Global Policy Forum

Export Processing Zones Still a Bone of Contention


By Joyce Mulama

Inter Press Service
April 30, 2007

With working conditions around the world set to be placed in the spotlight on May Day (May 1), Emily Mugo has an axe to grind about her place of employment -- in one of Kenya's Export Processing Zones (EPZs).

"One has to collapse from sickness to be allowed to seek medical attention. However sick one may be, you cannot afford to miss work: you will be sacked," she noted of the textile factory located on the outskirts of the capital, Nairobi. "To the managers it is production, not one's health condition, that matters. Besides, we have to work standing over long hours. This applies to pregnant women too."

Mugo claims that one of her colleagues asked permission to be allowed to work seated while she was pregnant, this after being advised by her doctor that she could miscarry if she continued to stand continuously at work. But, "She was forced to terminate her services at work because the boss insisted that she had to stand like other workers in her department."

Employed as a checker to inspect finished tailored clothes, Mugo also complains of low wages at the firm. "Our pay, inclusive of house allowance, is about 90 dollars per month. I do not see why I should work for 13 hours every day and not be paid overtime to supplement my income. I am a single mother of one, and with what I earn I can barely meet my needs," she told IPS.

This is not the first time that companies operating in the East African country's EPZs have come under criticism. In 2004, the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) issued a book titled 'The Manufacture of Poverty: The Untold Story of EPZs in Kenya' that detailed poor working conditions in the zones (see: 'ECONOMY-KENYA: EPZs Failing to Deliver on Workers' Rights, Say Activists'). The zones were started in 1990 to attract export-oriented investments that could, amongst others, increase foreign currency earnings and provide employment; companies that set up shop in EPZs are offered incentives such as tax holidays.

Two subsequent investigations by IPS indicated certain reforms in the zones, along with persistent concerns about certain alleged abuses of workers (see 'ECONOMY-KENYA: Rights Campaign in EPZs Elicits Mixed Results' and 'KENYA: "In a Situation Like This, Who Cares About Human Rights?"'). More than three years later, disquiet is still being voiced about the EPZs.

"The working conditions in the EPZs still remain the same: deplorable. All evidence is clear that employers continue to abuse workers' rights," KHRC Deputy Executive Director Steve Ouma told IPS, pointing to a case of unfair dismissal last year in which employees of an EPZ company were fired after they protested against delayed salary payments and abusive language on the part of management.

The Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) maintains that progress has been made as concerns workers' right to unionise. "Because of pressure from COTU, EPZ workers are now allowed to belong to trade unions, which advocate for better working terms for their members, something that was impossible years back," notes COTU's Adams Barasa.

But, Ouma says research into EPZs shows that obstacles were still being placed in the path of workers who want to join trade unions, a claim echoed by Mugo: "The management does not want workers to associate with any workers' bodies. If they find out that a particular employee is a member, they plant false accusations against you, then sack you."

In light of this, adds Ouma, EPZs are adding little to Kenya's economy: "They are not sparking development and industrialisation in Kenya.Yes, they have provided labour (jobs), but labour that is paying poverty wages."

These allegations are refuted by the EPZ Authority, a governmental body that manages the zones. "The wages paid are as per the wage guidelines given by the government of Kenya which apply to the whole of the country, so to isolate the EPZ as an unfair employer is unfair. On the contrary, the EPZ wages are 20 to 25 percent higher than those of the domestic territory," spokesman Jonathan Chifallu told IPS.

According to the authority website, the zones now employ about 40,000 Kenyans and contribute 10.7 percent of national exports. Textile firms dominate the EPZs.

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