IRIN News, October 30, 2007

Women workers exposed to health risks in Herat factories

"Doctors and medicine are expensive," she said. The modes amount she earns helps to supplement the family income to help feed her four children.

HERAT - The Safi fur and wool factory, in Herat city, western Afghanistan, has more than 350 female and 300 male workers who earn only 300 Afghanis (US$6) for their 48-hour, six-day week. The factory produces coats, jackets, hats and other garments for the European and North American markets. There are more than 1,500 women working in four such factories in Herat city.

The air in the Safi processing plant is full of dust from dirty furs, which workers tear to pieces with their bare hands.

Jamila (not hear real name) has worked in the factory for more than a year and recently experienced an unrelenting pain in her chest. "First, I was coughing and now I feel a terrible pain in my chest," the 32-year-old said.

"Doctors and medicine are expensive," she said. The modes amount she earns helps to supplement the family income to help feed her four children.

Less than 2m away from where Jamila is working, her baby has fallen asleep on a thin piece of straw. Jamila brings her youngest son to the factory every day, because there is nobody to look after him at home.

Health risks

Workers have to separate fur from goats' hair and weave sheep's wool without protective gloves or masks.

Ahmad Zia Rahmani, a lung and chest diseases specialist at the Herat city hospital, says workers in fur and wool factories are vulnerable to virulent microbes, which harm the respiratory system and cause chest infections.

"Sheep's wool and goats' hair usually contain harmful bacteria which can easily be transferred to a human via close contact and inhalation," Rahmani said.

Mothers who regularly breastfeed their babies and consume food at the factory can also transfer dangerous microbes to their children if they do not wash their hands with antibacterial soap, Rahmani added.

Formal investigation

Afghanistan's Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (MoLSA) said it would send a delegation to Herat to assess and report on the situation of female workers in factories there, after IRIN approached the ministry for a comment.

"We will make sure appropriate measures are adopted to improve the situation of workers," said Ghulam Gaus Bashiri, a deputy minister in the department.

According to Bashiri, a revised draft labour law has been submitted to the National Assembly for approval, which has "many benefits for female workers", including maternity leave, equal wages for men and women and a light working regime for women during pregnancy.

No medical insurance

According to Afghanistan's labour law, public and private employers should provide medical insurance to employees who work in hazardous environments.

However, there are too many hurdles - including poor law enforcement institutions, lack of awareness about women's rights and conservative traditions - which constrict the law on paper with weak or no practical power.

Almost all workers in factories in Herat province have no written contract with their employers, particularly in the private sector. Workers and employers have only verbal agreements, which do not cover medical and hazard insurance.

In the past 12 months, seven women workers of the wool and fur factories in Herat have died due to respiratory diseases and chest infections, workers and Mohammad Ibrahim Ghafori, an official at the Safi factory, said.

Workers' health problems have been compounded by their inability to afford medical checks and treatment.

There is no legal imperative for employers to offer assistance to their workers in need of medical treatment.

"We are not in a position to offer medical insurance or any financial assistance for health problems. We tell this to our workers before they start a job with us," said Mohammad Ibrahim Ghafori, an official for the Safi wool and fur factory.

Some workers, meanwhile, acknowledged that they are exposed to health hazards in the factory but said lack of employment opportunities and economic needs force them to accept the risk.

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