UNRA road workers lay down tools over unpaid salaries, working conditions

Workers at Kitala-Gerenge road project

Workers at Kitala-Gerenge road project

The mask of collective calm on under construction of a 10 kilometer-long Kitala-Gerenge road in Garuga slipped Monday, October 11, when casual workers walked off their menial jobs protesting the non-payment of their wages for five months.

The workers, mainly unskilled hands, who dig or carry cement, murram, stones and push wheelbarrows, are turning up the volume in urging their employer; Uganda National Roads Authority (UNRA) to pay their five months’ wage arrears.

Two weeks ago, Kitala Gerenge road project focal person Nada Andersen, asked loudly on social media why UNRA had failed to pay the workers’ arrears. Interviewed for a comment, a fortnight ago, UNRA spokesman Allan Ssempebwa, sought to calm the chaotic churn around the road works. He said UNRA held internal discussions on the matter and was working expeditiously to pay the outstanding wages to the affected workers. 

Ssempebwa promised the payments would be made soon. But despite Ssempebwa’s attempt to calm nerves a fortnight ago, the workers walked off their jobs citing a total disregard for their human dignity. They said they had turned into destitutes. 

Joachim Kiiza, 46, a good drainage builder, said he has worked on the Kitala-Gerenge road project since June 2018. Kiiza told The Observer that he has not received his salary for the last five months. 

“This has not just affected my livelihood. But my daughter couldn’t write her final exams at Nkumba University in June. She was a tuition defaulter of Shs 4,980,000; money which I would have cleared if UNRA paid my salary,” he said.

UNRA’s project manager Morris Ewama said: “There is no contracted road worker on the Kitala-Gerenge road that has not been paid all their dues fully. The ones claiming otherwise are either lying or non-contracted masqueraders.”

Ewama did not offer to back his word with any proof unlike the workers, who showed The Observer their contracts. But when he was targeted by the workers during the strike, Ewama quickly promised that the arrears would be paid. 

Ssempebwa said, “As a body, we subscribe to ensuring that the welfare of our workers is top. And what we have done is that our chief accountant is following up on all the claims of non-payment that have been made by the workers. In fact, last week, the process of harmonizing the arrears, to begin payment henceforth, started.”

Peter Bagonza, 56, said his current UNRA job is so frustrating. He said that when they signed their initial contracts back in 2018, lunch was part of the package. But since last November, Bagonza said they have not received any lunch allowance.

A meal was valued at Shs 4,500 each day. In total, one worker is owed about Shs 1,485,000 in lunch allowance. Ssempebwa said they are investigating the matter to ensure it is addressed once and for all.

Ssempebwa said Kitala-Gerenge project was a pioneer in-house project by UNRA. In an attempt to reduce capital flight, UNRA decided to set up its own construction unit, which has been working on the Kitala-Gerenge road since its inception. But Ssempebwa disclosed that they have had financial challenges.

The government directly funded this project, but the money hasn’t been coming in as fast as UNRA would have wanted. In the process, the road project was derailed which also affected the workers’ welfare and payments to suppliers.

There are close to 100 temporary workers working on the Kitala-Gerenge road project. Worse still, for close to two years, these workers told The Observer, that 30 per cent has been deducted from their wages as Pay As You Earn (PAYE).

Bagonza said: “According to my contract, I am supposed to be paid Shs 27,500 every day. When we were still receiving our pay on time, our bosses always told us that our money was being remitted to URA [Uganda Revenue Authority] until we asked them how that was possible yet we did not have TIN [tax indentification] numbers.”

Although the 30 per cent deductions stopped, and the project officials promised that all their money would be refunded soon, none has received a refund in over a year. Kiiza said that he expects a refund of about Shs 7m.

The workers claim they work the whole day without a single meal, let alone a bottle of water. It is inconceivable, they say, that someone can spend the whole day carrying kerb stones (placed on the road boundary) that weigh close to 60kgs and the 600mm diameter 100kgs heavy culverts without a meal.

Sam Mubuya, the safety superintend on this road project told The Observer recently that proper working conditions are paramount, and they include light in case work runs into the night.

Mubuya added that toilet facilities, water, reflective jackets, gumboots, hand gloves, safety boots and helmets are a must have. The workers, however, said they often raid the bushes to ease themselves because there are no onsite mobile toilets.

And for the last one and a half years, the workers have not had safety boots, hand gloves or helmets. These workers even lay molten asphalt (tarmac), which is at 180 degrees boiling point without adequate safety gadgets such as footwear or hand protection.

In case of an accident, workers said they don’t get First Aid. Although The Observer was unable to verify this, the workers said when they are injured, they are dumped at a clinic, and left to fend for themselves. Ssempebwa said the Kitala-Gerenge project has been a learning experience for UNRA. 


© 2016 Observer Media Ltd