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Economic Recovery Helps Kenyans Get Back to Work - 2002-06-16

Our world is growing smaller every day. Global politics tie us together. So does a global economy. In our occasional series on the pros and cons of globalization, we turn to the situation in Africa where local businesses have failed and unemployment has soared.

In Kenya, where signs of an economic recovery are helping put many Kenyans back to work. But while the news is good, some believe more needs to be done.

Lrosalia Mwiaali feels lucky to have a job at one of Kenya's new garment factories.

Brian Padden: "Is this a good job?"
Lrosalia Mwiaali: "Yes!"
Brian Padden: "Why?"
Lrosalia Mwiaali: "It gives us a lot of money."

While she makes what most of the world would consider a very low wage, the equivalent of about $100 a month, Lrosalia Mwiaali is working. She is one of more than 17,000 people now employed in the growing garment industry in Kenya. The last ten years have been hard economic times in Kenya, where unemployment has been as high as 50 percent. But today, industry is rebounding, thanks to help from America in the form of the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

Not surprisingly, Ulhas Kamat, chairman of Kenya's Association of Garment Exporters, is a proponent of The African Growth and Opportunity Act. He said, "They are able to help developing countries by giving trade access rather than giving aid - the famous old saying of 'teach somebody how to fish, it is better than giving them fish.'"

His company, Kenap Limited, makes garments in one of Kenya's designated export zones. Businesses that are permitted to operate here produce goods for export only and pay no corporate taxes to either the United States or Kenya. The virtual duty-free status on goods produced for export, means lower prices for clothing in the U.S. and more jobs for Kenyans.

Even Juliette Lenoir now gives the African trade bill a qualified endorsement. She is with the American labor union, the AFL-CIO, an organization that once opposed the African trade bill. "It's good for Africa," she said. "I think that anything is good for Africa that helps create additional employment."

But she and other worker advocates are concerned that under the guise of development, Africans are being exploited as a source of cheap labor. "Not bad. Not good. Just there." This is how Dominick Otieno feels about his job. He is an employee of a garment factory in the export zone outside the capital city of Nairobi. "It's a bit squeezed," he said, "but you can come in."

Dominick, his wife, and small child live in an overcrowded single room with no kitchen, no running water, and no toilet. It is all he can afford. "For the current situation," he said, "it is not enough, with the inflation, it is not enough. I squeeze with it."

Dominick Otieno must accept the low wages because jobs are scarce. His neighborhood is filled with unemployed people anxious for any job, even a low-paying one.

The growth of the garment industry in Kenya has been in the export market only. Most Kenyans buy used clothing, donated from Europe and America.

Juliette Lenoir said the lack of a domestic market, combined with low wages, prevents the promotion of real development. She said, "If you can't afford to purchase the good or the service that you are creating. It's fine that you are working. And it's fine for your family that you can bring money home. But there is no money left to invest in your community."

Most business and labor leaders see wage increases and community development as contentious issues that must be dealt with in the future. But for now, they all agree that the creation of new industries and jobs is good news for Africa.