Plight of Women Working in the Transport Industry During COVID-19

Women in transport industry in Kenya
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Image by Flone Initiative

10% of the public transport sector in Kenya is comprised of women. 85% of them work as matatu conductors in the Nairobi Metropolitan area. Most of these women work for more than 12 hours a day, taking home 1,000 to 1200 shillings every day. Like in most economic sectors, the advent of COVID-19 has changed the reality for most of them.

A survey by Flone Initiative conducted in June 2020, dubbed: Implications of COVID-19 on Women Professionals in the Kenya Public Transport Sector, has revealed that 52% of women in the matatu sector have lost their jobs as a result of matatu owners closing down their business due to restrictions imposed to contain COVID-19. These women now depend on the goodwill of their former colleagues for short-term jobs, such as helping other conductors to call out for passengers. This has resulted in an 83% reduction in their daily income as they now take home between 100 and 200 shillings a day. With 55% of them being single parents, most of them are unable to provide for their families. Some who are servicing loans from savings and credit cooperative societies (SACCOs) are likely to default. As a mitigation measure, they are considering moving to cheaper housing, skipping meals and suspending their monthly savings. Being a sector dominated by men, some of their male colleagues take advantage of the situation and ask for sexual favours in exchange for jobs.

Despite direct interactions between women in public transport and commuters, 100% of the survey respondents confirmed that they were physically healthy but not in good mental and emotional state. They reported general anxiety, lack of clarity of thought, and frequent headaches as a result of the loss of jobs, fear of contracting COVID-19, inability to provide food for their families, lack of access to clean water, inability to pay rent, presence of children at home and fear of being caught outside during curfew hours.

30% of the respondents, revealed that they had defaulted on their monthly house rent while 97% cited lack of food and affordable clean as their primary concern. Most of them live in informal settlements and depend on water provided by local private vendors which comes at an extra cost. Further strain in their financial resources has made it impossible to keep up with regular hand washing, sanitizing and observing general hygiene.

Closure of schools that has resulted in children staying at home making the situation financially hard for women in public transport. There is a strain on the food resources at home, especially in cases where the children were beneficiaries of school feeding programs. 2% of the respondents stated that they have to leave their children at their neighbours’ house when they go out in search of work, an arrangement they considered unsafe. Additionally, there is an extra burden on them to purchase data bundles for internet access since their children’s learning materials are currently sent through Whatsapp. Some of the women have sent their children to rural areas to live with relatives to ease the pressure that comes with keeping them in town.

14% of the respondents expressed a general fear of police brutality after the curfew hours. The women revealed that they are sometimes found outside their homes after curfew hours because they do not necessarily live along the routes the matatus they work in operate in. It thus takes them longer to get home after work.

It is high time different stakeholders in the public transport sector rethink their COVID-19 engagement strategy. Some of the recommendations include;

The Ministry of Labour and Social Protection State Department of Labour should expand the COVID-19 cash transfer programme, during this pandemic, to include women in the public transport industry. This Ministry should further provide wage subsidies to employers who hire casual labourers and daily income earners, as is the case in the matatu sector, as well as prioritise tender awards to industries that are able to produce or provide protective equipment such as masks and hand sanitizers. This should make it possible to provide free masks and sanitizers to all public transport workers, who are essentially frontline workers.  

The Ministry of Public Service and Gender should Ensure that all policy and structural adjustments to support sustainable recovery go through robust gender and intersectional analysis, for instance, include women in transport in the Family Promotion and Protection Programme Promote a development recovery and re-integration strategy to cushion families from shocks during emergencies and disasters situation; and Provide psychosocial support, linkages, and referrals to those under distress and publicise available hotlines, for instance, virtual counselling services to COVID-19 suspected cases and referrals for survivors to health facilities through Ministry of Health Helpline No. 719. 

 The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries and the Ministry of Education should control food prices and those of essential commodities to ease the consumption burden on the already strained population and continue school feeding programmes and adapt them to the crisis context by preparing rations for delivery or pick-up.

The Ministry of Water and Sanitation and Irrigation and the Ministry of Health should ensure access to sufficient and affordable water, sanitation, and hygiene services in all informal settlements. These Ministries should further Conduct nationwide training on corona prevention for PSVs. This should involve adjusting cleaning and safety protocols as a public health measure to protect commuters and operators better.  The Ministry of Health should conduct mass testing for women in transport and members of their households as well as ensure that informal workers benefit from the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF).

The National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) should be more proactive in advising the government on the arising issues in the public transport industry and in providing a comprehensive database on women in the public transport sector. NTSA should also spearhead the issuance of health guidelines specific to the public transport industry. NTSA should further.

The Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure, Housing, Urban Development and Public Works should ensure implementation of the two-thirds gender rule in the ministry to increase the role and numbers of women and women’s agencies in decision-making processes, including around prevention and response to COVID-19. This Ministry should further encourage the use of technology in the public transport sector for instance, the current cashless fare payment should continue post-COVID-19 to promote efficiency and hygiene in the sector.

Civil Society Organisations, Labour Unions and activists should Enhance lobbying and advocacy on policy and practice reforms to ensure the government remains accountable in its commitments and deliverables in safeguarding human and labour rights. These institutions should further support the government in sourcing up-to-date data and information on the grassroots on COVID-19 as well disseminating accurate government information. They should also highlight the impact of COVID-19 on the lives of women professionals working in public transport in mainstream media and actively consult and participate in the design of work practices, processes and all healthy safety measures in the public transport sector.

Matatu owners and operators should ensure that workers who are diagnosed with COVID-19 are allowed to take sick leave without fear of losing their jobs or incomes. They should also lobby the Ministry of Labour to enforce Section 34(1) of the Employment Act, 2007 that requires that employers ensure that workers have access to proper medicines and medical care during illness. Women professionals in public transport should form self-help groups and workers organisations to ensure that their voices and roles are amplified in the transport sector. They should also actively vie for positions in the matatu unions and associations so that their issues are represented in these spaces.

Hbs congratulates Flone Initiative for the launch of  the Implications of COVID-19 on Women Professionals in the Kenya Public Transport Sector survey report.