Internationally, labour rights are viewed as a key component of human rights as demonstrated in article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that Uganda is a signatory to.
The article states that, “everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment; everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work”.
In addition, article 24 of the declaration says: “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.”
Uganda has domesticated some of these provisions through enacting several labour laws including the Workers Compensation Act, 2000; the Employment Act, 2006; the Labor Disputes (Arbitration and Settlement) Act, 2006; the Occupational Safety Act, 2006; and the Minimum Wages Advisory Boards and Wages Councils Act, 1957, among others.
The legal framework covers, among other aspects, conditions such as contract of service, protection of wages, hours of work, rest and holidays, employment of women, employment of children, and compensation for any personal injury from an accident arising out and in the course of employment. Sadly, although entrenched in law, these provisions are hardly enforced.
It is no wonder that recent reports in flower farms have caused a foul smell in labour rights in Uganda. Flowers are currently Uganda’s third biggest non-traditional export commodity.
The export-driven business is largely recognized for helping develop a landmark regulatory framework that only the export-dominated fish industry with a similar code of conduct has. The Uganda Code of Practice for the Horticulture Sector, 2002, sets strict guidelines for farmers and managers on occupational safety, workers welfare, discrimination, and equal pay.
So, it was shocking when reports surfaced of workers at Royal van Zantans’ flower farm in Wakiso and Mukono districts, mostly women, who were allegedly poisoned by chemicals, with disregard to safety measures. Instead of related laws and support being given or an effort to address the challenges, there were efforts to silence the emerging issues.
These occurrences are supported by a 2012 study by the National Association of Professional Environmentalists on the ‘Impact of the Flower Industry on Environment and People’s Livelihoods in Uganda’ which revealed that large flower farms in Uganda were chemical-intensive with many people working without protective gear.
It further noted that the ecological impact of the chemicals was visible on fruit yields and there was contamination of water sources, among others. This is as result of poor implementation of laws, lack of awareness on different aspects of sound chemicals management, inadequate monitoring, capped with the lack of respect for workers’ rights.
Even with the laws and policy, there are still challenges with enforcement, especially by the relevant government agencies. The incidents at Royal van Zanten have clearly demonstrated the ineffective enforcement of labour rights and the gaps in corporate accountability. Consequently, it is left to civil society organizations to support and defend the rights of affected workers.
This demonstrates the extent to which multinational corporations have captured states. Little work has been done by the state to salvage such capture but, rather, it informs and protects the work of these corporations.
In Uganda, the investor is supreme and profits must be derived at at all costs. The fact is that many businesses in this country operate with disregard to human rights and seemingly above the law.
It is unfortunate that bilateral trade and other agreements are negotiated without regard for the rights of the common man. Many trade deals are not transparent and tend to favour foreign investors. A case in in point is the furore caused in the recent past by the agreements for the oil industry and labour export sector.
As a country, we need to demonstrate commitment to restoring dignity of workers and implementing a human rights-based approach to development than perpetuating impunity in the name of protecting the so-called investors.
The author is the research and knowledge management officer at Legal Aid Service Providers Network (LASPNET).