The harrowing experience of Kenya’s casual workers
By LILIAN KAIVILU
The walk is exhausting and keeping pace with the workers as they literally run to work is a challenge. To kill boredom, the workers talk about their lives and how they sometimes walk all the way to industrial area and come back on foot empty handed because they got there a second too late. If they are lucky to get a job a typical working hours is 6.30 am to 9.00 pm and then the long walk home begins all over again.
The casual workers are generous with information and they admit they are paid between Sh100 and Sh450 per day for jobs ranging from cleaning, picking and packaging green beans, washing, repairing and packaging dry cells. They are paid every Saturday morning either by cash or through the bank. The mode of payment, however, depends on the management of the company.
Although some of these workers are paid at the end of the month, they do not enjoy any other benefits from their employers. A soldier at the entrance of the industries told me that anyone who comes past 7:30am finds the gate closed and that means that there is no job. Although the nature and the terms of the employment are temporary, getting a job in these industries is not a hard task.
At one of the industries dealing in the packaging of green beans, all you need to carry is your National Identity Card, a medical examination report from City Hall, white shoes and a white head scarf. The green beans are then taken to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport for shipment abroad. On the first day I join three ladies in one of the factories manufacturing and repairing dry cells.
“We had been promised the job yesterday by the boss who told us to be here at 7:30am. We have been waiting for him but he has not shown up yet and it is already 8:00am,” said one of the ladies who appeared disgruntled. In fear of losing out on a job for the day, the three young girls, in their late teens decide to leave the industry in search for another job but just as they are leaving Yusuf comes out.
“I have said there is no work today! Come tomorrow. Whatever I have here is battery cleaning assignments and I have already found six other people to do the job,” thunders the man as he locks the door to the workstation. Disappointed, the three young girls leave to try their luck somewhere else. They, however, claim that the man is famous for deviance and intimidates female job seekers who decline his sexual advances.
“This man is like a male prostitute and whenever you decline his sexual advances he does not give you the job. The people he is claiming will clean the batteries are actually his girlfriends,” one of the ladies alleges. I try to talk to the boss just to convince me to give a job at whatever pay but he will hear none of my pleas. “I said there is no job today.
Come tomorrow!” retorted the huge boss. Intimidated by his harsh voice, I leave the company premises but purpose to return. The following day I report at the gate at 7:16am and find a large crowd of people (most of whom are women) waiting for the bosses to arrive. Their job for the day, however, is not guaranteed. At around 7:30am, the gates open and a lady supervisor stands at the entrance.
She checks the workers’ National Identity Cards before letting them in. The criteria of selection, though, is not clear as many of those left out of the list are disgruntled. The supervisor then remains with the workers’ IDs ,which they will collect after work. The premises has several companies inside but my major interest is the dry cells company in which I had been promised a job t yesterday.
I introduce myself at the gate and I am directed to the dry cells company. Even before I introduce myself to him he shouts, “Wewe mama nilikwambia uje jana na haukuja. Hakuna kazi. Toka uende!” (Woman, I told you to come yesterday but you never showed up. Leave now. There is no job for you). After begging for a few minutes he allows me to work but we do not agree on the pay.
He then asks me whether I am married and whether I live alone. He also enquires how much I pay for rent. I tell him that I am married but my husband is jobless and we reside in Nairobi’s Mukuru Kwa Njenga slums where we pay Sh700 as rent. At around 7:48am we start work. The job includes fitting in dry cells components together including the zinc can, insulator and carbon rod electrode.
A pungent smell of chemicals pervades the air in the enclosed and disorganised room but there are no masks, protective gloves and even protective shoes for any of the workers. About four workers are wearing dust coats. Nonetheless, the ladies seem unconcerned about the harzadous conditions and within half an hour, my hands are sticky with black soot.
Resting is a crime but from time to time I sneak in a metallic stool that is nearby. By 9:30am , we have packaged more than 300 pairs of dry cells from fitting the components, arranging them into pairs, putting them in the packaging machine for pairing, packaging into small boxes of six pairs and finally packing them into the cartons. “In a day the eight ladies manage to package at least 200 cartons of dry cells, each consisting of 288 pairs of dry cells,” says the boss after I enquire about the job.
At 9:45am, I am assigned to clean the entire factory. I am not offered any protective gloves or masks. The broom is sticky with soot but I have no option. The irritating black dust was chokes me but the boss seems unperturbed by my predicament and watches me keenly. As soon as I finish sweeping the floor I am asked to collect some zinc cans and pack them into crates.
After a while, I excuse myself to answer a call of nature. The two tiny white rooms that are black due to the soot serve the men and women who work there. The stinking toilets with water on the floor are nauseating. Just after I come from the latrine the boss summones me to the ‘office’ which has a few sofasets and a table. I am unceremoniously fired.
The young man of Somali origin offers me Sh100 and tells me it is my pay for the day. When I ask him how he arrived at the amount he tells me to go ask the boss. “Is this Sh100 for cleaning or for the dry cells section?” I ask, “Go home, that Sh100 is enough for you!” he retorted. I leave. Most of the industries in the area are not labelled thus it is hard for anyone to track them in case of any grievances.
Getting a job here is not guaranteed and job security is at stake. “If someone gets sick, there is no guarantee that he or she will get treated. Although lunch time is given, workers here are not allowed to carry food to work since the employer thinks they might make the place dirty and hence tamper with the consignment,” says a guard at one of the factory gates. He, however, discloses that at times he defies the rule and keeps food for some of the workers but they must eat from outside.