Counting the Cost of the Coronavirus Pandemic on Workers in Uganda

International Workers’ Day usually has a whiff of celebration around it as workers around the globe are applauded for their different exploits and achievements in the world of work. However, this year, the annual workers’ day came amidstCOVID-19 epidemic. May 1st found some workers receiving their last paycheck while others logged into their emails to find severance letters. It was a public holiday that it once was.

With businesses across the world making cuts to guarantee their sustainability in post-COVID-19 and only a few workers have their job security guaranteed. The pandemic has revealed the numerous injustices at play in the world of work. How can we forget the fact that health workers who are at the frontline of the war against Coronavirus are working overtime to be able to put the pandemic behind us? Some without pay.

In Uganda, efforts to curb the spread of the virus included the imposing of a nationwide lockdown and curfew as well as restrictions on transportation of persons.  This ultimately meant that people who could not walk to work were forced to work from home leaving most of those employed in the informal sector with no alternative source of income. According to a paper on the State of the Economy for Ugandan Women presented at the Uganda Feminist Forum in 2019, women make the majority of the informal sector where the effects of COVID-19 have been felt hardest. Some sectors such as tourism and hospitality completely shut down. Sex workers who earn a daily income were restricted their work as increasingly cross border transmissions are recorded among truck drivers. Since sex work is criminalized in Uganda, they did not qualify to receive government food relief.

In an  online conversation hosted by  Akina Mama wa Afrika in concert with Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung- Uganda  activists looked into the impact of the pandemic on workers in Uganda. The webinar held under the auspices of the Women@Work campaign, a global campaign pushing for decent working conditions for women working in the horticultural sector, saw participants come together to share experiences on the impact of COVID-19 on workers particularly those in the informal economy with a specific lens on women workers.

Janepher Nassali, the General Secretary of the Uganda Horticultural Industrial Services Provider and Allied Workers Union (UHISPAWU), a workers’ union which brings together people working on flower farms in Uganda said “Some of the challenges experienced by flower farm workers include massive layoffs where close to 3500 workers were laid off by March 28th. We are ineligible to receive food relief from the government because we are not considered among the ‘vulnerable poor’. Farms have resorted to having workers sleep on the farm which excludes most women workers who are single mothers without childcare.” The sector thrives on celebratory events throughout the year and given how little the world has had to celebrate since the pandemic, flower farm workers have experienced economic hardship. The sector relies heavily on exporting flowers to Europe which is among the epicenters of the pandemic where lockdowns were announced earlier in the year. Ms. Nassali revealed that the union has embarked on a number of interventions to address the challenges brought about by the pandemic including negotiating with flower farms not to lay off workers but rather reduce salaries and advocating that workers alternate work days. “We were in the middle of finalizing negotiations for better wages and conditions for the workers which we had to halt so we can shift the conversation to addressing the immediate challenges”, she said. Responding to how the needs of marginalized workers such as sex workers can be demanded for, Ms. Nassali said “It is important for sex workers to unionize to harness their power of collective bargaining”.

Dr. Susan Kavuma, an Economist and Researcher at ACODE said “the effects of businesses closing have been felt by the labor market with over 4200 firms closing and subsequently workers losing their jobs while others have had their salaries suspended. We do not have the exact number of workers laid off from these. In the flower industry, 30%of workers have been let go, rarely with a severance package. Entities like Vision Group and Buganda Kingdom have cut the salaries of their employees according to official media reports.” The ramifications of the shift in economic activity include but are not limited to low demand in consumer goods due to reduced incomes, increased use of digital technologies for business as well as low revenue collections for government which will reduce government expenditure. “The food rations provided by the government have been selective with coverage limited to vulnerable people which has left a bigger portion of Uganda’s population which is not considered vulnerable hungry. Without adequate measures from the government, the number of poor people living in Uganda is estimated to increase to 2.5million, not counting those already considered vulnerable. The national budget that was recently passed by Parliament must be revised to cater for the needs of all Ugandans. The budget that was passed was drafted before COVID-19”, she concluded.

Dr. Zahara Nampeewo, a Feminist lawyer and lecturer at the School of Law at Makerere University shared on the gendered effects of the pandemic. “In the absence of mitigation mechanisms by the government, women working in the informal sector may face heightened tensions, financial uncertainties and other pressures which may intensify their vulnerabilities to aspects such as sexual exploitation as a means for survival. We foresee further domestication of women, with women falling back to unacknowledged and unpaid socially assigned roles of care work”, she noted. As many women work from home, the burden of care work continues to fall on them. Beyond fulfilling their employers’ demands, they are also bearing the brunt of caring for school children and their larger families. Dr. Nampeewo further said, “It is important that feminists learn new and uncharted ways of activism and that focus should be put on strengthening women’s agency for them to be able to speak out about their issues of concern in such instances when there is no one to amplify their voice”

While, providing a sectorial analysis of the impact of COVID-19 and the labor rights violations likely to arise during the pandemic, Ms. Naimah Bukenya, a legal officer at the Platform for Labour Action said “While the effect the COVID-19 crisis will have on the formal sector is indisputable, the reality for the informal sector will be severe because people working in the informal economy are vulnerable to impoverishment, hunger and disease while they also lack the necessary social protection coverage and support mechanisms if they lose their livelihood.” The social distancing measures being implemented in markets across the country have left many workers, mostly women unable to work with others forced to sleep in the market following the advice of the president as a way of curbing the spread of the disease to family members. “For domestic workers, not only has their workload increased exponentially without guarantee of increased payment, they are also at risk of violence and harassment”, she added. Regarding the massive laying off of workers, Ms. Bukenya stated “the situation exposes the gaps in the Employment Act 2006 which would have guided employers on how to navigate these turbulent times. The Act is marred with inconsistencies that have rendered employers completely bewildered and unprepared to manage the situation. This has resulted in all forms of misguided and erroneous decisions, including terminating workers without notice, indefinite suspension without pay, suspending the obligation to pay wages while others have tricked employees to consent to change the provisions in the employment contracts”.

The webinar merely scratched the surface on the economic cost of the pandemic and other emerging issues. While it is true that there is trouble in the days that lie ahead, there are plenty of solutions that experts are optimistic can address the challenges. The goal should be to ensure that the recommendations are taken up by policy makers in order to minimize the roll back on the gains for economic empowerment especially for women in Uganda and the continent. How better can we hold our African governments accountable in efficiently combating the pandemic, prioritize the safety and security of all their citizens and ensure sustainability of businesses and jobs so that gains made in the world of work for women and marginalized groups are not rolled back?