In many workplaces in Malawi, workers are suffering the whipping of their minds, bodies and souls at the hands of their employers. Who is responsible to rescue these workers? Our Contributor CHARLES MPAKA writes:
Inside an Asian-owned factory in Lilongwe, workers are investing their physical and mental capital to produce juice and bottled water.
While their employer pockets the profits, the producers of the goods take to their families a K28 000 monthly salary. This is below the government’s minimum wage of K35 000 and way below the value of their labour.
“We don’t get a lunch break,” complained the workers in a brief alert, written in Chichewa and meant to reach the government for its action. “Instead we are forced to drink expired juice. We are being extremely abused here; please help us!”
This call circulated on social media over the past three weeks. The abuses faced are among many which Malawian workers are suffering daily. These crimes against workers occur so routinely such that a stranger would think Malawi has no law to protect workers.
Yet, from minimum wage, to legal workweek, to annual leave, to occupational and health standards, Malawi has the legislation needed in labour governance.
“Our labour laws are some of the best in Africa,” brags Malawi Congress of Trade Union president Luther Mambala, “but we have some impudent employers who just don’t want to respect these laws. This is our biggest challenge.”
In its series of Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2018, the United States’ Department of State also acknowledges that Malawi has a raft of legislation on labour. It observes, however, that in almost all the cases, government has no capacity to enforce the laws. And where it does, it does so “very” poorly.
The report adds that while the Ministry of Labour has, for instance, a specialised Directorate of Occupational Safety and Health, the number of labour inspectors is too inadequate to effectively enforce the law on minimum standards.
Mambala agrees that the Ministry of Labour is perpetually under-capacitated.
“Political leaders have come and gone. I have not seen any significant interest to fund the ministry adequately for it to enforce the laws and protect workers,” he says.
Indeed, in The Nation’s examination of budget statements for the past nine financial years from 2012, the Ministry of Labour has not featured anywhere in the top five budget allocations.
Principal Secretary for Labour, Dickson Chunga, laments the capacity challenge.
“In district labour offices, some of our officers use personal vehicles to do inspections. That’s asking too much from them,” he says.
So free to abuse are the employers that they are now police and courts, exacting extrajudicial punishment on workers they suspect to have committed some offence.
Human Rights Defenders Coalition chairperson Gift Trapence says the association has many files of labour-related human rights abuses.
These range from harsh conditions, working long hours and odd hours without compensation, mistreatment at the workplace, low wages between classes of people doing the same job and unfair dismissal without benefits.
“As a country we have not done enough on promotion and protection of workers’ rights in the formal and informal business sector,” says Trapence.
The law guarantees workers the right to seek legal redress when they are abused, but rarely do workers take action.
The US Department of State notes that workers fail to exercise these rights because of ignorance of such rights and high levels of unemployment and, therefore, fearing dismissal from their jobs.
It adds that even when employees report such abuses, the authorities do not effectively protect them.
And as the world celebrates Human Rights Day today, the United Nations is calling on everyone to stand up for human rights, especially now as Covid-19 lays siege, exacerbating social and economic inequalities.
Says the UN: “We will reach our common global goals if we are able to create equal opportunities for all, address the failures exposed and exploited by Covid-19, and apply human rights standards to tackle entrenched, systematic and intergenerational inequalities, exclusion and discrimination.”
Chunga says the work of uprooting the culture of abuse of workers remains a top priority and the ministry is working on fixing its capacity problems.
“We have already started engaging some employers, reminding them of their moral and corporate obligation to treat workers with dignity,” he says.
On his part, Trapence says now that Malawi has been elected member of the UN Human Rights Council, it should be a role model in the promotion and protection of human rights in general.
Mambala feels lobbying for adequate support for the labour department remains key.
But he hints it also largely falls on employers themselves to prevent industrial struggle resulting from sustained capitalist indifference to human rights of producers of their goods.