Indecent or Decent Work?

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By Sanday Chongo Kabange

May Day may come and go but the situation in many households in Zambia remains the same with or without commemorating International Labour Day.

During the 2010 International Labour Day celebrations, Zambia commemorated this special day that is dedicated to workers with the theme “Promoting economic growth through decent work agenda”. 

This theme could have been applied to many of the country’s workers. In this southern African state, statistics show that more than 80% of the 12 million people are in some form of employment or another. Most of these are either under-employed or classified as unpaid family workers.

Those are that have had no opportunity to find white collar jobs in high-paying firms have found themselves on the bitter side of reality. They work either as maids, gardeners, or domestic workers (house helpers) under very harsh conditions.

It is not that they want to work in these jobs. It is because they have no other alternative means of meeting their daily basic needs in a country where the basic needs basket keep swinging between K2, 500, 000 and K3, 000, 000 per month.

The bad
Beatrice Chungu (not real name) is a 27 year old woman with a grade 12 certificate. She could not get into college after she completed her high school in northwest Zambia because she was orphaned while doing her last grade. She opted to relocate to the capital Lusaka where she got a job as a maid. 

Chungu, who has no shame in working as a maid even though she has a full grade 12 certificate, says she has endured a lot of hardship since she started working in 2007. 

She explains in a sombre but brave tone: “I have changed workplaces only twice. Where I was working at first, I was staying with a young couple who mistreated me. So I decided to move out and stay on my own. The situation became unbearable. Even now, certain things that happen to me are very inhuman, my brother”.

She explained that she works long hours, similar to the ones she worked while she was a live-in maid.  Chungu complained that she has no off duty and is underpaid.

“My bosses work for very good companies. They all drive to work yet I have to wake-up at 5am, prepare their two children, then take them to school. At night, sometimes I work until midnight and I am supposed to be up by 4.30am. Weekends are worse because my employers have visitors and relatives,” she says, amid sobs.

The ugly
A similar scenario is painted by 39 year old gardener, Clive ‘Gugu’ Simusamba (not real name). He works in a posh neighbourhood of Lusaka for a very wealthy Zambian family. Although his employers are enlightened when it comes to general labour issues, this does not extend to their gardener.
“I am searched every time I knock off. At one point we lost a sprinkler and I was told to take off all my whole clothes in front of a woman so I could be searched. I was very humiliated. But what can I do? I have nowhere to go if I quit. I have a family to look after. It is unpredictable but I have to work and take care of my family,” narrates Gugu.

The good (life)
These two scenes highlight what happens in some workplaces in Zambia. While maids, gardeners, farm labourers, guards and other house helpers are subjected to such working conditions, employers of these people are the first to down tools when they do not get a pay raise or over-time allowance. 

If they are underpaid, they ask trade unions to bargain for them. They enjoy weekends and time off from work by shopping and holidaying with friends and family, while their employees are left to work. They have their social protection and pension plans outlined already. When they work on weekends or public holidays, they demand to be paid for working overtime. 

When they are stripped naked to be searched, they threaten to sue their employer for violation of human rights. Yet they do not feel the same for their employees back home. Instead, they feel superior to their workers.

And the law
With all these inhuman activities taking place in Zambia, 45 years after independence, the country has managed to ratify 43 ILO conventions, 39 of which are currently in force. Among 43 conventions Zambia signed since joining ILO in 1964, are some that talk about the protection of workers’ rights. 

In December, 2007, Zambia launched the Zambia Decent Work Country Programme (DWCP) 2007-2011.  The Decent Work Country Programme for Zambia aims to become the core mechanism for promoting safe, secure, healthy and sustainable employment for women and men in Zambia for the next 10 years.

However, with what has been highlighted above, it seems it may take more than 10 years for Zambia to ensure that every citizen can enjoy decent job conditions as opposed to indecent work.

The law is there but implementation might render the campaign for decent work in Zambia futile.

For example, the DWCP states clearly: “the lack of domestication of ratified conventions in local laws has given rise to a number of challenges in the adjudication of industrial relations cases, e.g. judgements based on ILO Conventions that have been brought before the Supreme Court on appeal from the Industrial Relations Court have been rejected”.