.org/global/topics/employment-security/lang--en/index.htm. Accessed April 10, 2017

Minimum Wage. Org. (2017). Malawi Minimum Wage. Available online: https://www.minimum-wage.org/international/malawi. Accessed April 10, 2017


[1] https://www.nyasatimes.com/malawi-continue-perform-poor-human-development-undp-launches-report/#sthash.yRRc2BRs.dpuf

[2] http://mwnation.com/youth-unemployment-a-big-challenge-in-malawi/

[4] Chapter Three of Malawi Constitution provides that “the inherent dignity and worth of each human being requires that the State and all persons shall recognize and protect fundamental human rights and afford the fullest protection to the rights and views of all individuals, groups and minorities whether or not they are entitled to vote

[6] For example Chirimba Garments (EPZ) Manufacturing Limited Vs Nyaika [Civil Appeal No. 58/2003