How The Journey Started
It was Summer.
Ann was running errands on the streets of downtown, Kingston. It was a sweltering day, with temperatures peaking around 40 degrees Celsius (in the shade!). In a bid to quickly get the chore of grocery shopping out the way, she dived into the first shop that was closest to the parking lot. This is not a shop she would normally visit. Anyhow, on a desperately hot day like this, there was no time for bargain hunting. The aim was to get back in the air conditioned vehicle as soon as possible.
As she entered the building, she realised that this was a shop with the wares located behind a service counter. Patrons were not allowed behind this heavily fortified dividing line. Instead one had to ask a shop attendant to fetch the required items. The place was dark, dingy and poorly ventilated. There was not a window in sight. On a hot day like this there was only one fan in the entire shop (which was placed right next to the cashier).
A shop attendant who looked to be around 18 years years old and 8 1/2 months pregnant approached the counter. She was sweating profusely and waddling with a slow gait. 'Ma'am can I take your order?' she asked. Ann was taken aback by the image in front of her and asked the young lady why she was not on maternity leave.
'Maternity leave? What is that?' Based on how she asked the question Ann knew she was not being sarcastic. She genuinely did not know. Ann quickly explained. The young lady responded that her employer did not inform her of this 'maternity leave'. As a matter of fact she was absent from the job for 3 days due to 'morning sickness'. She was not paid for these days and was actually warned that if she was at home for the entire week, she should not bother to even return to the shop as another person would be hired to replace her.
At this point, the cashier snarled at the young lady,'More walking and less talking!'. The shop attendant quickly explained that the cashier was the shop owner who considers speaking too long to one customer as loitering. She does not pay employees to idle. Not wanting to get the shop attendant into too much trouble, Ann quickly placed her order.
The young lady then started to stumble around in the narrow shop aisle that was barely wide enough to accommodate her protruding stomach. She then went for a ladder and then proceeded to climb up each rung in order to access a can of beans that was stacked on the shelf closest the ceiling. With each step Ann visualized a potential miscarriage as the flimsy built wooden ladder started to buckle under the lady's weight. Mouth agape, Ann desperately told the young lady that she did not want the can of beans anymore.
Uttering a sigh of relief as the shop attendant placed her two feet on the ground, little did Ann know she was in for another shock. The young lady now was now straining to lift a box that looked as if it weighed at least 25 kg. Ann was appalled and asked if there were no other employees to help with the heavy lifting tasks. The reply was that there were indeed some young men that work in the delivery section.They were responsible for loading goods off the delivery trucks into the stockroom, but were not allowed on the shop floor. She uttered something about security issues. Apparently the owner felt unsafe with too many young men congregating in the same place and 'loitering' on the shop floor.
The humidity in the shop was starting to take its toll on Ann and she was eager to leave. She could barely stand to be there for a few minutes, so she wondered how a heavily pregnant woman did not faint already. The only fan in the place was not even oscillating, it was fixed in one position on the cashier. She quickly asked the young lady if she would soon be on her lunch break to at least get some fresh air.
'Lunch break ma'am?' 'No, going outside is not allowed. I just get my lunch from my bag, eat and serve the customers at the same time'. 'You at least get to sit sometimes, right?' Ann asked. 'I only sit when I go to the restroom, Ma'am', and we only get 2 bathroom breaks a day'. 'Before we begin in the morning at 6:00am and 9:00pm when we are closing up the shop'. She explained that as long as there were customers in the shop they have to be on their feet working and once the shop is empty in the evenings, they are there late at night repacking the shelves and cleaning up for the next business day. One fellow colleague of hers even got raped while heading home after nightfall. As such, her past urinary tract infections (due to the limited restroom breaks) were the least of her problems.
Ann could not believe her ears. However, she reasoned that maybe the salary is so lucrative that someone would be willing to put their personal safety at risk. So she asked what the salary was and if she was paid overtime for these long working hours. The answer was 'no'. Shaking her head in disbelief Ann asked why would she stay in a job that was paying below the national minimum wage, with no overtime payments, no fringe benefits and that was putting her health (and unborn baby) in jeopardy.
The young lady explained that she had 2 other young children at home, she did not finish her secondary level education and her prospects for finding other forms of employment were slim. She pointed a finger outside as she stated that all the shops in the entire downtown district had the same working conditions. As such, might as well she stick to the devil she knows.
Ann pondered on that for a minute, paid her bill and walked out the store, glancing briefly to see the shop attendant wiping the sweat from her brow. She felt guilty that she could escape the heat in the luxury of her air conditioned car. In her hurry to get away from the stifling air, she had forgotten to ask the young lady her name. Nonetheless, the image of the young shop attendant haunted Ann for several days. However, it was not just the compelling story that lingered. For you see, Ann saw herself in the young lady. It could have been her. Their backgrounds were almost identical. Ann was from a similar community and if it was not for the saving grace of a Good Samaritan that enabled her to complete her secondary education, she too could have been working in that shop. 'Someone should do something about this! It is not right!' Ann fumed.
So Ann decided to be that 'someone' to take action and to shed light on the plight of women working in 'slave-like conditions'. Through the use of her independent research and lobby efforts she sparked a national outrage that led to changes in policies and legislation related to gender and working conditions in Jamaica.
Ann went back to the same shop to learn the young lady's name. She was not there anymore. Perhaps she delivered her baby and of course lost her job as result. She never saw the young lady again.If only she knew that she was the catalyst that ignited a fire that led Ann on the path to pursue international development and ultimately start a business that measures the effectiveness and impact of social interventions.