Chinese contractor detains workers, abuse rife

By Nokuthaba Dlamini

Eight months since the lockdown was enforced to control the spread of coronavirus, the Chinese contractor working on the multimillion-dollar expansion of the Hwange Thermal Power Station is reportedly forcing its workers to remain at the site while denying them access to medical health services, proper diet and access to visit their families.

This has, however, led to multiple protests and strikes at the company premises in efforts to lobby for a change.

Sino Hydro Corporation is one of the many companies exempted by regulations to enforce the countrywide lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed thousands of people globally.

The Chinese giant was awarded the construction of the Hwange 7 and 8 units as part of a US$ 1, 4 billion expansion project after signing a deal with the Zimbabwe Power Company (ZPC) to add a 600 megawatts generation capacity to the country’s biggest thermal power station.

Prior to the lockdown, the company assembled its strong workforce and housed them in temporary shelters at the site in Hwange so that they could continue providing labour during the lockdown.

The workers however see the move as infringement to their rights as they are not allowed to exit the premises.

“I am on anti retroviral drugs, and since I came eight months ago l have only managed to collect my medication twice as l am trying to preserve my job,” said one worker in the thermal department.

“Apart from losing my job, I fear stigmatisation if my co-workers could know about my status. I often ask to be excused from work for a few days so that l can collect my medication, but my bosses often refuse stating that I’ll be endangering other people’s lives while delaying the project completion.”

Another HIV positive employee said he had been forced to default on his antiretroviral treatment after he left his medication home fearing stigmatisation at the camp.

“Most of the workers here have various conditions from Tuberculosis to HIV and being put under one roof alone is risky before we can even consider the danger of contracting the coronavirus,” he said. 

“We are scared and there is no guarantee of coming out still the same after lockdown but we have no choice as we are required to pay rent where we live while taking care of our spouses and children.”

The worker’s struggle was shared by several other workers who suggested that the company should bring medical practitioners to assess them.

“Our privacy has been stripped off and we are not getting enough medical attention. We want to be given proper rights to health because many of us with various ailments have defaulted taking the medication because we have no access to them. They should at least lock us here while providing health services to the people.”

Some workers, however, have raised the alarm that the living conditions at the temporary shelters are conducive for the spread of the highly contagious disease. The hygiene is poor.

They claimed that as many as 60 people shared one toilet and that bathrooms also had blockages.

The workers also share plates at the staff canteen.

Experts, including the World Health Organisation, are emphasising the need for social distancing and practising high levels of hygiene as some of the most effective ways of controlling the spread of the coronavirus or Covid 19.

Another Sino Hydro artisan, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the workers were not given properly done meals.

The workers also complained about long working hours, saying their employers were 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,” said another employee.

“We are supposed to work for 44 hours per week, but we stretch to even 65 hours without pay and this is why we have been engaging in strikes.”

The last strike was on Thursday.

On scale, lowest-paid workers earn ZWL37 per hour before tax and other deductions.

A worker in the electrical department said most workers were forced to move into the temporary shelters to retain their jobs as they were on casual contracts, which the Chinese company can terminate at any time if they stood up for their rights.

 “We wish the government could intervene and to ensure that we get proper health services and befitting salaries as we put our lives at risk for nation building.” He appealed.

However, the allegations were refuted by the company’s Human Resources head Webster Mazarura saying the lockdown of staff is to contain the spread of Covid-19.

“This is a national project and before the company could take such measures it had consulted widely with ZPC and the Government. At that time we had two choices to choose from that is either to close the project or lockdown,” he explained.

The parties agreed to continue with the Project and implemented the lockdown for the benefit of the nation. The move to lockdown had to come with costs of housing the employee, feeding them and other costs but the company decided to take up the costs purely to protect the Project and its employees.”

He denied the allegations that the workers have been denied health and vacation leave days.

“Employees are allowed to take vacation to visit their families after two months if they so wish. This is company policy. The days range from 14 and above. No one has ever been denied this vacation,” “No one and we mean no one was ever denied medical facilities and medication. In fact the company meets costs of employees who would have been referred to medical facilities including their medication and those in need of consulting with family doctors are given the permission.”

Commenting on poor diet and under cooked meals, Mazarura admitted that there have been complaints, but the company “act on it swiftly”, adding “It needs to be understood that these things are bound to happen where you cook for a large number of people.”

He did not comment on salaries and overtime issues.

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