March 8, 2018
Finding paid work is hard in Democratic Republic of Congo. A job in a bar is better than no job at all, but it comes at a price.
KISANGANI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — When 20-year-old Yangonda became an orphan in 2011, she started working at a local bar and moved into her grandmother’s home. Long hours, inconsistent pay and sexual harassment are common for young women working at the bar, says the waitress, who requested that only her last name be used for fear of being fired.
“Customers here have the right to pat my butt, and I have no right to prevent them from doing so, because that’s also part of my job,” she says. “My job is long, hard and dangerous, but I have no other choice.”
Prospects for formal employment are limited in Kisangani, the capital of DRC’s Tshopo province. Without the job, for which she has no employment contract, Yangonda says she would not be able to afford to feed her 91-year-old grandmother.
Bars across the city, often unlicensed, are called “nganda” locally and are popular among residents. But their employees, often women, face poor working conditions, including low pay and sexual harassment. Nevertheless, many stick with their jobs rather than report poor working conditions to local officials, due to fear of being fired, stigma or physical and verbal abuse from employers.
Years of conflict have contributed to high unemployment in DRC. In 2015, the formal unemployment rate was estimated to be 45 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund. Women have faced greater job insecurity and unemployment than men, and many turn to informal, low-paying and sometimes dangerous work to survive.
Sexual harassment and violence is prevalent in DRC, including in the workplace, experts say. One out of five workers in the country have experienced sexual harassment at their jobs, especially domestic-service jobs, according to a 2015 survey from IDAY, an international network of development organizations in Africa and Europe.
While sexual harassment is not a crime here, sexual violence is punishable by law. Rape offenders face five to 20 years in prison or a fine of 100,000 Congolese francs ($64), while those who commit indecent assault must serve six months to five years in prison.
Despite that law, waitresses at bars say bosses and customers continue to commit indecent assault and are verbally abusive. Mungwaka, 29, who requested that only her last name be used for fear of being fired, says she is regularly harassed at work.
“Some customers pat my butt, and I have to serve them with a smile even when I’m not well,” she says.
Others note that they are not given employment contracts to sign before starting their jobs. Informal employment exposes waitresses to inadequate working conditions, including sexual harassment, low pay and health hazards.
Waitresses “are denied their rights with every passing day,” says Jacques Désiré Muzinga coordinator of Société Civile de la Tshopo, a province-wide civil organization.
Yangonda says she works from 8 a.m. until midnight each day and makes just enough money to support her grandmother.
“I earn a paltry 25,000 Congolese francs ($15.90) per month, and I spend it all on some food for my grandmother,” she says.
Ngasado, who also requested that only her last name be used for fear of losing her job, says she works 13-hour days but still does not make enough money to support herself and two children. She has been waitressing at different bars in the city for four years.
“I’m paid 30,000 francs ($19) per month and given a paltry 500 francs (32 cents) a day to pay my food and transport bills,” she says, referring to conditions at her current place of employment.
While many say they endure these working conditions because they cannot find other jobs, local government officials say another reason employees rarely report their employers is concern about being stigmatized by family and community members.
“If a worker is poorly paid by his boss, we’re here to find a solution,” says Dieudonné Epanza, a labor-inspection officer with the local government. “However, we very much regret that when a worker is badly treated by his boss, the worker remains silent and chooses not to report the case.”
Without a signed employment contract, it can be difficult to punish an abusive employer, so some waitresses prefer not to take chances seeking justice.
“Because of the current state of unemployment, they prefer to be treated badly rather than go hungry,” Muzinga says.
Sylvestre Ndahayo, GPJ, translated the article from French.