Behind a dilapidated store in a dusty field at Athi River, an export processing zone (EPZ) on the outskirts of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, a group of textile factory workers has gathered for a mid-afternoon break. The heat is searing, and the hastily purchased cool drinks quench thirsts.
But not tempers.
“We are still suffering here! Nothing has changed since last year, when there were stories about us in the newspapers and on TV. The government and the [factory] bosses have fooled everyone!” spits Anne Awuor*, a machine operator at a nearby company.
Waving her hand in the air, her colleague, Joyce Kimani*, interjects.
“Look here! I cut my hand on a machine, and the supervisor told me to leave work and go to a doctor on my own. There was no medical kit to treat the injury,” she says. “The supervisor told me money would be deducted from my salary because I injured myself because I was stupid, and did not use the machine in a good way.”
A World Bank loan of $30-million established Kenya’s first EPZ in 1990. There are now five around the country containing about 40 firms — with plans to build two more in the near future. The zones are intended to increase foreign-currency earnings for the impoverished nation of almost 34-million people through exports to the United States and Europe. They offer various incentives to attract investors.
EPZ firms mainly manufacture clothing, but also a wide variety of other products, including pharmaceuticals, dart boards, foodstuffs and plastic traffic cones.
Jonathan Chifallu, public-relations manager at the Export Processing Zones Authority — the parastatal that oversees the sector — says EPZs accounted for 6% to 8% of Kenya’s exports last year.
Almost 40 000 Kenyans, mostly women, are employed in the EPZs (up from about 26 000 in 2002), no small matter in a country where official statistics put unemployment at almost 15%.
This success has been undermined, however, by persistent allegations of poor working conditions and human rights abuses in the zones.
In February last year, the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) published a book entitled The Manufacture of Poverty: The Untold Story of EPZs in Kenya in a bid to publicise the problems faced by workers in the zones.
A follow-up investigation by Inter Press Service indicated some improvement in the employees’ situation. More than a year later, however, the complaints being voiced are disconcertingly similar to those heard last February.
“There is great mistreatment of woman workers, especially sexual harassment and workers being forced to work long hours with no breaks,” says Kazini Maloba, general secretary of the Kenya Women Workers’ Association (KWWA).
“If they don’t work such long hours to fulfil orders, they are threatened with dismissal.
“Some women told us that the EPZ bosses instructed them that if they became pregnant, or were away from work for long because of illness, they would lose their jobs.”
Chifallu dismisses the KWWA’s allegations as “nonsense”.
“The government monitors the EPZ firms very closely, and we cannot afford to transgress labour laws. There’s this mistaken belief that EPZs in Kenya are not subject to labour laws.”
Echoing a claim made last year by Kenya’s Minister of Trade and Industry, Mukhisa Kituyi, Chifallu insists that certain activists are inciting workers to make false and exaggerated allegations about abuses in EPZs in an effort to secure funding from international donors.
Until recently, EPZ employees earned an average of $2 a day. Following the KHRC’s claim that this amounted to “poverty wages”, salaries have been marginally increased.
“Their basic monthly salary is now 5 600 shillings [about $75], plus a 15% housing allowance and other performance benefits,” says Hezron Owalo, spokesperson for Kenya’s Central Organisation of Trade Unions.
But workers remain despondent.
“That’s still slavery! That means we are working for about $3 a day,” says Kibata Ndungu*, an employee at an EPZ factory in Nairobi. “Are we expected to thank someone for this? We still cannot feed our kids, my God!”
After almost 15 years of resistance on the part of company owners, EPZ workers are also being allowed to join unions, notes Owalo, adding that EPZ firms throughout Kenya have signed collective bargaining and recognition agreements with unions.
“In Mombasa, the EPZs employ 18 316 workers in 16 factories. Now we have recruited 15 302 of them: that’s 85% of the workforce,” he enthuses.
“Whereas the EPZ Authority and individual factories used to see us as the enemy of industry and economic growth, now they see us as essential players in the process, and they allow us into their factories — whereas before they would lock the doors.”
But, a labour lawyer at the Kituo cha Sheria (Legal Aid Centre) in Nairobi, Victor Olewe, claims increased unionisation in the EPZs has only resulted in “cosmetic improvement” in working conditions.
“Actually,” he corrects himself, “‘improvement’ is the wrong word to use. It’s really useless for the workers to belong to a union because the union leaders have been pocketed by the employers. Some are bought by the factory owners to keep quiet and not to raise controversy.”
Olewe says the lack of legal action taken on behalf of workers by unions is evidence of this trend.
“Not a single case has been put before the industrial court this year, even though the workers continue to suffer,” he says.
EPZ employees also complain that reports of abuse made to the unions do not result in action, obliging them to turn to the KWWA for help.
And, Maloba says claims of increased unionisation are in themselves suspect: “The situation is very bad. Only three EPZ firms in Kenya have allowed the unions in — the other firms are still locking the unions out. There’s no collective bargaining.”
Chifallu lays the blame for the EPZ workers’ failure to unionise on employees themselves.
“At the end of the month, when workers see that money has been deducted from their salaries for union fees, they say they don’t want to belong to unions any longer,” he says.
“Our factory doors are, however, open to unions. They’re free to come and go as they please.”
Both Owalo and Chifallu deny that EPZ factory owners are, in effect, bribing union leaders to toe the line. The union federation, says Owalo, does everything possible to ensure that its members are protected.
While noting that that there have previously been “isolated” instances of worker abuse in the EPZs, Owalo claims this is largely a “thing of the past … Now the workers’ problems are more about job security than anything else.”
“Hundreds of our members were recently without work after some factories in Nairobi closed,” he says. The closures followed a loss of orders to Chinese producers, whose share of the international textile market surged after global textile quotas were lifted on January 1 this year.
According to a report by the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM), 7 000 workers have been retrenched and 14 factories closed down in the country since last year as a result of competition from China — which offers cheap labour, among other incentives.
The KAM said Kenyan EPZs are losing orders to the Asian giant as well as to India, and predicted further job losses. Already, some companies are operating at 50% or less of capacity.
All in all, concludes Olewe, workers stand to be the “ultimate losers” in this tangled mix of fierce global competition, allegations and counter-claims.
“The people who should be protecting the workers, like the unions and the government, are keeping quiet … Maybe they’re afraid that Kenya will lose investments if the bad news is reported,” he notes.
“In the meantime, the workers are powerless and more jobs are being lost every day … In a situation like this, who cares about human rights?” — IPS
* Certain names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved