Despite the country’s labour laws clearly stipulating the dos and don’ts in workplaces, cases of perceived abuses of workers by their employers continue to rise. This is resulting in overwhelming cases of industrial disputes at labour offices as well as courts across the country. Our News Analyst LUCKY MKANDAWIRE caught up with Sunduzwayo Madise who teaches law at Chancellor College, a constituent of the University of Malawi,and is also unionist, to unpack this trend:
Where exactly do you think we are getting things wrong? Is it an issue of impunity on the side of employers or our laws are not clear or is it ignorance on the part of employers and employees about these laws?
I think it is all those factors. Firstly, when there are no unions, these are the things that happen. The law assumes that sometimes we have what it calls an equal bargaining power. It gives power to the people, but the reality is that individuals are weak on their own. They can only enforce the power if the workers work collectively. In the past, the government has not been supportive. We started well, but in the recent past, the government was also fighting the unions, thereby fighting its own people. Essentially, you can now see that unions have been weakened by deliberate efforts. Now, the result of that is what we are seeing now that employers have the impunity to do whatever they want because they know that the workers are not going to organise themselves or if they do, they are going to be as strong as required. Some are also aware that the Ministry of Labour does not get enough funding to inspect workplaces and factories, among others, to see working conditions. For instance, I have been here [University of Malawi] for close to 13 years, but I have never seen any labour inspector coming to check on our working conditions. Then all this leads to the things we are complaining about.
Can we say that the economy also has a part to play in all this?
Yes, actually if we don’t have a lot of people employing, a lot of unnecessary things happen and the employer takes advantage of that because they know that the employees don’t have anywhere else to go. So, essentially the people are being abused because the employers know that they have nowhere else to go. They know that what they do is not right, but because they also know that if they do it, it’s not like the employees will leave, then they do it. To me, this economic aspect should not be ignored. The fact that we have high unemployment rate is also worsening the situation.
Is there a possible way out?
We as employees should not allow suffering at work. We should take things in our hands. This idea of waiting for others to rescue us or do things for us will get us nowhere because there is no one who will. Like I have said, if we are relying on labour inspectors, they don’t have enough resources, there are not even enough of them and maybe they are also busy doing other things. And if we are relying on government to check on us, there are issues of low funding and previously government has been favouring employers. On the other hand, the employers are organised, they have their own association and then they have the chamber of commerce [Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry].
There is also an issue that when an employee and their employer part ways, you find that when it comes to settling gratuity or compensation, problems usually arise. How can this issue be resolved?
It’s all about empowering employees because all this happens because the employers know that the workers are weak and that our courts take long, labour matters in Malawi take too long. So, the employer knows and this is the sad part because most of the times when employees take the court route, most get their justice while they are dead. If these cases were taking a month or two, things could have been different because it’s not like the employers are not aware of their wrongdoing. Unfortunately, this shows that they are bad employers, but this is the thing, these are employers who don’t care. I am saying this because if an employer wants to get the best workforce, they will ensure that they have very good conditions of service because that is what will attract people. As such, an employer who cares about their workforce and reputation will not do all those things, but it’s the other employers who don’t care. Usually, these are companies operating from residential areas, start-ups and fishy investors who abuse employees. If you look at most of the cases, it’s very rare to see well-established companies abusing employees. If they fire someone, they give them all their dues because they don’t like being dragged to court because it is not good for their business and image whereas the others don’t care.
Any closing comments?
We need to speed up our judicial system, but the Industrial Relations Court in particular because it was specially created to solve labour disputes. And some of us who took part in its formation feel disappointed when we see that it’s not serving its core objective of resolving labour disputes with urgency.