Secretary Clinton is visiting seven countries in Africa this week, Kenya, South Africa, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Liberia, and Cape Verde. She is visiting to secure safe profits from Africa for American corporations. She began her trip by addressing an AGOA conference in Kenya.

Waiting for work in the EPZ

Waiting for work in the EPZ

Tuendelee Mbele EPZ Workers Welfare is a registered self-help organization founded in 2004 by workers in Kenya’s Export Processing Zones (EPZ).  EPZs have been set up around the world to provide cheap labour to corporations. In Kenya’s zones, as in those of other countries, national labour standards are not enforced. In Kenya companies get a 10 year tax holiday, exemption from import/export tariffs and no restriction on foreign investment and ownership. When Kenya allowed EPZs in the textile industry, the home-grown textile industry collapsed and workers were forced to take jobs in the zone where conditions are horrendous: harder work, less pay, brutal quota systems, no sick care, no sick leave, no maternity leave, extensive sexual harassment. Workers know what time they begin in the morning, but not what time they end.
Pamoja Tunaweza, a registered Kenyan CBO (non-profit), is currently delivering an outreach project with a focus on workers, women and teens. EPZs have been set up around the world to provide cheap labour to corporations. In Kenya’s zones, as in those of other countries, national labour standards are not enforced. In Kenya companies get a 10 year tax holiday, exemption from import/export tariffs and no restriction on foreign investment and ownership. When Kenya allowed EPZs in the textile industry, the home-grown textile industry collapsed and workers were forced to take jobs in the zone where conditions are horrendous: harder work, less pay, brutal quota systems, no sick care, no sick leave, no maternity leave, extensive sexual harassment. Workers know what time they begin in the morning, but not what time they end. Photos by Phil Vernon

AGOA is an act of the US Congress passed to benefit the US. It is not a treaty or an international agreement. In Kenya Steve Ouma Akoth writes that there are a number of subjects which are taboo in discussion of AGOA both for the US and for the countries supposedly benefitting from AGOA. He describes three of these taboo subjects.

PRECARIOUS AND POVERTY JOBS
NATIONAL LABOUR LAWS AND PRACTICE
TRADE POLICIES OF THE US GOVERNMENT AND PURCHASING PRACTICES

Of the first, precarious and poverty jobs, he writes:

… for the first time after the industrial revolution, such huge numbers of unorganised labourers, especially women, are coming under the productive sway of large-scale capital.

Although the zones boast of creating 30,000 jobs, mostly for women, many of the women workers interviewed feel that their jobs are failing to help them and their families work their way out of poverty. So they are struggling and campaigning to turn their jobs into the potential they promise – to be a path for poverty reduction for themselves, their households and their communities.

Of national labour laws:

… there has been enormous pressure on the government of Kenya to trade away workers’ rights, in law and in practice, for a place in the global economy.

Pressure has also been coming from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. The two institutions, which were major sponsors of the EPZs, have advised the government of Kenya to adjust their labour laws to meet sourcing companies’ demands. This conveys an unspoken message: Labour standards should be defined not by governments, but by market forces.

This creates horrendous conditions for workers, who among other practices are forced to work extensive unpaid overtime. This is slavery:

Workers are forced to sign-out for official records and then remain locked in factories to meet the ‘targets’.

And of US trade and purchasing practices:

The third taboo subject relates to trade policies of the US government and their corporate courtiers who are the sourcing companies from Kenya’s EPZs. Take textiles for instance. Under AGOA, Kenya is expected to attain sustained and competitive domestic production of cotton by 2012. 2012 is the sunset date for the exception under the rule of third party origin. Thus for Kenya to continue exporting apparel products to the US, the cotton used from 2012 must originate from Kenya. The idea of producing cotton domestically is a good one. But this assumes that all cotton producing countries or those with the potential for production like Kenya are collectively governed by the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. This aspiration is silent on America’s trade-distorting domestic subsidies which amount to about US$3.8 billion or 80-90 per cent of total US support for cotton. Domestic subsidies also make up almost all of the European cotton subsidies. The over-subsidy of cotton by the US (held at ransom by big corporations and its domestic farm barons) has been a taboo topic not only in AGOA but also within the WTO circles. During the WTO meeting in 2005, the African Ministers had demanded that 80 per cent of domestic subsidies for cotton be eliminated by the end of 2006, and the rest within a few years. There has been no move on this subject. It is a taboo subject that received not even a mention from the US President Obama during his most recent trip to Ghana.

Phil Vernon of SOLID and Pamoja Tunaweza, reports regarding the Kenyan EPZs:

When Kenya allowed EPZs in the textile industry, the home-grown textile industry collapsed and workers were forced to take jobs in the zone where conditions are horrendous: harder work, less pay, brutal quota systems, no sick care, no sick leave, no maternity leave, extensive sexual harassment. Workers know what time they begin in the morning, but not what time they end.

If you scroll down the Pamoja Tunaweza page, you will find a slide show of pictures revealing more about working and living conditions with the EPZs.

Steve Ouma Akoth tells us the attitude towards labour of US corporations operating in Kenya, and in other countries under AGOA is simple:

Make it flexible and make it cheap. …
The companies’ toolkit includes hiring more vulnerable workers who are less likely to organise – women, often immigrants into the urban centres – and intimidate or sack those who do try to create trade unions and stand up for their rights.

Firoze Manji writes:

With China, India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Russia and other emerging powers competing for access to Africa’s natural resources, including oil, there is little doubt that the US belligerence during the era of the Bush junta has potentially created conditions favourable to the new players. Clinton’s visit is directly related to seeking to protect and advance American corporate interests in oil and natural resource exploitation in Africa.

However, as reported by Reuters: China, others shove US in scramble for Africa

A presidential visit followed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s African tour cannot conceal a stark reality: China has overtaken the United States as Africa’s top trading partner.

Chinese labor practices also involve horrendous slavery conditions. But these are the way China practices business at home. This is capitalism without democracy.

In Sudan China focuses on oil wells, not local needs.

Andrew Small, a China specialist at the German Marshall Fund, a public policy institute, points out that many of Beijing’s worst practices in Africa today stem not from colonialist attitudes, but from China’s own level of development. “Every mining disaster in Zambia, forced resettlement around [Sudan’s] Merowe dam,and corrupt deal with government officials, has its counterpart in[China’s] Dongbei, the Three Gorges dam, Shanghai, and elsewhere,” he points out.

“There is an attitude among many Chinese that Africa – like Asia decades before – is primed for a developmental take-off … making it a business and investment opportunity rather than just a benighted part of the world that needs to be saved or solely a repository of natural resources,” he says. “[China] will be in the unusual position of being both a superpower and developing country for some time to come, with parts of the Chinese interior having far more in common with Africa than with the West.”

True, perhaps, but the colonial comparison itself is meaningless, says Robert Rotberg … the Chinese are stripping thecontinent of raw material as fast as they can and are fairly ruthless about bringing their own laborers for projects and ignoring locals.

And more from Firoze Manji regarding the breathtaking arrogance of the US Africa Command:

And that brings us to the third dimension. This visit is also about negotiating for AFRICOM to have greater presence in Africa. It is hardly a coincidence that just as Clinton begins her junket, so AFRICOM announces its MEDFLAG initiative in Swaziland.

‘African Command’ does not mean Africans in command, just as the African Growth and Opportunity Act is not about growth and opportunity for Africa, but rather for US corporations. Security is high on the agenda. But it is the security of US corporate interests that is at the heart of Clinton’s agenda, not human security, the security of ordinary people to thrive, to be secure that their children will be safe from impoverishment, secure in the knowledge that they will be able to work; and working, to transform their world to serve the interests of humanity, not the narrow interests of a minority in the North.

There is no democracy in the institution of the Africa Command, as there is no democracy in the trade practices described above facilitated by AGOA. America’s advantage is as an example and advocate of democracy and human rights. When the US undermines democracy and human rights, as with the labor practices in the EPZs, it undermines its own advantage in Africa. Although Bush did enormous damage to the US brand, it may be possible to recover, but only if the US practices some of the democratic and human rights principles it preaches. Being poor does not mean people are blind or stupid. They know when they are being cheated and abused. As Steve Ouma Akoth points out:

People who sell their labour have certain inalienable rights. These rights are premised on the fundamental belief that human beings are entitled to a dignified life. Therefore, working conditions must satisfy the minimum requirements of dignified existence. And this is a fundamental principal in the International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions. It is on this logic that ILO prohibits any form of slavery, servitude and forced labour. The practices above and sexual harassment that constitute the trademark of EPZs in Kenya are coming under microscopic scrutiny due to the value attached to human dignity.

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Added September 18, 2009:

I made some updates and corrections above as advised by Phil Vernon in the comments. He also recommends reading:

Manufacture Of Poverty

Abstract:
In its advocacy for worker’s rights, the Kenya Human Rights Commission’s research into Women Working in Precarious Conditions in Export Processing Zones confirms the negative effects the conduct and actions of these key non-state actors have on human rights. Hence, justifying the need for monitoring by civil society in this new world order, where private corporations exercise inordinate influence over local laws and policies. With the decline in state authority, focus must therefore be turned to those sectors that have filled the void. The conduct and actions of these non-state actors have a direct impact on human rights ranging from violations of workers’ rights to environmental degradation.

Commonly hired on short-term contracts – or with no contract at all – women work at high speed for low wages, in unhealthy conditions, and they are forced to put in long hours to earn enough just to get by. Most get no sick leave or maternity leave, few are enrolled in health schemes and almost none have savings for the future. The insecurity of these jobs is not only material: they work under threats of sexual harassment. Traditionally, women are the care-givers in the home – raising children and caring for sick and elderly relatives. Women are still forced to play that role even when they have become cash-earners. Doubly burdened, and with little support from their governments or employers to manage, the stress can destroy their own health, break up their family lives and undermine their children’s chances of a better future.

The result? The very workers, who are the backbone of export success in many developing countries, are being robbed of their share of the gains that trade could and should bring. The impact falls on poor communities in rich countries, too, where workers employed in competing trade sectors likewise face precarious conditions. Many workers in the Kenyan Textile Industry feel worn-out after several years of hard work.

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