Thursday, December 27, 2007

Double labor standards?

I am facing something of a dilemma.

When I and my family came back to Cape Verde recently from a long break in our home country Sweden, one of the first thing we did was, naturally, to get acquainted with our new house guards. While I find it a bit disappointing that we need guards at all, it is something I have learned to live with. Crime is on the rise, especially in and around Praia and in the tourist areas, and we have little choice but to adapt. It is sad, but the days when Cape Verde was know as a country virtually without crime seem to be gone.

For various reasons, we decided to change guard company while we were away, and I thought it be a good idea to talk to the crew in order to get to know each other a little and to gain mutual respect. I was both surprised and disappointed of what I learned during our conversations.

First of all, there is no “crew” as such. Actually, there are only two guys, covering a 24 hour guard duty. My first reaction was that this would not be possible, that I must have misunderstood something. That would mean that the have no day off at all; they would have to work 7 days a week, 12 hours per day. But it was no misunderstanding.

Secondly, they told me that they were not entitled to any vacation.

Third, I was told that the company dos not provide any “seguros” – the national health insurance in Cape Verde. This means that they would have to pay the full costs for treatment and medication in case of illness.

For this job, they receive a salary of only 18000 Cape Verde escudos a month (about 240 USD).

To me, this could almost be called paid slavery – something I thought was banned or at least regulated by law in Cape Verde.

As a matter of fact, it is. At least in principle. I have learned that there is indeed a law on labor standards, which covers issues such as minimum wage, maximum number of hours per week and month, vacation and health care. According to this law, I am informed, the guards should normally be entitled to at least one day off per week, and they should have the right to vacation and Seguros.

It appears, however, that the law on labor standards covers only those with Cape Verdean nationality. As the two guards that work for the company that we hire are (legal) immigrants from Guinea Bissau, it seems that they are exempt from this law.

(The situation reminds me remotely of another case from Sweden: A few years ago a Swedish company contracted Lithuanian builders for a construction site in Sweden, and refused to accept the Swedish workers union’s so called collective agreement, stipulating work hours, wages etc for Swedish workers. As a result, the Swedish union, in order to protect the rights that they had gained in Sweden throughout the years, accused the company for “social dumping” and blocked the whole construction site. The construction project was eventually abandoned, even if, in this case, the company actually followed agreed EU rules. Recently, the EU Court of Justice reviewed the case and ruled that the action taken by the Swedish union was against EU regulation.)

If what I have learned is correct, it is hard for me to understand why the Cape Verdean Government would exempt foreign workers from their labor standards. It appears to be both unethical and economically unwise. Is it really a good idea to attract emigrants to jobs in this way, when Cape Verde is struggling with a 24% unemployment rate? I should think not, but maybe I am not aware of the full picture.

So what is my dilemma anyway? I have 24 hour guard duty, so why am I not happy?

Well, on the one hand I don’t think that the guard company’s employment policy is acceptable. It is inhumane to force workers to 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week, without any vacation and without supporting any form of heath care, and I believe that it is highly inappropriate that the company does not to meet Cape Verdean labor standards (even if they, as it appears, are not obliged to by law). I don’t want to be part of that!

My gut feeling is therefore to terminate the contract with the current guard company and hire another one which – as a minimum – follows Cape Verdean labor standards.

On the other hand, I don’t want to put the two guards on the street, making their life even more difficult than it currently is. Like many other migrant workers round the world, they have been forced to leave their home country and their family and friends to try to make a better living in another country. It is quite possible that they will loose their job if we discontinue our contract with the guard company. Maybe they prefer to accept the harsh terms offered by the company, knowing that the option – to be unemployed and/or having to go back to Guinea Bissau – is much worse.

I also have to acknowledge that I am myself a culprit in this whole story, even if I was unaware of the guard’s poor working conditions until recently. One of the reasons that we chose to opt for another guard company in the first place was, naturally, that it was cheaper. Obviously it was cheaper for a reason – and the guards are paying, through inadequate labor rights.

After reflecting further, I realize that it cannot be justified to take advantage of this situation, and (provided that the information I have is correct; I hope not) consequently the contract should be discontinued. Even if it means that it might create difficulties for the two guards in case they will not be relocated to different guard duty within the company. Also – and this is important – I need to let everybody involved know why the guard service is terminated. Hopefully we could thereby contribute to improving immigrant worker’s rights in Cape Verde.

The issue at hand is in some ways similar to the debate on child labor. Most people would agree, I think, that we need to boycott child labor products and services, even if it would mean that some children are put on the street under even worse conditions. The long term negative effects of encouraging an unjust system are worse than short term consequences.

Issues like labor rights and child labor are not easy to deal with. In both cases, however, I believe that the best thing to do is to stop supporting an unfair system, and let as many as possible know about the injustice. Regarding our guard service, I will take action to that end.


marcouk76 said...

Hi, first of all, very nice blog!
I have often thought of going on holiday to Cape Verde as it sounds like an amazing place!

With regards to this post, why could you not keep the 2 guards and just give them the difference in money you would have paid by choosing a more expensive company?

For example, if this company costed you 100 and the next less expensive costs 120, why could you not keep the company which costs 100 and give the 20 monthly to the 2 guards as a gift?

Perhaps I am being a bit naive...

Ulf Björnholm Ottosson said...

Certainly your ideas are worth consideration. We chose another way.