Despite having vibrant labour laws, Malawi seems to be turning into a haven for labour rights violators. SAMUEL KALIMIRA writes: To 34-year-old Luke Chilenje from Lupaso Township in Mzuzu City, some laws are applied selectively in the country.
He cites labour laws, which, he claims, some individuals and organisations are violating at will, without facing penalties set out in the laws.
“Take, for instance, my case. I was once embarrassed in the presence of workmates when my supervisor, a foreign national, accused me of failing to execute my job and beat me up.
“I was surprised because they interviewed us for three days and eventually picked us for the job. We thought that it was a decent job but they used to shout at us in their language, mixed with a little bit of English,” Chilenje said.
A qualified carpenter, Chilenje, who has Grade 1-Trade Test, Advance Tevet level 3 certificate and is a former instructor at Ezondweni Community College, said, for far too long, local artisans have been suffering in silence at the hands of foreign employers.
The carpenter, who was engaged by a foreign company in Mzuzu, said it became commonplace for them to be assaulted by the superiors.
“One day, for example, after I had finished a task I was assigned to do on that day, my supervisor assigned me another task. Before I could start working, I went behind the structure to inquire into how I could erect cramps. Before the supervisor could answer me, he started shouting at me. He came closer to where I was and beat me twice, accusing me of failing to understand my job,” Chilenje said.
I reported the incident to the supervisors’ seniors, who promised to follow up on the matter but never did.
Nelson Harry, 44, also claims that he was roughed up by the same person on another day.
Harry said he was beaten at the back while holding a pipe.
“To make matters worse, my ordeal happened when I was standing on top of the building we were constructing,” he said.
While conceding ignorance of labour laws, Harry said he is sure that his rights were violated, alleging that locals are working “as slaves”.
Thirty-year-old Lumbani Nyasulu from Chipunga Village in NKhata Bay is another worker with a sad tale to tell about foreign nationals who employ locals in the country.
He said the incidents in question happened when he was working as a plant and vehicle mechanic at one of the companies owned by foreign nationals in the country.
“That time, I was working on a road construction site in Mzimba District. I was with a friend who failed to remove a filter and the supervisor asked me to do the work. After I managed to remove it, my supervisor beat me on the head, shouting at me, accusing me of being the one who tightened it so that others would find it difficult to remove it.
“The matter went to court and I lost the court case because this friend, who was with me at the time of the incident, did not back me in court,” Nyasulu said.
There have been similar cases in Nkhata Bay and Karonga, where some foreign nationals are supervising road construction and water infrastructure development works.
Nkhata Bay Police Station spokesperson Kondwani James confirmed that one foreign national was suspected of sexually assaulting a female worker.
He said the matter went to court and the suspect was fined.
“The women worked at the company’s cafeteria department,” James said.
These cases could be a tip of the iceberg.
Some locals have complained that, apart from being exposed to sexual and physical abuse, they overwork.
There are even times, they claim, when they get injured on duty but do not get fully assisted.
The National Construction Industry Council said it is working to establish facts.
NCIC Corporate Affairs Officer Lyford Gideon said the institution disciplines contractors found violating terms of the Code of Ethics for those in the construction industry.
“Much as the allegations border on labour laws; if proven true, they are a violation of the Code of Ethics which contractors sign for, with NCIC as a regulator, and pledge to uphold. Therefore, NCIC will not hesitate to institute disciplinary proceedings on any contractor(s) found culpable of breaching such ethics,” Gideon said.
Labour Minister Vera Kamtukule indicated that the ministry ensures that labour laws are respected in the country.
“My ministry protects people and, once we hear of reports of abuse, we follow up and act,” Kamtukule said.
In the past 10 years, most labour cases involving foreign nationals have been handled by magistrate courts which, as in the Mzuzu City case, have been known to fine perpetrators.
However, some of the victims are rooting for custodial sentences so that others who were about to take the same route may turn back from their bad ways.