Life on $48 a Month

Eds. Note: This is the second in a series of dispatches from 3L A.J. Frey. A.J. is taking part in W&L Law’s International Human Rights practicum, which includes travel to Tanzania to research a human rights issue. This year, the students are researching labor and employment and workers’ rights, with a special focus on women in the workplace. 

Yesterday, we drove all around the city with our guide, Tesha, making appointments with Tanzanian industry representatives and visiting factories to see if we could talk to workers. The traffic in Dar is in a state of constant gridlock. Cars inch along on the dust-choked roads while mopeds, motorcycles, and bajajs–little two-seater moped taxis–whiz through the gaps. Countless brightly-painted city buses rumble along the main roads pulling into and out of traffic at random intervals to load and unload passengers.

Tesha drove us to one textile factory where we were able to talk to the HR Manager who told us to come back tomorrow to talk to workers. This was not unusual. At nearly every factory we go to we get the run-around from management. They are very rarely willing to let us talk to workers unsupervised, although we can sometimes get to the workers when they’re coming out of a factory during a shift change or lunch break.

Today, we tried that strategy in a neighborhood where many textile and plastics factories are located. We walked along a lane between two huge, walled factory complexes until we came upon a group of people sitting down to eat lunch from a street vendor. The vendor was a young girl serving beans, rice, and stew out of plastic buckets–the kind you might use to mix cement in–onto porcelain plates with little hand-painted flowers on them. Men in coveralls would come from the factories to where we were, order a plate of beans and rice from the girl, and sit on the logs and tires strewn along a wall shaded by trees. We walked up and introduced ourselves to the workers gathered there. We usually  introduce ourselves by saying that we are students, that we are doing research on labor conditions in Tanzania, that anyone can talk to us if they wish, and that our interviews are totally anonymous. Outside of the factories themselves, the workers are always eager to share their experiences. Within minutes of sitting down under the shade tree, we had about ten workers gathered around to talk with us.

The single most common thing we hear from workers is that their wages are too low. The minimum wage here for a factory worker is 80,000 shillings per month, which is about USD $48. Many workers don’t make enough in a day to cover the cost of food and transportation to and from work, not to mention the costs of supporting a family and educating children. Many workers, casual laborers as they are called here, come to the factory each day to see if there will be work and are turned away because there are more workers than available jobs to do that day. Workers worry that if they take time off of work to care for sick family members, there will be no job waiting for them when they return. Above all though, it’s the cost of living on meager wages in this surprisingly expensive city that causes them the most worry.

Like many cities in developing states, Dar es Salaam is a study in contrasts between extreme wealth and poverty. While one of the factory workers we talk to might pay 10,000 to 20,000 shillings (USD $6-$12) per month for housing, monthly rent for an apartment on the peninsula, where most of the expats and diplomats live, is USD $2000-$3000 per month. The income inequality is evident on the roads as well, where ancient, lumbering buses packed full of people sit snarled in traffic alongside mint-condition Range Rovers and the occasional H2. As an American coming here from a country where income inequality has been a topic of note lately, it’s arresting to see just how wide the gap between rich and poor can be.

Along with being economically diverse, Dar is a cultural mishmash, where Islamic, African, Indian, Chinese, and Portuguese cultures combine. Next time, I’ll talk a bit about the mix of religions, races, traditions, and cuisines that make this old port city unique.

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