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The agony of the Sierra Leonean worker

By Fasalie Sulaiman Kamara

Events in recent weeks and month show that Sierra Leonean workers are not protected. The country's labour force seems to be at the mercy of their employers who ensure the employees comply with their responsibilities but do not bother to guarantee their rights. And they do so without consequence because there is no detailed recent labour law protecting workers.

In 2010, the then Minister of Labour, Hindolo Trye was quoted in several local media during a strike by workers at African Minerals in Bumbuna as saying that “Sierra Leone  labour laws are old and outdated .The country is still depending on the 1971 labour laws”. He continued that Sierra Leone had never developed a labour policy.

A few weeks ago, National Power Authority (NPA) workers protested against their management over poor pay and conditions of service. Among other things, they complained of such things as basic as safety gears, delay in payment of salary, end-of-service benefit, promotions, allowances, etc. NPA workers even called for the dismissal of the General manager Dr. Zubairu Kalokoh and the Human Resource Manager Edlen Elba.

Three weeks ago, dockworkers protested against the re-election of their president, Abdul Kanasieu and his executive. They complained about poor conditions of service and that the president was not seeking their interests. Among their grievances were that some of them had worked as Casual Workers for ten years without being tenured as they should have, unavailability of safety and protective gears, delay in payment of salaries and their NASSIT contributions.

Like the dockworkers and the National Power Authority staff, the Freetown Waste Management Company workers protested for not being paid their salaries for up to three months. They also complained about the poor conditions of service under which they are engaged. They complained about their NASSIT contributions not having been paid for 17 months., which is not only wicked but a breach of the act the set up the social security outfit.

The waste management workers also complained that since the signing of the takeover agreement between Freetown Waste Management and Masada for the management of waste in the city, neither City Council nor Masada had spoken to them. "We have been dumped like the waste we manage" Mohamed Kamara, a senior driver aptly described their condition while speaking to me during the protest.

The Freetown Waste Management workers were not saved even by the labour union that purports to protect their interests and rights, the Sierra Leone Health Services Union. "Each one of us pays Le 20,000 every month, totalling Le 20 million per month” says Shaka Bangura, a sub steward. He continued that the Mayor visits the works ward daily but seems not to care about them.

This is the situation with many workers in Sierra Leone both in the public and private sectors. The other day two casual workers were killed by a machine at LEOCEM cement factory. After compensation during the burial, nothing has been heard about them. In 2010, workers at Bumbuna, working for African Minerals protested for a pay rise. During the scuffle with police, a lady lost her life and several others were left injured. After the one-off compensation made to the victims or their family in the case of the deceased nothing has been heard about them.

It seems as if the Sierra Leone Labour Congress and its partners are dead while alive. Either because of political affiliation or what one social commentator called “protectionism” - protecting their selfish interest. The labour unions do this with no compunction. That is cheating, you know - receiving money for a work that you are not doing or at least not doing properly.

Sometimes, some of the labour unions should not really be blamed. Sounding frustrated, Ansu Rashid Kalokoh, Secretary General of the Health Services Union told me in an interview that “it seems as if no authority is ready to listen to us”. Health Services Union is the substantive union protecting waste management workers.  Kalokoh continues thus: “We have written several letters to City Council, Strategic Policy Unit at State House but none of them are ready to listen to us”, adding "We have even matched to State House twice".

Article 23 of the 1948 universal declaration of human right states thus: "Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protect against unemployment.

"Everyone without any discrimination has the right to equal pay for equal work.

"Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worth of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other member of social protection

"Everyone has the right to form and to join the unions for the protection of his interests."

Sierra Leone is a member of the United Nations and has adopted the 1948 UDHR which now forms part of our laws. The country is therefore under obligation to respect the letter of the law. In meeting our international obligations and in the interest of our citizens, the country has a whole ministry dealing with employment labour, industrial relations and social security. Whether the ministry is meeting its obligations is another issue altogether.

Because the Ministry of Labour has not come out with a single statement in all the industrial actions mentioned nor taken any position, the ministry of labour and industrial relations is becoming more and more relevant especially under the current leadership of Dr. Matthew Teambo. This is in direct contrast to the president’s pledge to address the soaring unemployment and underemployment in the country.

President Koroma has made several promises to address unemployment. Hardly has this been translated into reality. And those who through some means have managed to land jobs, are having their labour rights trampled upon almost at will. As US President Barack Obama during his first visit to Africa said, “Africa needs strong institutions not strong leaders”. President Koroma hardly has any policy or law being implemented which indicates for a moment that his government is serious about employment issues in the country.

There is a popular cliché that "silence means consent". Therefore, government's continued silence on the strikes at NPA, the dock and the Freetown Waste Management indicates their acquiescence in this mistreatment of workers in public institutions, let alone private employers.

“I worked for 21 years at the Sierra Leone Ports Authority and I was paid Le 9.5 million with no NASSIT benefit during the Bollore takeover”, complained Sheka Bangura, a dockworker residing at No. 22 Palmer Street in Willington. He said that he worked as a casual staff for years. "We were promised three packages none of which were given to us".

As a result of the protest action staged by the dockworkers inside their compound, police arrested and locked up their chairman, Sulaiman Kamara and other members of the group for what the police referred to as "illegal gathering".

During the Marikana mine strike in South Africa, President Jacob Zuma visited the mine site and promised a thorough investigation into the matter. He also condemned the high-handedness of the police.

A 2010 labour report by the International Labour Organisation indicates that Sierra Leone does not have an up-to-date Labour Law and the country has a minimum wage of Le 21,000. Business Insider also published wages around the world and put Sierra Leone to be the lowest at $ 0.03 a day compared to Australia whose minimum daily wage is $ 16.88 a day.

Though the 2014 budget indicates an improvement in wages for public workers, it does not in any way reflect on these workers. That is not to say the venture is not laudable. It is a good thing for government to increase the salaries of public workers. But it has to be made implementable and enforceable by promulgating a law that backs this up. What the government should actually do is to come up with instruments in Parliament so that it can benefit every worker. If this is not enforced how can we hold the government to account for this? Except perhaps during the 2017 or 2018 general elections which are a long way away, you know.

(C) Politico 19/12/13