analysisBy Mary Karugaba
Kampala — UNTIL recently, Uganda has been using former Ugandan president Idi Amin's 1970's decrees for its labour policies. Although Uganda has new policies on investments, Amin's labour policies were still in use until 2000 when the Government changed all decrees into Acts without debate.
Parliament has finally passed new labour laws. The Minister of Gender, Labour and Social Development, Bakoko Bakoru, says at least the workers and employers will live to remember her for this achievement. "I have fought so hard to see these labour bills become laws."
Bakoko said although Uganda is a signatory to a number of international conventions that relate to labour, labour market and work environment, harmonisation of the labour laws within the country has been long over due.
Uganda's status on labour laws
It was not until the US government threatened to scrap it from the list of the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) beneficiaries that something had to be done.
Bakoko noted that the existing laws were obsolete and do not address the challenges and needs of the new work environment and modern labour market. This, they say, explains the rampant strikes at places of work, increased forced and child labour and poor working conditions.
What are labour laws?
These are different laws that deal with issues that affect workers and employers at the work place. They include the Employment Law, the Occupational Safety and Health Law, the Labour Unions Law and the Labour Disputes.
Each of these Bills at least tackles almost all areas of work. However, it was the employment bill that sets basic standards (terms and conditions) of work that dominated discussion during presentation.
What the law says about:
Despite the provisions of the penal code on sex-related offences, the MPs noted that employers still use their positions to sexually harass their employees, especially women.
Bakoko complained that words like 'carpet interviews, carpet promotions, carpet certificates' were coined to explain the extent of the situation.
The law says an employee shall be sexually harassed if the employer directly or indirectly makes a request to the employee for sexual intercourse, sexual contact, uses language whether written or spoken of sexual nature, uses visual material of sexual nature or shows physical behaviour of sexual nature.
Although the employers' representatives while debating the bills requested for provisions to cover cases where an employer is also sexually harassed by an employee, the MPs declined saying such situations cannot be termed as harassment because it does not involve the use of power or force.
In cases where it happens, if not on mutual understanding, the employer has the powers to take administrative action. The law empowers the employees who are sexually harassed to lodge their complaints to the labour officer who would take action against the employer.
The law also demands that an employer who employs more than 25 people should have an in-house sexual harassment regulation to prevent the acts from occurring at their work place.
Whereas in the past women were entitled to six weeks (42 consecutive days) of maternity leave, the law now gives them a minimum of 60 working days of maternity leave excluding Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays. The women are free to either get it before or after birth. The privilege is also extended to women who miscarry. However, this does not stop women and other trade unions from negotiating for more days from their places of work.
The International Labour Organisation Convention, gives women 90 consecutive days of maternity leave.
However, there were divergent views on the reasonable period that is sufficient for maternity leave. Whereas the legislatures thought women should be given enough time to recover from the pregnancy and labour, the employers argued that women should not be allowed to get pregnant at work places because they reduce on production. They said if they did, they should be given only eight weeks. But the MPs said that was not sufficient. They argued that when pregnant women are subjected to heavy work, they get maternal complications that have resulted into several cases of death.
For the first time the law has given men the freedom to take care of their wives at home after birth. It entitles them to a minimum of four days paternity leave per year. Although the controversy was on polygamous men, the Speaker had to rule that paternity should not be looked at how many wives a man has, but at the angle of children born. That means that whether a man has more than five wives and all of them give birth in the same year, he is entitled to paternity leave for each of the child.
The women though argued that men did not deserve it because many are irresponsible, the men insisted that it was their right also to have leave. The women MPs and some employees were wondering whether men would really utilise that time to take care of their wives.
Although other East African countries have got a minimum wage, Uganda is still battling with the issue. The MPs call upon the Government to announce a statutory minimum wage that should not fall below sh75,000. They said the current minimum wage of sh6,000 was set in 1984. The minimum wage is fixed by the Minimum Wage Advisory Board, appointed by the Minister of Labour who asks the President to enact it.
However, the Workers' MP, Bruno Pajube, expressed disappointment that although the issue was presented to the President over and over again, the President has not taken action saying "it is not necessary."
Entitlement to wages
The law demands that unless there is prior arrangement through an agreement with the employer on issues of payments, an employee should be paid in legal tender at his place of work.
However, in cases where an employee is imprisoned or absent without the employer's permission, the law demands that he should not be paid for that period.
Death of an employee
In case an employee dies during the term of a contract of service, his heir or legal representatives should be entitled to the wages and any other remunerations due to him at the date of death.
However, in case the employee dies while at work or while travelling to his place of work, the law requires the employer to transport the body to the place of burial.
The law says a child under the age of 14 should not be employed in any business, undertaking or workplace except for light work carried out under supervision of an adult aged over 18 years and does not affect his or her education.
The law empowers any person who is concerned about the child's welfare and sees that the child is working in unsuitable conditions, to report the case to the labour officers in their districts.
The MPs observed that in addition to legislations on labour, there is a need for an employment policy and systematic programmes by the Government to address unemployment problems. They recommended that government comes up with a policy to deal with unemployment issues.
They criticised foreign investors who hire skilled and unskilled migrants even when such skills are locally available.
However, even though the laws are now in place, workers MPs are worried that implementation will be a challenge. But they hoped that through the public sensitisation, the workers would demand for their rights.