Covid-19: Chinese contractor sends workers packing

The Chinese contractor working on the multi-million expansion of the Hwange power station project is mired in fresh controversy after laying off some of the workers for complaining against alleged exposure to coronavirus.

By Nokuthaba Dlamini

The Chinese contractor working on the multi-million expansion of the Hwange power station project is mired in fresh controversy after laying off some of the workers for complaining against alleged exposure to coronavirus.

Hydro-Sino Corporation allegedly launched a witch-hunt after this publication revealed that it had forced at least 400 workers to camp at the site during the 21-day lockdown under risky conditions.

The workers complained that they feared contracting the coronavirus because of poor hygiene and lack of social distancing as they shared rooms, bathrooms and canteens.

After the exposè, the Zimbabwe Power Company (ZPC), which contracted Sino, held a hastily arranged meeting with the latter’s management to address the workers’ grievances, which also included long-standing complaints about alleged abuse of employees by the Chinese management.

The Chinese, who are working on the US$1,4 billion expansion of the Hwange Thermal Power Station involving the construction of units 7 and 8 to add 600 megawatts to the national grid, have been at loggerheads with their local employees since last year.

Matters came to a head early this month when the contractor assembled most of its workforce to camp at the site to ensure that work continued during the 21-day lockdown decreed by President Emmerson Mnangagwa in late March, in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease, also known as Covid-19.

Reliable sources, however, said the meeting between the ZPC management and Sino Hydro did no solve their problems as some employees were immediately sent away and told they may not be recalled even after the lockdown.

Affected workers were forced to complete forms showing that they felt unsafe working on the site and were returning to their homes.

They were required to fill in their names, badge numbers and work stations, but some said they completed the forms under duress.

“We were forced by our supervisor to fill in the forms. After that, we were ordered to immediately pack our bags and go home,” one of the affected employees said on condition of anonymity.

It could not be immediately established how many employees were kicked out, but it emerged that the workers that were sharing matchbox zinc shelters had been reduced from eight to four.

But the remaining workers said they were still working extended hours, in contravention of local labour laws and International Labour Organisation prescriptions.

“We start work at 7am and knock off at 9pm every day, but are not paid overtime,” he added.

“Workers are scared to protest against the treatment because they risk losing their jobs, while others are now resorting to selling out their colleagues that are considered too vocal in return for favours from the bosses.”

The workers said their Chinese bosses use corporal punishment on them and often verbally abused them.

This publication established that Sino Hydro started erecting a security fence on the site after allegations that some of the workers were sneaking out of the camp to see their families at night.

The workers said management had also launched a witch-hunt to weed out people suspected of leaking information to the media about employees’ plight.

Fungai Simbine, the Sino Hydro workers’ union chairperson, said employees feared for their lives as the company was not following government or World Health Organisation recommendations to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Simbine said most workers opted to continue staying at the crowded camp even though they felt their health was being compromised for fear of losing their jobs.

“Those who opted to continue working during the lockdown were taken without screening or testing for coronavirus and they say they are scared they might be infected,” he said.

Simbine added that poor hygiene and overcrowding remained their biggest worry with only 20 toilets available for the company’s 575-strong workforce.

“The company only has 10 toilets shared by men and another 10 for women, but looking at the number of workers, which is close to 600, the ablution facilities are not enough and they don’t get cleaned regularly,” he added.

The Chinese management has suspended the wages of workers, who remained at home during the lockdown that average $10.50 (less than US 25c) per hour.

The Zimbabwe Construction and Allied Trade Workers’ Union (ZCATWU), which represents Sino Hydro workers, has been pressing the Chinese to address employee grievances since last year but to no avail.

ZCATWU says employees have died while on duty and others suffered life-threatening injuries because they are not provided with protective clothing.

The workers also complained of poor remuneration, use of unapproved contract forms, unfair dismissal of employees, improper grading and non-provision of payslips.

ZCATWU has threatened to go to court after the lockdown to force the Chinese to respect workers’ rights and seek redress over employees’ exposure to Covid-19.

Fortune Nyamande, the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human chairperson, castigated the company for failing to ensure the safety of the employees.  

“They are supposed to follow all the procedures recommended in order to minimise contracting coronavirus,” Nyamande said.

“Those workers are from across the country, and if one person is infected, then it will mean Hwange will become a hotspot.”

Hwange Central legislator Daniel Molokele has also called on the government to intervene in the Sino Hydro labour row. 

Zesa head of communications Fullard Gwasira ignored questions sent to him.

Energy and Power Development minister Fortune Chasi yesterday said the government will investigate the alleged abuse of ZPC workers.

“This is clearly an operational issue and l am not familiar with it, but if what workers are saying is happening it is totally improper,” Chasi said.

“It is important that everyone conforms to what the law says and what government has put in place to protect everyone against this virus.

“On the incidences of staff being assaulted and insulted and so forth, that is completely unacceptable.

“l will speak to ZPC so that they rectify the situation and further investigate what more is happening there.

“So, by Tuesday we would have made some progress that you can follow up on.”