The pandemic-induced economic contractions have continued to hit different sectors of the economy, decimate jobs and plunge people deeper into the jaws of poverty.
However, to a large extent, the virus just compounded the pre-existing economic vulnerabilities and shone a light on unforgivable lapses and weaknesses in countries economic policies especially those looking at the vulnerable segments of the population.
A case in point is how Rwanda dragged its feet when it comes to instituting a minimum wage for a decade now, until when the country was caught off-guard by the coronavirus pandemic.
After years of broken promises, the government finally said it would set the minimum wage along with the revised labour law in 2018-and workers especially those in the informal sector waited with bated breath, but again the new law came out without the minimum wage.
Come 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic broke out and its subsequent lockdowns, the first category to face the brunt of the disruptions were the hand-to-mouth low-income earners, many of who lost their jobs and became economically desperate.
The disruptions that followed exposed many low wage earners to exploitation at the hands of employers as the desperation to survive drove them to accept anything they are paid.
As we speak, employers across different sectors are exploiting informal workers, from the house helps, factory labourers, plantation workers among others, by paying them peanuts, taking advantage of the absence of a minimum wage that would be the only instrument hedging low-income earners against such exploitation While the government has considered revising the minimum wage, it is not clear why the law has yet to be amended.
Yet the longer it takes, the more Rwandans like casual labourers suffer exploitation. The more workers remain underpaid. The segregated poverty data that the institute of statistics has been collecting over the years can be a good starting point because that data clearly gives a picture of how a large segment of the population is informally employed and the extent of the exploitation.
Another survey specifically looking at how low wage earners are likely to be facing exploitation especially at this time when the coronavirus pandemic has heightened their desperation, should be conducted, which can be a basis for other possible interventions.
Many of the exploited workers don’t even belong to any workers’ unions because they are not empowered enough. As workers wait for the minimum wage, there is a need for targeted actions by line ministries like the Ministry of Public Service and the Local Government to empower for instance house helps and other vulnerable workers to join trade unions, and also be able to fight for their rights. The injustices towards informal workers take the form of sexual harassment and exploitation, termination without pay, being paid very meagre wages.