Kenya: Women Workers at the Nzoia Sugar Company

Miriam Wanyama is a member of the Kenya Union of Sugar Plantation and Allied Workers (KUSPAW), and an active participant in the IUF Global Sugar project in Africa. Recently, she took the challenge to document relevant issues that the women workers in Nzoia Sugar Estate face. The following report is based on information compiled by Miriam.

The work force in the sugar sector in Kenya is overwhelmingly male. There are several factors, described below, that explain the low number of women workers in the sector.

In 2013, Nzoia Sugar Company employs 1,246 workers, and only 159 are women or 12.8 percent of total employees. (See the chart below for distribution of employees by departments.) This skewed distribution is more noticeable when dealing with heads of the different departments: there is no woman leading any of the Nzoia eleven departments; no woman sits in the board. (In the country’s sugar sector, there has never been a women as managing director either.) Most women are found in low-skilled jobs, especially clerical occupations, and in farm operations. For instance, the company employs some 1,400 weeders, and it is estimated that more than half of them are women. (Nzoia also employs on a contract basis some 5,000 cane cutters, and another 200 under temporary arrangements.)

By interviewing some women, Miriam found that:

  •  Most of them have managed to go to school and improved their skills, but they have not gotten any job promotion after that. There is a negative social attitude towards women at work, by which  they are to take certain jobs, while men are supposed to take others. For example, the company does not have a male nurse but neither has any female driver. Nonetheless, women feel that they can also take the better jobs men do, if given the opportunity.
  • Sometimes male workers say that some jobs, for instance factory work, are “very complex for women.” This is reinforced by a common attitude in the community that discourages girls from taking an education that may lead them to engineering jobs. Some women gave examples: in 2013,  there was an opening for a supervisory position in a department that never had women employees, besides a secretary. Women thought it was an opportunity, but the common opinion was that women cannot do such job, and a man was hired. Another case is a woman  employed on a temporary basis for more than 4 years, without being offered a permanent contract. Yet, another      example is a woman mechanic, also on a seasonal contract, despite the demands from the union for the company to employ her on a permanent basis.

These observations along with Miriam’s talks with some women workers lead to general comments regarding the challenges that they face at work.

Working tools: Nzoia as Sugar Company does not have tools designed for women, like the case of motorbikes that are huge and not women-friendly, which makes female field officers to rely on male colleagues to offer them rides to the fields.

Lack of day care facilities: Women usually play multiple roles in their families and communities. Young mothers, for instance, face wage losses because they have to attend to domestic problems. (Some of them have even decided to have no more children.) This relates to another issue: it is accepted that female employees request more leaves of absence from work than male workers, which then portrait them as “unreliable workers.”

Miriam and her kids.

Miriam and her kids.

Sexual Harassment and Sexual Favours: Some believe that a woman can only be promoted, if she acquiesces to intimate relations with men in more senior positions. The issue is so challenging that some marriages have been broken.

Cost of technical training: Most women are in low-paying jobs and cannot afford the cost of training.

Working conditions and work environment. An example is a department where women with young children were put on night shifts. When some of us, women, argued their case, we were told that we were denying them (the women) the opportunity to advance, because they have to work like men. Therefore the women were pushed into a position of having to choose between their babies and their career advancement.

Community and social stereotypes: There is a common belief in the community around Nzoia that a woman’s place is in at home and in the kitchen; and, besides, there is a kind of taboo that women cannot compete with men. All these make some women to be reluctant to try for and take up jobs which are believed to be for men.

HIV/AIDS and other illnesses: Women are usually the care-givers in their families, and when HIV/AIDS strikes, it is they who take care of the sick. This then becomes an statistic saying that the woman has been absent from work, reinforcing the image of women as “unreliable workers.”

 Nzoia Sugar Company Limited

Employees in 2013

 

Department

Female

Male

Employees

% of Females

Union

Total

Union

Total

Human Resources

20

38

54

76

114

33.3

Finance

19

34

51

91

125

27.2

ICT

2

7

14

22

29

24.1

Sales & Marketing

1

5

7

11

16

31.3

Purchasing

1

7

3

9

16

43.8

Factory

1

4

113

146

150

2.7

Production

7

12

115

154

166

7.2

Agriculture

14

31

163

241

272

11.4

Agriculture (Services)

5

10

182

232

242

4.1

General Administration

1

6

79

93

99

6.1

Internal Audit

1

1

1

6

7

14.3

Public Relations

0

4

2

6

10

40.0

Totals

72

159

784

1,087

1,246

12.8

Permanent link to this article: http://www.iuf.org/sugarworkers/kenya-women-workers-nzoia-sugar-company/

4 comments

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    • Miriam Wanyama on September 30, 2013 at 7:33 am

    Quite true Comrades!!! Special regards to Jorge Chullén the IUF Global Sugar Coordinator for making me and others specialists in Women issues.

    • Beatrice Mainya on October 2, 2013 at 2:22 am

    The Women Workers situation in Nzoia Sugar Company is wanting.Miriam’s research is very true.We call upon IUF sugar for more sensitization to change the attitude in both Men and Female workers.We know the work IUF has already done through Jorge Chullen.I attended the Ad-hoc meeting that IUF Global Coordinator organized in our Company in April 2013 and I know he has good plans for us.We are ready to volunteer any information that will be used as a basis to make Nzoia a better place for all.Thanx Jorge and IUF.
    Beatrice Mainya, KUSPAW, Nzoia, Kenya

    • Anne Wafula on October 9, 2013 at 1:50 am

    I want to take this opportunity to thank IUF Global Sugar and the co-ordinator Jorge Chullen for the work he has done in Nzoia Sugar Africa at large.Actually,the is light at the end of the tunnel.I know with your support Jorge Nzoa is going to be the best working environment.Thank you.

    • Nelisiwe Nxumalo on October 19, 2013 at 7:17 am

    Inspiring article Miriam keep up the good work!! Viva Cde Miriam Viva!

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