By Mamer Abraham
Despite the enactment of the Labour Act 2017, meant to be a beacon of hope and safeguard against the oppression of workers, many South Sudanese continue to be exploited, sexually harassed and get peanut pay from foreign-owned entities.
One of the arguments that dominated the public domain had been the joblessness of the youth who loiter on the streets of Juba or play dominoes and mouth politics according to the country’s prominent politicians.
This is true because most of the South Sudanese youth are jobless, but little attention has ever looked beyond the reasons why these youth abhor jobs and instead sit back in tea places.
Activists and senior government officials have often attributed the high unemployment rate among South Sudanese youth to laziness and incompetence. While this may be true in some cases, it is wrong to generalize and blame all young people. The officials responsible for protecting the welfare of the citizens should consider other factors that contribute to the issue of unemployment.
In an interview with Galdino Ochama Ojok, the Executive Director of South Sudanese Network for Democracy and Elections (SSuNDE), he stated that low wages of the civil servants contributed a bunch towards corruption as well as exploitation of South Sudanese youth by foreign companies.
Galdino said South Sudan was the only country where foreign companies could violate labour laws as the government remains reluctant to act to bring the lawbreakers to book.
“know we have laws protecting the interest of workers, both nationals and foreigners and these laws are supposed to be followed when contracting or employing employees,” he explained.
“Unfortunately, foreign companies because of the problems within our system, have taken advantage of this and therefore mistreat our nationals.”
He urged institutions to comply with labor laws and the Ministry of Labour to monitor foreign companies operating within the country to ensure their activities align with labor policies.
“So, if we operate within the law, then it will be very rare to find complaints whether, from the employees, it will be very rare to find complaints also from the employers because each one of us will be operating within the legal framework that provides for that particular area of employment.”
The civil rights activist advocated for fair compensation for public servants to enforce laws and combat criminal activities.
“I encourage the government also to give reasonable payment to our institutions especially the security sector institutions so that they uphold the rule of law and so that they are able also to ensure that criminals are put behind bars and they have to answer to their behaviour,” he continued.
Galdino added that most of the foreign companies are allowed to employ foreign nationals at the top echelon but the low-ranking officers should be nationals arguing that most of the foreign investors could even bring cleaners and drivers which he said violated the law.
“In South Sudan, this is not happening, you find even cleaners are being brought from outside. Drivers are brought from outside. Lower ranking positions which are supposed to be occupied by nationals are also brought from outside,” he continued.
“This is not only happening in UAP parse, it is happening across all NGOs where some of us are working like the civil society, you go to international especially international organisations and the UN bodies, you find these practices are happening.”
He challenged the government for not being serious about protecting the interest of citizens and the labour laws.
“So, for me, I accuse the government for this matter, the government is not serious about protecting the interest of its citizens and there are laws passed in that regard, why are they not being implemented? Who is supposed to follow the implementation of those laws, it is the government,” he explained.
The activist claim that junior government officials are often enticed by large sums of money while following up cases, leading to their disregard for citizens’ issues.
“Even those who are put in the Ministry of Labour or those labour officials, lower-ranking who are supposed to follow these and even senior ones, if the pay from the government is not sufficient enough to entice them, they will be enticed by these organisations,” he said.
“They can be given money when they make follow-ups to ensure that the quarters for the nationals are adhered to. If they are given a thousand dollars, a hundred dollars, somebody just decides to say to hell with all of you, I have money to keep my family, you see this? These are things that we need the country to look at, and especially the leadership, the parliament, and all these. They are supposed to be checking on all these.”
Cases of exploitation
Galdino’s comment came after the recent strike of more than 70 workers of the UAP Insurance Company over pay discrimination and unlawful suspension after claiming their rights.
On August 19, 2023, Angelo Kuach Aguer, an agriculture specialist in an opinion article said the government of South Sudan had failed to offer protection to its citizens.
“Yes, entrepreneurship is hijacked from South Sudanese by foreigners, while their government is watching without taking countermeasures against the hijacking,” he stated in his opinion article.
He argued that most of the banks owned by foreign investors cannot accept assets such as land titles to give loans to citizens.
“I once asked Eco Bank staff if I could use my land as collateral to get a loan for growing my business, and he told me it was not possible, hinting that land titles in South Sudan are unreliable,” he continued.
On October 6, the Ministry of Labour ruled in favor of South Sudanese nationals who were on a sit-down strike due to unfair treatment and underpayment.
Undersecretary Mary Hillary Wani negotiated with UAP management and workers to find a compromise. She issued a resolution ordering UAP to reinstate 10 national staff who were fired following their complaints.
“The terminated members of the staff association, both executive and members, are to be reinstated without fail (section 73, sub. (2)(a),” Ms. Wani directed.
the letter also directed the UAP national staff to report back to work with immediate effect, ordered the UAP to review salaries and also to give jobs which were held by Kenyans living in Kenya to South Sudanese nationals.
The ruling was one of its kind despite numerous complaints and resignations of national staff in various foreign companies in the city including some which are yet to reach the public domain.
In June 2022, the managing director of Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) Roba Waqo was dragged to prison over allegations of sexual assault on a female employee but was later released on bail.
Lona James Elias, the Executive Director of the Voice for Change demanded for justice for the survivors of sexual assault.
“We are demanding that the case has to be taken to the court and if the case is not taken to the court, we need reinvestigation of the case. We condemn those who are not adhering to justice; we believe that there is no one above the law,” she said.
The case which was filed by the former Information Technology Manager Bahijah Beatrice ended up without justice after the bail.
Beatrice resigned on May 25th 2022 citing mistreatment, sexual harassment and poor working conditions from Waqo as well as denial of other benefits that were denied national staff by KCB management.
“I further endured following mistreatment over years in the hands of the managing director Mr Roba Jaldesa, unwarranted sexual advances and harassment,” Beatrice said in her resignation letter.
Despite the fact that the Human Resource Managers are supposed to be South Sudanese according to the Labour Act, the KCB management reportedly overlooked the labour law and employed a Kenyan named Ronald Okero as the HR Manager
“There is also a circular from Labour saying that all Human Resource Managers from all foreign banks must be South Sudanese as we speak there is a guy called Ronald Okero – a Kenyan is the human resource manager at KCB,” she revealed.
Mayen Deng Alier, a member of the Transitional National Legislative Assembly emphasized the importance of strictly adhering to the 80% employment requirement for national staff as stipulated in the Labor Act.
“Salary payment gets their list, people doing the same work – why are you paying one person $1000 and you are paying the other one $100, people should be treated equally,” he protested.
He added that some foreigners who were involved in the mistreatment of nationals were protected by some senior government officials whom he termed as “godfathers” adding that the parliament should summon ministers, undersecretaries and generals to remind them about the law.
In June, the Minister of Investment Dhieu Mathok Diing, disclosed that over 300 foreign companies were operating in the country illegally.
This came after the parliament questioned why investment opportunities were given to foreigners instead of capable nationals.
“I have to be clear and frank as a leader and if required I can submit. As I am talking to you now, I have almost 300 foreign companies which are not registered,” he stated.
He disclosed that the illegal companies resisted registration claiming that they were advised by some South Sudanese not to register adding that he had been holding the list of unregistered companies since 2002.
Even after mentioning this grievous violation of the national laws, nothing seems to have been done to these illegal companies.
Impacts on economy
In February, the Vice President for Economic Cluster, Dr. James Wani Igga stated that the economic downturn the country was facing was a result of corruption, discrimination and bribery in the government ministries therefore resulting in the country being rated the most corrupt in the world.
Dr. Igga asserted that the right pill for the abolition of corruption was punishing greedy officials by replacing them.
“We really need honesty by punishing people then others will become honest. If you are the undersecretary within a ministry and your directors happen to make a mistake and you fail to punish them, both of you are corrupt and you are promoting corruption,” Dr. Igga said.
Meanwhile, Daniel Awet Akot; a senior SPLM member warned against what he termed as second imperialism by people from the neighboring countries who were flocking to the country without clear reasons.
Awet stressed the importance of unity that existed during the liberation struggle to confront challenges that currently exist across the country.
“There’s a unity of purpose for us Southerners; we have to maintain it; that’s why we fought for 21 years without money. So, let us work with unity of purpose. This war we fought for 21 years without money; this war we are entering again,” Awet cautioned.
In August, the government unveiled labor regulations that govern employer-employee relationship to address shortcomings evident in the Labour Act, however, the implementation of this act and monitoring of the investors do not seem empirical.
The minister for labour, James Hoth Mai stated that many people risked working without legal documents and hence were vulnerable to claiming their labor rights.
“We are telling our people, please, don’t accept being recruited without a legal document that is called a contract, [but] they are not doing that, and it’s very important,” Hoth said.
The minister stated clearly that the ministry could not be in a position to help in cases where individuals were hired without legal documentation as preferred in the private sector.
“Now, when there is a problem and you run to us here, there is nothing that we can account for that person [the employer] because there is no document,” the minister stressed.
He urged workers not to accept jobs without contracts if they mind their labour rights to be protected.
“Please try to avoid making a contract by yourself; you must have a witness so that you are protected tomorrow by law,” he advised.
In August 2019, Report Focus News reported that the Ministry of Interior was planning to deport 16 Kenyans and four Britons over unpaid taxes and exploitation of national workers.