As her peers prepared for Valentine’s Day on the evening of February 14, Joyce Tuyisenge 21, (not her real name) was preparing to sign off after a 12-hour shift.
“It is hard to believe but I don’t even have a boyfriend because my work schedule makes relationships hard to maintain,” she says.
She endures the pangs of hunger but once she gets home food will be the last thing on her mind — she must wash her uniform for the next day because she works seven days a week.
Although labour laws offer social protection to all workers, life for the majority of the 14,000 security guards employed by 10 security firms is a mockery of not just the spirit but the very provisions of the law.
According to guards, as much as three-quarters of private security personnel are exposed to the worst working conditions, their plight is hardly addressed despite the important roles they play to ensure safety at work and home.
“Nobody cares. Some people don’t even respond when we greet them. What hurts though is that even to the companies that we work for, we don’t exist beyond our daily clock-ins,” says Tuyisenge adding that she does not recall the last time she had a lunch break.
“We work for 12 hours, seven days a week. It is a difficult job, but what else can one do?” she sighs.
According to the labour laws, a person can only work for 45 hours a week, any time beyond that is overtime, which should be compensated for by either a pre-negotiated fee or additional time of rest. Tuyisenge and other guards are working 84 hours a week but they don’t have the power to demand for compensation.
“The law of 2009 says in case of unavoidable circumstances, and the employee exceeds the 45 hours a week, he/she should get those hours back or be paid extra for it,” said Gakuba Damascene, Gasabo District Labour inspector.
He admitted to inability to protect workers when employers violate these provisions.
Lack job security
A guard told Rwanda Today that they lacked job security compared with other workers since those in their profession are treated like informal sector workers.
“Anything, however, small can get you fired, anything. You can be sacked and no one even asks what happened,” he said.
A trade union official attributed the problem to stubborn security companies that do not allow their workers to join trade unions.
“Someone has worked for the past five years without a single day off, but when he or she misses one day, the company fires them summarily. Many contracts are illegally terminated without recourse to justice and this has instilled a culture of fear” said Nkotanyi Abdul, the General Secretary of Private Sector Trade Union.
“Some women tell us they are sexually harassed by supervisors,” he said.
Of the 10 companies, only two have allowed trade unions to represent their employees.
“It’s only Isco and KK Security that allowed us to represent their employees. We have up to 4,000 members, the rest have rejected our requests, although some of their workers work with us independently, we have five ongoing cases for only this month.
“It took us three years to obtain medical insurance for guards in Isco, but we managed to get a deal with Rama,” said Mr Nkotanyi.
High cost of living
With all this toil, most guards earn between Rwf25000 and Rwf30,000 per month, yet many have families making life extremely difficult with the skyrocketing prices of goods in Kigali.
“I walk a long distance to and from work so just to be able to buy soap and a few other necessities, but I still don’t remain with anything. Rent and food takes everything, it’s a difficult life,” another guard confided in Rwanda Today.
For some, even this paltry wage doesn’t come on time, taking as long as three months for a single months’ wage to come through.
According to Mr Nkotanyi, some companies even go on to deduct uniform costs from the meagre earnings of their guards. “It is deplorable” he says.
Security companies are paid between Rwf70,000 and Rwf210,000 for each guard every month, depending on the property guarded and profile of the security company.
This means a security company can earn upwards of Rwf110,000 on every guard every month, if we consider an average of Rwf140,000 income generated by every guard.
While some people blame the absence of a minimum wage for the low level pay, others blame non-compliance on the impunity among some owners of security companies.
Yet, other commentators say employers keep wages low as a ploy to stay below the Rwf30,000 threshold so that they are not subjected to pay as you earn and social security contributions.
“For them it’s a booming business, they make a lot of profits, that’s why they scale up easily, but they are predators, prospering on to blood of their employees” added Mr Nkotanyi.
Judith Uwizeye, Minister for Public Service and Labour said the government wants to revise the current labour law before it passes a minimum wage.
The trade union accused the ministry of failing to enforce fair working conditions under the existing law.
“I have even tried to talk to Ministry of Labour to talk to these companies, but nothing is being done, it is shocking how the ministry doesn’t even have data about security guards,” noted Mr Nkotanyi.
Many guards suffer silently for fear of victimisation because they are not members of the trade unions where they can air their grievances.
“Their terms of service are appalling; many can’t raise their concerns for fear of being fired but we can only talk to the companies because we don’t have enough punitive powers, let us wait for the new law” says Gakuba.