news indepth:BY NOKUTHABA DLAMINI
Representatives of Sino Hydro Corporation workers are mulling suing the power company for failing to ensure the safety of the employees against coronavirus, it has been learnt.
Sino Hydro, a Hwange-based Chinese contractor working on the multimillion dollar expansion of Hwange Thermal Power Station, was exempted from the 21-day lockdown that commenced on March 30 and immediately ordered hundreds of its workers to remain on site.
Officially, Zimbabwe has confirmed 13 cases of people infected with coronavirus or Covid-19 with three fatalities so far.
The Chinese company was awarded the tender to construct units 7 and 8 at Hwange Power Station as part of a US$1,4 billion expansion project, after signing a deal with the Zimbabwe Power Company (ZPC) that is meant to add a 600-megawatt generation capacity to the national grid.
The company assembled its 400-strong workforce and housed the workers in temporary shelters at the site to ensure continued supply of labour during the lockdown and enable the timely completion of the project, according to an internal notice seen by The Standard.
“To ensure this project can generate electricity for the country as soon as possible, site works should not be stopped thoroughly (sic),” says part of the notice. “Employees are encouraged to go on working at site.”
The workers, however, fear that the virus, which has killed thousands throughout the world since December last year, could easily spread at the site because they have been forced to live under overcrowded and unhygienic conditions.
While the government and World Health Organisation have repeatedly urged social distancing as a method to break the corona virus transmission chain, the employees are living in squashed makeshift zinc shelters.
A Sino Hydro artisan, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the workers, most of whom are on contract and fear losing their jobs if they protest, were not screened for Covid-19 before they were taken to the matchbox shelters, which accommodate an average six people each.
“Our bosses are only worried about reaching their targets,” the artisan from the engineering department said.
“Several employees from management level refused to report for work because their full-time contracts cannot be terminated as easily as ours.”
He claimed that as many as 60 people share one toilet and the bathroom floors flood easily. The workers also share plates at the staff canteen
“Social distancing is impossible here because we queue for food and share plates at the canteen,” he claimed.
“We fear for our lives, but there is nothing we can do because our supervisors warned us that those who do not come to camp here risked their contracts being terminated.”
An HIV-positive employee said he had been forced to default on his antiretroviral treatment, which he left at home when he was summoned to the site and subsequently discovered he could not go back to collect it.
He added that a number of his colleagues suffer underlying conditions such as tuberculosis yet they were being crammed together.
This is despite earlier promises by the ZPC management to investigate labour malpractices at Sino Hydro, its contractee.
The workers also complained about long working hours, saying their employer was now taking advantage of the fact that they were camped at the site.
“We work without rest throughout the week, but they don’t pay us for overtime. We are supposed to work for 44 hours per week, but we stretch to even 65 hours.
“I’m afraid that coronavirus will affect me while still here and I am also worried about my wife whom I left behind nursing our newly born child and the other one who suffers from autism.
“We wish government could intervene and ensure that we get protective clothing, hand sanitisers and befitting salaries since our lives are at risk,” said another employee.
Muchapiwa Mazarura, the Zimbabwe Construction and Allied Trades Workers’ Union (Zcatwu) secretary-general, said they were worried about the plight of the Hydro Sino workers, but could not take immediate action due to the ongoing lockdown.
Mazarura said they were not opposed to the employees working during the lockdown, but were unsettled by their living conditions that exposed them to Covid-19.
Zcatwu is now contemplating legal action against the Chinese contractor.
“We are now waiting for the lockdown to end so that we engage the Labour ministry and even the courts on this matter because this is completely against the labour laws in the country,” Mazarura said.
“We are appealing to the government to monitor this situation in Hwange before anything catastrophic happens as people’s lives should be put first,” he added.
Before the lockdown, the union was already at loggerheads with Sino Hydro over alleged wanton abuse of workers’ rights.
A recent investigation by The Standard, which collaborated with Information for Development Trust, a non-profit organisation helping journalists unearth corruption and bad governance, revealed that employees at the project were routinely exposed to life-threatening working conditions.
Correspondence between Zcatwu and Sino Hydro dating as far back as March 2019 showed that the union tried to engage ZPC and the Chinese contractor over the alleged abuses in vain.
The workers’ grievances include poor remuneration, use of unapproved contract forms, non-provision of protective clothing and unfair dismissal of employees.
In November last year, Remington Katsumbe died after falling from faulty scaffolding, while another Sino Hydro worker, Brighton Share, lost his fingers last month while operating a pole machine.
Hwange Central legislator Daniel Molokele in a recent statement said he was “extremely concerned and worried” that Sino Hydro and another Chinese company, Jian Zhongsom, were failing to protect their workers from coronavirus.
Contacted for comment, Sino Hydro/ZPC project manager Forbes Chanakira said he had no authority to give a comment and directed queries to ZPC spokesperson Fullard Gwasira, who did not respond to questions sent to him.