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Sluggish pace to decent work for women

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INVOLVED IN VARIOUS PRODUCTION – Women

Malawi is credited globally for its efforts to design impressive legal and policy frameworks that promote the rights of women in all spaces. But as WATIPASO MZUNGU explores in this FRIDAY SHAKER, while the frameworks gather dust on the shelves of public offices, several women endure all forms of abuse in their quest to survive.

Asiyatu Yohane had worked for five years as a housemaid for a businessman of Asian origin in Area 2 in Lilongwe before she relocated to Jenda Rural Growth Centre in Mzimba to live with her uncle.

“I resigned towards the end of 2019 because I could not cope anymore with my boss’s incessant demands for sex,” says Yohane, a 27-year-old mother from Traditional Authority (T/A) Makanjira in Mangochi.

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She claims that the pressure on her to have sex with the boss was too intense, but she stayed on because she did not have an alternative source of income to provide for her two children.

Her husband dumped her three years earlier, leaving the semi-literate woman with a huge responsibility of looking after the children. Yohane attended school up to Form Two but did not write the Junior Certificate of Education (JCE) examinations because she could not manage to pay fees for her examinations.

Eventually, she dropped out and ended up picking a menial job as a housemaid for a businessman of Asian origin.

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“I endured a lot of abuse at the hands of this boss. And when things got worse, I resigned and came here to live with my uncle,” the dispirited Yohane explains.

Twaibu Liston, the uncle, an ageing tailor who survives on repairing torn clothes, is already struggling to feed his six-member family and adding three more mouths to feed is proving to be too much for him.

“But I have no choice. She is my niece and has nowhere else to go except here,” says Liston.

The Centre for Social Concern (CfSC), a Catholic organisation that advocates for social justice through the promotion of research and action on social issues, says Yohane’s case is a drop in an ocean of thousand other cases where women have ended up in the hands of sex predators in their search for employment.

CfSC Executive Director David Ngahy says women, with and in regard to as mothers first, as supposed to be treated as engines of mankind.

Women, as Ngahy stresses, are the heart of a family in their hardworking spirit; yet they are often the least recognised, taken for granted, exploited, abused and often dehumanised.

“They are very often second hand, unrecognised citizens in their hardworking situation,” he says.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8 seeks the commitment of governments to promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.

The goal states that by 2030, governments should achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities and equal pay for work of equal value.

It also seeks governments’ commitment to protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, in particular women migrants and those in precarious employment.

“[Furthermore, governments’ should] take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers and by 2025, end child labour in all its forms,” says the goal.

Ngahy states that Malawi already has important legislation and policy instruments that are able to ensure that women workers enjoy their right to decent work, if well implemented.

These include the Malawi Constitution; the Labour Relations Act; the Employment Act; the Workers’ Compensation Act; and the Occupational Safety, Health and Welfare Act, among others.

Further, between 2011 and 2016, Malawi was implementing the International Labour Organisation-supported Malawi Decent Work Country Programme that was promoting decent work among employees in the country including those in the agriculture sector.

However, Ngahy says CfSC has noted with concern that the government does not enforce the legal minimum wage, especially in private sector, which has all along very low in all standards until it was raised recently to K50,000.

“The government must ensure that vulnerable workers that include women must be given legal and fair wages as set by the government itself,” he says.

A recent baseline study by CfSC found that women are actively involved in all the production activities along the horticulture value chain.

However, they are almost exclusively involved in the sorting and grading. They are also little engaged in enforcing the existing policies which concern them.

The findings of the study further state that when engaging in these agricultural activities, some women workers are not provided with protective gear, thereby risking their health.

“The study also found that as a whole, our sampled women farmers in horticulture industry are receiving wages that are lower than the government-set minimum wages. This depicts clearly in the private sector,” the report reads in part.

According to Ngahy, a monthly research on cost of living carried out by CfSC reveals that a family of six people requires an average income of K194,000 for basic needs in a month.

On the other hand, a report commissioned by Hivos in 2020, reveals that workers in horticulture the majority of them being women, are receiving money that is below the living wage of the rural society.

This implies that the wages they earn are not able to push them out of poverty and that the cost of living in their society is higher than the money they are receiving.

Ngahy says this demands an urgent need by the government to consider increasing their wages.

“In fact, the money they receive is even lower than the money they need to purchase a basic balanced diet. Our studies have revealed that the monthly requirement to buy quality food that provides adequate nutrition is at K100,000, which is far from the minimum wage [which was at K35,000 before it was revised to K50,000,” he says.

He further notes that lack of recognition of inequality as a problem on its own right in any of Malawi’s development strategies worsens the inequality in the country.

Ngahy says economic inequality, which is measured by consumption, in Malawi worsened in 2011 when the share of consumption attributable to the top 10 percent was at 53 percent while that for the bottom 40 percent was at 13 percent.

“CfSC is, therefore, recommending government to enforce signing of written contracts, sensitise workers on their rights, discrimination and sexual violence to ensure that every worker is entitled to certain rights at their work place, including freedom of association, non-discrimination and lack of forced labour in abusive conditions,” he says.

Perhaps only when this happens will workers in the informal sector such as Yohane earn what they deserve and be protected wherever they are working.

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