Power and Pain: Worker Organization and Workplace Safety in Southern Africa
An Interview with Rene Loewenson
Rene Loewenson, an epidemiologist, is director of the Training and Research Support Center, in Harare, Zimbabwe. She has worked as Senior Lecturer in Community Medicine at the local medical school, headed the Health & Social Welfare Department of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, and coordinated African and Southern African regional programs on health. She has carried out numerous consultancies for government, trade unions, business organizations, the United Nations and the World Bank. She is author of or contributor to 20 books or published reports and 32 scientific papers in internationally refereed journals.
MM: What are the legal protections for health and safety for workers in Southern Africa?
Rene Loewenson: Essentially, there are two kinds of legal frameworks. One is the Factories and Works Act, old British legislation that emanates from the 1920s and covers mainly industrial workers. These laws do not cover agriculture, small enterprises, the informal sector or civil servants -- which are the bulk of the work force. The mining sector tends to be covered in separate legislation. In countries operating within this framework, you have a highly fragmented set of legal protections that generally leave most of the workers out.
Other countries have progressed toward a more modern legal framework, under Occupational Health and Safety Acts. These are essentially drawn from ILO [International Labor Organization] conventions, tend to cover most workers, don't differentiate whether you work in industry or agriculture, and incorporate far more tripartite approaches.
Law on paper and law in practice, however, are two totally different things in Africa. You can have very nice pieces of legislation, and almost zero enforcement at the local level. Even countries that have moved to new legal frameworks may have incredibly weak enforcement systems.
MM: What accounts for the difference in approach?
Loewenson: There are a number of factors. Whether a country decided to move from an old to a new legal framework depends to some extent on the complexity of their preexisting laws. For example, ironically, a country like Zimbabwe, which has a more highly developed set of regulations, might find it more difficult to move from the old Factories and Work Act system to the new Health and Safety Act system. It also depends a bit on the administrative framework, how issues of health and safety are divided between ministries of health and ministries of labor, and other ministries. It depends on the economic level. It depends on the level of state infrastructure. It depends on the strength of the trade unions. It depends on the level of professional development.
But there are other differences that are partly political and partly economic. For example, even countries with the same legal frameworks may set very different penalties for breech of those frameworks. In the region, a penalty in South Africa may be more than 50 times higher than the penalty in Zambia or Tanzania. In part that relates to the pressure from workers. It also relates in a way to the strength of the currency. Some of these penalties may have been set some time ago, and the money will have devalued but the law will not have kept the pace with the value of the currencies. You can get ludicrous situations where the penalty for an act of negligence that leads to the death of a worker amounts to less than $50.
There are other factors, as well: how open the country is to tripartite negotiations, how much power the workers have had in terms of influencing the system directly or indirectly.
MM: To what extent are these legal protections enforced?
Loewenson: It varies between countries and within countries. In the small enterprise and agriculture sectors, sectors that haven't had a strong tradition of health and safety legislation, both the inspection system and enforcement is much weaker. …