At the gates of one of Kenya’s export processing zones men and women push and shove each other, trying to get their identity cards taken by the guards.
Having one’s card taken increases the chances of being employed that day as a casual labourer at one of the factories set up to boost the country’s export capacity.
Men often bribe guards and managers to get jobs, but sex is the preferred inducement for women.
“Let me be honest with you, for us women, and especially young ones like us, it is difficult to get a job here without having sex with the bosses,” said Rosaline Muendo*, who has worked as a seamstress in an export processing zone (EPZ) for the past three years.
Jacqueline Adhiambo*, another casual labourer at the EPZ, says her manager is also her boyfriend.
“The person who is recruiting you is not the same person who will be supervising you or renewing your contract,” she said. “You have to please all these people and they just want to sleep with you.”
More than 40 000 people are employed in over 40 EPZs, which produce about 10% of the nation’s exports.
Concerns about possible HIV infection are less important than the desperate need for money to feed families.
“The power to use a condom or not lies with the man,” said Doris Mwende*, 23, who has worked at an EPZ company for two years. “You ask a man to use a condom and he tells you that you are too young to infect him.”
Little help from management
David Kisilu*, a recruitment supervisor at an EPZ company for over five years, admitted that sex for work was common but difficult to regulate because of its “willing seller, willing buyer” nature.
“These things happen, but management does not know where the deals are hatched,” he said. “People meet outside, maybe after work, and get into these deals, and the next morning they just come and start working.”
According to Collins Ajuoga, a human resources manager working in the EPZ, most companies are aware of the rampant sexual harassment but are powerless to intervene unless victims complain, which rarely happens.
“We have a very clear policy on sexual harassment, but nobody is willing to come forward,” he said.
“They feel they will be victimised when that is really not the case – we even have suggestion box where people can report such cases [anonymously], but it has not been successful.”
Elsa Anyango, a single mother of two, does not believe Ajuoga’s claim there will be no repercussions for workers.
“Fine, so somebody comes and tells you that you should report sexual harassment; you weigh [the choice] between reporting and giving in [to sex] to get a job,” she said. “Most of us will go for the sex option.”
Harsh working conditions
According to officials at the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu), EPZ workers are in a poor position to raise issues such as sexual harassment and better working conditions because they are not unionised.
“Getting these workers to join a union is difficult because the managers at EPZ companies use non-registered organisations to recruit casuals on their behalf,” said Erick Omino, a representative of the Kenya Textile Workers Federation at Cotu.
“When you approach them on the fate of these workers, they say you should talk to those who bring them in.”
EPZ employees say they work in harsh conditions, and are often subjected to physical and verbal abuse from managers.
The 2007 assessment found that women in the EPZs often lost their jobs for falling pregnant.
“The export processing zones are notorious for repressing trade union communications and events,” the report stated. “Workers in such zones are routinely and systematically exploited in the areas of work hours, rest periods, production quotas, employment contracts, union representation and health and safety.” – Irin
*Not their real names