Monday, June 24, 2024

The unseen struggles of migrant workers

Imagine, for a moment, being a woman who comes to Botswana on the promise of having a job and starting a new life. Then imagine being told to work as a helper without a salary for almost a year. Then being dismissed from work without any form of remuneration. This is the pain that 24-year-old Agnes Ponde from Zambia had to endure upon setting foot in Botswana.

These might be sobering stories, but they are definitely not isolated ones. Agnes’ issue is one of many other examples of the exploitation taking place in Botswana against migrant workers who arrive with dreams and end up dejected and hopeless. While Agnes was excited upon arrival, she had no idea that she would be totally exposed to her boss who treated her like an indentured labourer.

Immigrants comprise a sizeable portion of Botswana’s population. A number of them have become Botswana citizens and migration has become a permanent feature of the labour market. Whilst a large proportion of these jobs are concentrated in the construction and agriculture sectors, the level of unpredictability experienced in minimum wage jobs is greater. These jobs are essential to the functioning of the labour market, yet they remain undervalued, underpaid and in most cases exploitative.

“The conditions are appalling,” says Dimpho Seboni who represents migrant workers who are hard done-by employers because they are vulnerable. In her own assessment, she says it is not hyperbolic to say the conditions for some of these helpless migrant workers in Botswana are like slavery.

“Some migrants have legal status but other cases hardly make headlines because the people involved are illegal migrants who have no status and their exploitation is invisible. The true numbers of people who are being exploited will never be publicised but the problem is obvious for those who care to look,” she retorts.

Although exploitation is one of the many challenges being faced, other migrants who have settled in Botswana in the last decade rate career opportunities as a problem for them personally.

New migrants, especially from Zambia and Zimbabwe, trying to negotiate Botswana’s limited workforce face a litany of uphill battles amongst them unrecognition of skills and uncertainty of work. Some bulletins published previously offer a cursory glimpse of some of the barriers to entry for newly-arrived migrants in Botswana as well as the difficulties they face once they are in the country. Majority of the migrants indicated that companies will always try to exploit them whenever they can.

Overall, the most noteworthy development identified is that many migrant workers in Botswana are conscious of and know their employment rights, due to the length of time they have lived in the country. Yet on further exploration of this within the focus groups, a picture began to emerge that many of these migrant workers are not in a position to claim these rights. This is attributed to the unpredictability of their jobs, where a culture of rights is not promoted and exploitation is a prevalent problem.

A former law enforcement officer who spoke to this publication on condition of anonymity said it is very difficult to enforce the rights of workers where exploitation is involved.

“There is heavy exploitation that takes place in the underclass especially those who come to Botswana with no documents. Such workers avoid reporting exploitation because it puts them at risk of being deported. Legal and illegal migrants also experience discrimination based on their nationality and some are even offered very low wages. Employers are aware that migrant workers have few options but to accept the job at less than minimum wage,” he said.

The officer also says Botswana has been weak in addressing this area and this has given certain crooked employers thumbs up to continue breaching workers’ rights since they are vulnerable.

A Human Resource consultant who spoke to this publication says exploitation and discrimination of migrant workers is a serious and pervasive issue which should be addressed head on. “If Botswana fails to create a climate in the labour market in which exploitation and discrimination are not tolerated, it will result in the lack of progression and deskilling of migrants. More segregation means it will become difficult in the future for migrants to integrate into the society since it deepens the isolation and inequality migrant workers experience,” says Adams.

She encourages the formation of a labour inspectorate which is not linked to the immigration department whose role is to penalise employers who commit wage theft and expose exploitative practices.

 The Botswana economy is now increasingly being built on an entire strata of the workforce made up of cheap labour from neighbouring countries. The underclass may seem invisible, but it’s there.

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