Government’s failure to enforce labour laws is exposing industrial workers to harmful conditions with tobacco workers operating without protective gear absorbing nicotine equivalent to 50 cigarettes a day, United States (US) human r ights assessment report has said.
Released recently on the local US Embassy website https://mw.usembassy.gov, the 2021 report spots weaknesses in enforcement of the occupational safety and health (OSH) standards, minimum wage and overtime compensations.
It reads in part: “Workers, particularly in industrial jobs, often worked without basic safety clothing and equipment. Workers har vesting tobacco leaves generally did not wear protective clothing and absorbed up to 54 milligrammes of dissolved nicotine daily through their skin, the equivalent of 50 cigarettes.”
The US blames the development on shortage of labour inspectors who it said have the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions.
The dossier is part of the annual Country Repor ts on Human Rights Practices which the Department of State submits to the Congress, the legislature of the federal government of the United States.
The reports cover all countries that receive US support and all
United Nations (UN) member States. The areas of focus include civil, political, and worker rights as set in the UN inspired Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements.
The US Department of State further blamed the Ministry of Labour on failure to ensure that workers were receiving overtime allowances.
“The government did not effectively enforce laws related to OSH, wages or overtime. Workweek and annual leave standards were not effectively enforced and employers frequently violated statuary time restrictions,” the report reads.
Meanwhile, Society of Doctors in Malawi president Victor Mithi has backed the US observation, saying the country does not take occupational health and safety seriously.
He said: “There are many serious health implications that one could face if exposed to that amount of nicotine.
“The most important thing that comes to my mind is the risk of developing cancer as you are growing up. And there are other issues like hypertension and what we call peripheral vascular disease. Most of these are dangerous diseases and are non-reversible.”
Mithi also observed that the ministries of Health, Labour and Agriculture have not been doing enough to sensitise workers on the importance of occupational health.
He said: “We have employees themselves who are not well knowledgeable about the risk they face as they are working in these dangerous environments.
“In the end even if the protective equipment is available, they take it for granted in such a way that they don’t really focus on protecting themselves.”
The Ministry of Labour spokesperson Christina Mkutumula had not responded to our questionnaire at press time yesterday despite several reminders.
However, Malawi Congress of Trade Union (MCTU) general secretary Madalitso Njolomole said the employers have been flouting the labour laws due to failure by the Ministry of Labour to resolve some complaints lodged by the workers.
“You would see that some
of the complaints were lodged eight years ago and have not been resolved up to now. What this means is that some employees feel they can flout the rules and go unpunished. There are, in fact, no deterrent measures,” he said.
Njolomole further observed that the inefficiencies of the Industrial Relations Court due to poor funding was also contributing to rising incidents of labour laws violations.
“That court, which currently does not have enough judges, needs increased funding so that it deals with the complaints swiftly. As they take a long time to sentence offenders, the employers have the same feeling that they will go unpunished for their misconduct,” he said.
Employers Consultative Association of Malawi executive director George Khaki, however, said though his organisation has been raising awareness on occupational health and other labour requirements adherence, there was resistance among some companies when it comes to enforcement.
He blamed the development on the government’s failure to intensify enforcement measures due to lack of resources