Within the first two weeks of October, Tibet Hima Mining Company will start mining copper from the Kilembe mines in the western Uganda district of Kasese.
It will be the first time that copper is produced from a plant that has been rotting away since it was shut down in 1982. The project manager of Tibet Hima, the consortium of Chinese business companies behind the resuscitation of the copper mines, Alex Kwatampora, says the company has so far invested $19.6 million (about Shs 71.5bn) to reach a level where a hitherto idle plant can start processing copper ore.
“Within one month we will be seeing copper ore coming out. First phase is 1,500 tonnes per day and, by next year, we shall double it to 3,000 tonnes,” he told members of the National Planning Authority (NPA) board during a September 8 tour of the processing plant.
And yet, even as the company prepares to toast to the resumption of operations at a high-profile event expected to be officiated by President Museveni, its employees are gnashing their teeth over the conditions under which they work.
During the visit to Kilembe by The Observer, nearly every conversation with casual workers at the plant couldn’t end without complaints over their “low pay” and fears about their safety at work.
When Moses Kalule fell from a building he was painting on August 13, 2015, he came to symbolise the safety concerns of many workers at Hima Tibet. Kalule, a 24-year-old painter, fell from the roof of a building more than 50 metres high, fracturing both of his arms.
“We were painting the tall buildings and, when I was trying to cross from one side to another, I stepped on a plastic iron sheet and fell down,” Kalule told The Observer from his hospital bed at Kilembe Mines hospital.
Kalule, a married father of one, says he was not wearing a fall protection safety belt at the time of the accident because the company had not provided him with one. The belt would have saved Kalule from hitting the ground. Kwatampora conceded there had been problems with the provision of safety gear, which he says they resolved.
“They had issues like safety gear, which we immediately corrected. We did have the safety gear but probably they were not sufficient or some were of bad quality. We have since changed,” he said.
However, according to Kwatampora, Kalule’s accident could have been avoided if he had used the safety gear which was available at the time. He claimed that he had received reports that Kalule could have been intoxicated on the day he suffered the accident.
“Safety is a very important factor in everything we do, but safety begins with you,” he said. “Some people do not want to use their safety gear.”
To Tibet Hima’s credit, though, from the time Kalule got an accident, they have catered for all his medical and upkeep costs. Kalule said he was transported by ambulance to Mulago hospital, given upkeep of Shs 650,000 for the week he spent in Kampala, treated by orthopaedic specialists and then transported back to Kilembe Mines hospital, where he continues to receive medical attention.
Kalule, however, notes that his total monthly salary of Shs 180,000 could only pay some of his debts. By the time he had used it all, he still had a Shs 90,000 debt. His complaint offered fresh insight into yet another plight other workers at Kilembe mines face; that they are paid peanuts for what is often dangerous work.
However, Kwatampora says Tibet Hima needs to be cut some slack because they are doing their best under difficult conditions. He says despite the company’s shortcomings, they have provided a source of livelihood to more than 400 people who would otherwise be unemployed.
“There is nothing that can be 100 per cent but we are trying our level best to ensure everything meets the required standards,” he emphasised.
“So, any shortcomings that people might see, they should come and we discuss with them and we see how to have things move forward instead of a small thing tantamounting to saying the project is not good at all to the people.”
LOW PAY ISSUES
A 36-year-old casual labourer called Alex, who declined to mention his surname for fear of retribution, said Kalule’s complaint over low pay resonates with all of them. He argued that the money they earn is not sufficient for them to cater for their personal and family obligations.
“They pay Shs 5,000 daily without breakfast or lunch or medical, and yet we work underground. You find that someone is really failing to help himself and his family; the kids are no longer going to school. All those people working underground are losing weight. We ask ourselves, ‘is our president really thinking about us when he brings these investors who do these kinds of things to us?’”
The LC - I Chairman of Kilembe, Herbert Nuwagaba, backed the Tibet Hima porters over their complaints, saying the Chinese consortium’s management has remained adamant despite several complaints.
“They are interested in employing people on a part-time basis so that when they feel like they no longer want your services, they fire you at their own will,” he said. “We have tried to intervene as local leaders, but apparently the Chinese are hard to take any piece of advice.”
Responding to the complaints, Tibet Hima’s Kwatampora said those earning Shs 5,000 daily are the lowest rung of casual labourers. He said there are casual labourers who earn between Shs 8,000 and Shs 10,000 daily.
However, he added, even those at the bottom of the salary scale enjoy a number of additional benefits, including free housing, electricity and water.
“We found these guys here working for Shs 3,000 per day for [the government-owned] Kilembe Mines Ltd. We gave them Shs 5,000 per day. We give them free accommodation, free water and free power. If we paid them Shs 10,000 and told them to find housing, water and power, it would probably come to the same,” he explained.
The porter, Alex, said they do not even have any formal appointment letters. He explained that when they were employed, the management of Tibet Hima promised them formal contracts within three months of starting work. However, more than a year later, there is no formal offer.
According to Kwatampora, although casual labourers enjoy benefits such as housing, the company cannot give them formal contracts because their employment is dependent on the availability of work that suits their skills set.
“We are doing construction and rehabilitation work; so, when it is done, some of these guys will work and go so they can’t get a contract,” he said.
The management of Tibet Hima also asked for understanding from their employees, with Kwatampora explaining that up to this point, they have been putting money into the project without getting any returns.
“We are not producing yet,” he said. “Things are going to change as soon as production starts.”
The chairperson National Organisation of Trade Unions (Notu), Usher Wilson Owere, says situations such as the one in Kilembe are prevalent around the country. He says it is why they advocate for a minimum wage.
“A minimum is one of the key things that can solve that matter of underpayment and exploitation,” he notes.
According to Owere, there finally seems to be a flickering light at the end of the tunnel, if the June 2015 cabinet decision to appoint a board to draft the minimum wage is anything to go by.
“They have appointed a board to make a survey and then come out with a report on how much a minimum wage should be fixed and also look at other areas, such as whether we go uniform or sectoral. Our recommendation is that it should be sectoral,” says Owere.
In the meantime, Owere recommends that the Tibet Hima Mining Company should allow its workers to form a union so that they can have more structured negotiations, and for each party to meet their end of the deal.
“Once a union is in place, it is easier for workers through their union to negotiate with management. The union can negotiate on behalf of the workers using what they have as a collective bargaining agreement,” he explains.
Where Tibet Hima feels that workers are flouting rules, such as not following the requirement to wear protective gear, Owere says the union can help the company ensure that the workers comply.
“The union should be able to make sure that the workers conform to the regulations of the company and what has been agreed upon,” he says.
Owere promises to take up the issues in the Kilembe mines with other authorities such that by the time the Kasese-based company is fully commercially operational, the workers are not grumbling about their old problems.
“What we can do now is to make a joint inspection with the ministry of labour, workers’ union representatives and the Federation of Uganda Employers,” he said.
“I am going to call the PS [Permanent Secretary in the Labour ministry] and inform him and we make a prompt inspection of that place and we tell them to follow the regulations.”