News Column

The Rights of Women Should Not Be Trampled On the Factory Floor

July 28, 2014

Anne Kiruku

Major changes are set to take place across the region in the manufacturing sector - if the recommendations of a just-concluded study will be adopted.

The report of the study conducted by the African Development Bank (AfDB) highlights the challenges and constraints that the manufacturing sector in seven Eastern African countries is experiencing, including in the five partner states of the East African Community. It goes on to give recommendations that would make the sector more profitable and competitive.

The manufacturing sector is considered to be a starter sector in industrializing a country or region - especially the textile and clothing sub-sector. According to the report, this sub-sector has the potential to solve the perennial challenge of unemployment in the region since it is labourintensive.

The agro-processing sub-sector has also been noted to have great potential for quick growth primarily because of the semi-skilled nature of the labour force it engages. What is perplexing is that to this day, reports of this nature tend to almost completely ignore incorporating a gender component to the research.

An inclusive approach demands that in matters of economic growth and development, all sections of society should be seen to benefit - including from a gender perspective. It is worth noting that the huge labour force engaged in both the textiles and agro-processing sub-sectors is largely composed of women and the youth.

The textile and clothing industry is especially known to employ semi-skilled women from very poor backgrounds. Cases of sexual harassment and underpayment are said to be rampant in this industry.

As policy formulators embark on implementing the findings of this and similar reports, it would be important to deal with the thorny issues of workplace sexual abuses, punitive working conditions and wages that fall far below the legal minimum pay in the manufacturing sector.

A report conducted by the International Labour Rights Firm (ILRF) on women workers in Export Processing Zones determined that women workers often suffer violent sexual abuse at the hands of their employers and supervisors. The report revealed that over 90 per cent of women workers had experienced or observed sexual abuse at their workplace.

Even worse is the revelation that the employers and supervisors in this industry were not just sexually abusing the women workers, but even the young daughters who live with their mothers in the work stations.

Workplace sexual abuse is a strong contributor to the spread of HIV/Aids. Victims of sexual abuse who report the incidents to authorities are mostly fired from their jobs or demoted.

The victims end up suffering depression, psychological instability, humiliation, shame, and a sense of helplessness. Issues of sexual abuse of women workers worldwide have been shrouded in secrecy; there are no credible documented studies on workplace sexual abuses, especially in the developing world.

Even worse is the fact that sexual harassment at the workplace is poorly defined. While some understand it to mean inappropriate verbal communication, others take it as coerced or forced sexual intercourse.

The terms sexual abuse and sexual harassment have been used interchangeably despite their different meanings. Women are not sufficiently protected from workplace sexual harassment by the National laws in the region, international laws, or industry codes of conduct.

The average pay in the in the so called semi-skilled labour force is $25-$35 per month, which is way below the minimum wage. Most of the women workers in these industries are single mothers, a majority of them with school going children who depend on them totally. Cases of punitive working conditions where workers are subjected to cold rooms and greenhouses where they interact with toxic chemicals without proper protective gear are also widespread in the agro-processing sector.

Reports like the one by AfDB should not stop at giving policy directions about how to ensure the manufacturing industry takes off. If we are to advance fairness and equitable distribution of resources, we must address challenges such as the little involvement of women in industry and sexual harassment at the workplace.

Moreover, industries should not just say they have created employment: fair remuneration of employees is of paramount importance, especially given the fact that our national minimum wages tend to be way below what anyone can live on.

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Source: AllAfrica

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