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Human Rights

Disabled Forced Into Labour in Zimbabwe

Disabled vendor Veronica Chinyerere, also director and founder of the Zimbabwe Amputees Association (ZAA), at her stall in Harare. Credit: Jeffrey Moyo/IPS.

HARARE, May 5 2014 (IPS) - Workers Day on May 1 came and went, but it’s only a day like any other for disabled 31-year-old street vendor Tsitsi Chikosha making a living selling goods from a makeshift table in downtown Harare.

Chikosha is amongst Zimbabwe’s 1.5 million people living with disabilities, according to figures released by the National Association of Societies for the Care of the Handicapped (NASCOH), an association of non-governmental organisations.

But only two percent of the disabled are formally employed, according to 2012 figures from the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZimStats). About 64 percent are said to be employed in the informal sector. Many among the remaining survive on begging.

Chikosha says she endures the toil partly on behalf of her boss, who uses her disability to evade police action over selling informally on the street.

“This job done by disabled people like me has no sustainable benefits, no one holds our able-bodied bosses to account for any injustices against us because we have no employment contracts,” she says. “Today you may be with him and you wake up tomorrow with another employer.”

Harare City Council spokesperson Lesley Gwindi says the law provides no preferential treatment to the disabled, but that the police are careful when handling less able-bodied persons.

Street vendors are required to get operating licences from local authorities at a cost of 30 to 40 dollars.

“Increasing informal activities here, which are often targeted by local authorities for operating illegally, are resulting in informal dealers hiring people living with disabilities to work for them, believing disabled persons draw sympathy from council cops and save their businesses,” NASCOH executive director Farai Mukuta tells IPS.

“Unfortunately, the continued hiring of people living with disabilities to work for able-bodied persons is resulting in forms of forced labour for physically challenged people. What they earn often does not tally with the workload they bear on the streets.”

Under the Labour Act and the Declaration of Rights in this Southern African nation’s Constitution, an employee is entitled to protection from forced labour.

Labour relations experts say street vending is widening the gap between able-bodied people and those living with disabilities.

“More often than not people living with disabilities enter into employment as vendors for able-bodied persons without signing any employment contracts, spurred by extreme poverty,” labour expert Agrippa Govere tells IPS.

“They have no basis to lodge any legal complaints against their employers because they are hired from the streets, and they therefore sink deeper and deeper into poverty as their employers get richer and richer.”

Often, Govere says, “people who employ disabled persons are neither regular business persons nor registered entities and are therefore difficult to hold to account if the need arises.”

Director of the Zimbabwe Amputees Association (ZAA) Veronica Chinyerere says the disabled are severely underpaid.

“Owing to extreme poverty here, people living with disabilities are falling prey to exploitation by able-bodied persons, who often reward them with food, give them a dollar (a day) for their services and another dollar for transport home,” Chinyerere tells IPS.

Erasmus Chikukwa, a dealer who hires disabled vendors, disagrees.

“Really you can’t expect us to share equally our earnings with our employees from what we sell through these disabled people who apparently have no sources of income, but thrive on the informal jobs we give them,” Chikukwa tells IPS.

According to ZAA, more than 500 hired disabled vendors are ferried daily from remote areas to Harare to work for able-bodied persons.

But there are disabled self-employed street vendors like 41-year-old Rudo Mapaso who are not forced into labour. Well-wishers gave her capital to kick-start her vending ventures.

“I am my own employer here on the street, selling my own wares although I often have problems with council police who seize my wares accusing me of operating illegally,” Mapaso tells IPS.

Mapaso says that on a good day she takes home 50 dollars, which is enough to meet her needs and those of her child and one other dependent.

Most people living with disabilities are registered with the Ministry of Social Welfare for monthly disability grants of 20 dollars per household. That, they say, is severely inadequate.

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