By Janet Nkasiima
The intention for investment policy frameworks, whether investment agreements, laws or policies is vested within the sole interest to attract, promote and protect investment. These frameworks are anchored within the notions of the Structural Adjustment Programs of privatization, deregulation and liberalization. They extend excessive protection to investors’ rights and interests at the expense of human rights.
For more than “20 years, ‘human rights’ and ‘business’ were rarely used in the same sentence. Human Rights were the business of Governments while companies just had to mind their own business of maximizing profits at whatever cost.” To have an equal future in a COVID-19 world and beyond, the State has an obligation not only to protect and respect human rights, but also to ensure that non-state actors including business entities, respect all human rights. Principle 9 of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights reminds States to “maintain adequate domestic policy space to meet their human rights obligations when pursuing business-related policy objectives with other States or business enterprises through national investment laws and investment treaties or contracts.”
The priority theme of the 65th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, “Women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls”,and the flagship Generation Equality campaign, calls for women’s right to decision-making in all areas of life and end all forms of violence against women and girls, and health-care services that respond to their needs.
Prior to the outbreak of the COVID 19 pandemic, and the responses executed to curb its spread, many big brands in Uganda were reported to be violating the rights of some of the most marginalized individuals in society. With the increasing spread of the pandemic, and the effects of the responses to curb its spread, we predict that this situation could get worse as companies seek to lower their cost of production while paying lesser attention to human rights protection.
Within some of Uganda’s large investments, human rights violations are both intense and extensive. Findings from a recent report published by Southern and Eastern Africa Trade Information and Negotiations Institute (SEATINI) Uganda and Urgent Action Fund reveals that workers, especially women are adversely affected with human rights violations ranging from land grabbing, spending all day with no meal but one cup of porridge a day once in a while regardless of the back-breaking workload, exposure to dangerous chemicals, burns and irritations on the skin and nose during course of their employment in the investment schemes due to lack of appropriate protective gears; very heavy work load involving carrying up to 1,200 kilograms of load a day, whether by a woman or a man; no maternity leave; no annual leave, violation of adequate living rights including housing four or more families in very small rooms, forced cohabitation, among others. These violations occur in some of the country’s most productive and profitable value chains in which high value products on massive demand are produced. Such products include; sugar, palm oil, flowers, cigarettes and cigars, tea, textiles, steel bars, among others.
This situation has been proliferated and aggravated by the existence and absence of appropriate legal frameworks to ensure the protection of citizens against business related human rights violations. We specifically note that the Investment Code Act, 2019, despite recently being amended does not provide for a requirement for Human Rights Impact assessments to be undertaken by investors prior and during the implementation of investment projects.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act, 2006 puts workers in an untenable situation when it includes an exception on the basis of which employers can relegate the responsibility for provision of personal protective equipment to the employees. Uganda has signed a number of Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs), of which 6 of the treaties are in force. The treaties focus on protecting the rights of investors at the expense of citizens. As such, investors have not been held accountable to the acts they have committed in violating rights of people.
As Uganda joins the rest of the world to commemorate the international Women’s Day, we wish to amplify the voices of women workers in factories, and plantation-based investments for better working conditions, we call upon the Government of Uganda that for us to achieve an equal future in COVID19 and beyond, there is need to prioritize the right to dignity and livelihood of women working in these investment schemes.
BY: NKASIIMA JANET- PROGRAM MANAGER
ADVOCACY AND PARTNERSHIPS AT CENTRE FOR FOOD AND ADEQUATE LIVING RIGHTS