The article was originally published in Africa In Fact, the journal of Good Governance Africa.
By Patience Akumu
Once upon a time, Uganda Cement Industry (UCI) in eastern Uganda was a dream employer. The factory, like the country, had just been wrestled from the hands of colonialists. Working at this factory was a privilege.
Every morning in the 1960s, at the dawn of independence, contented plant workers chattered as they waited for the gates to open. In the evenings at the bars, it was easy to tell who worked at UCI. “They only drank whisky or expensive beer,” Mzee Kiliano Obonyo, a former employee, remembers. “The pay was good, the uniforms clean. Everyone wanted to work there.”
Established by the British colonial administration in 1952 and taken over by the Ugandan government at independence in 1962, UCI sought to change the slave-like conditions under which workers had toiled. In line with reforms of wages and occupational health and safety introduced by the government, African employees earned the right, for the first time, to work and trade alongside their Asian counterparts.
But the days when UCI was a symbol of progress are long gone. Labour rights have trod the same downward path as Uganda’s post-independence governments that quickly forgot their promises of transformation.
Owing to mismanagement and a lack of resources, the state sold UCI in 1995, under a World Bank-initiated privatisation policy, to investors who renamed it Tororo Cement Limited. Unlike UCI, Tororo is not a dream employer. The company has persistently been accused of violating workers’ rights. These allegations contributed to 2006 employment law reforms that banished colonial labor statutes that had remained on the books.
Today most of Tororo’s workers live in camp-like settlements near the factory. They are easily identified by their tarred hands and persistent cough. Some cough blood. Some have lost limbs. Some have lost friends and relatives in accidents at the factory. They complain of low wages, lack of protective gear and deductions they do not understand.
Most are not sure where to direct their complaints because they do not know whether they work for Tororo Cement Limited, the largest manufacturer of cement and steel in East Africa that professes unwavering commitment to occupational health and safety, or T and K Commercial Agencies, which contracts them. For this article, the Tororo employees asked that their real names not be used to protect their jobs.
“What usually happens is they [Tororo] tell you there is no work,” explained James Okware, who labels and carries cement packages. “But then you leave and T and K approach you with an offer to do exactly what you have been doing. If it is a truck you have been driving, you will drive the same truck for the same factory but under the management of T and K.”
Sometimes workers are laid off by Tororo and rehired by T and K for a lower wage. This leaves workers in a legal limbo: they cannot complain to Tororo because the company is not their employer; and T and K escapes liability by saying it cannot take responsibility for Tororo’s actions. The workers, mostly illiterate, do not know whom to blame.
Mr. Okware began working at the factory in 2014 and now suffers from a persistent cough. But Tororo’s dispensary only offers painkillers, he says. The records at St. Anthony Hospital, where the sick and injured workers usually go, show they suffer mostly accidents and acute respiratory tract infections, a result of inhaling cement dust.
The appalling working conditions at Tororo persist despite Uganda being a signatory to most international treaties recognising labor rights. In 2006, Parliament enacted several laws to redress job and safety conditions. The reforms were partly motivated by Tororo workers who had protested several times. But legislators recognised that Tororo was not an isolated case. Ugandan workers seemed generally discontented. Sugar and flower plantation employees had complained too, as had laborers who worked for private businesses.
Despite these reforms, even when abuse was reported, the laws were not enforced, according to a 2010 report by the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), a local NGO. It blamed the government’s laissez-faire policies and fears that applying these laws might discourage investment.
A 2014 Uganda Human Rights Commission Report implicated mostly Asian-owned companies in discrimination against black workers. It also documented unfair dismissals and the nonpayment of salaries. But the report noted that workers generally did not declare these violations or take legal action.
Another report, by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, an independent German foundation, showed 70 percent of employees were unaware of their occupational, health, and safety rights. The report indicated that the government lacked the skills and resources to implement labor laws. The gender, labor, and social development ministry was woefully underfunded, allocated only 0.7 percent in the 2013-14 national budget.
Livingstone Sewanyana, FHRI’s executive director, says most Ugandan workers are ignorant of their entitlements. “It is not just the casual laborers but also teachers and doctors threatening to down tools,” he said. But these strikes are short-lived and express worker frustration more than an assertion of their rights, he emphasised.
Critics like James Magode Ikuya, a veteran politician belonging to Uganda’s ruling party, blame the situation on an “untouchable nouveau riche” who have taken control of the economy. Mr. Ikuya argues this group uses influence and money to circumvent its responsibilities.
While government insists it is committed to protecting workers’ rights, Mr. Sewanyana points out that competition for the few available jobs makes it impossible to negotiate better terms. Uganda suffers high levels of poverty: 38 percent of Ugandans live on less than $1.25 a day, according to the UN.
The International Labour Organisation and Uganda’s statistics bureau say unemployment is about 4 percent. But only about 20 percent of workers earn a regular wage and only 5 percent have permanent jobs, FHRI points out. The rest are casual workers who are hired and fired at will.
Uganda’s youth unemployment rate is one of the highest in the world. Youth under 30 years of age make up 78 percent of Uganda’s 34.9m population, according to official statistics. But 62 percent are jobless, according to Action Aid, a charity. The African Development Bank says it could be 83 percent.
So for the few who are employed, it is survival of the fittest — regardless of their conditions of work.
“Every day they are sick or they miss work means money lost,” Mr. Sewanyana said. “They know [that at] anytime someone else will take their place, however bad the conditions are. Government has not invested enough in the labor sector to demand that citizens’ rights are respected.”
This is a reality Tororo workers know too well: “We have complained and complained,” Mr. Okware said. “But they never do anything. We feel like the government has abandoned us.”
Patience Akumu is a Kampala-based lawyer and freelance writer. She has written for The Observer, an independent newspaper in Uganda, The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent, The Times, and New Internationalist.
[Photo courtesy of the John Hanson]