Occupational risks: Drawing attention to plight of casual labourers

For Some garbage collectors, foul smell is no longer something to make them retch; it’s business as usual. Rather than use nose and mouth masks, they will hit down to business without one, putting their health at risk in the process.

For Some garbage collectors, foul smell is no longer something to make them retch; it’s business as usual. Rather than use nose and mouth masks, they will hit down to business without one, putting their health at risk in the process.

Strangely, some of the labourers in the business claim that the masks prevent them from breathing freely, adding that they cannot wear them all day long, while others argue that they get accustomed to the pungent smell as time goes by.

The New Times surveyed garbage collectors at Nduba dumping site, to see not only how much workers use protective gear but also how many have health risk cover in one of the most hazard-prone jobs.

“We feel used to the foul odour; but even if you don’t it’s not going to go away,” said a labourer who only identified himself as Jules.

Besides protection, other issues are to do with risk insurance cover and pension saving.

Theoneste Niyodusenga, 36, a resident of Busanza Sector in Gasabo District, and Valence Barikumwe, 37, from Nyamata Sector in Bugesera District, work at Nduba dumping site.

Niyonsenga and Barikumwe sort garbage and trash, separating decomposable from the non-decomposable waste.

They are both aware of the health risks of their jobs without protection, so they use protective gear and have health insurance (Mutuelle de Santé), but their problem is pension savings with Rwanda Social Security Board.

“They tell us to wear gloves, boots, you cannot enter there (into the waste heaps) without wearing them,” Niyodusenga said.

Barikumwe said, “We don’t contribute to pension scheme but we need it. Contributions to social security can help because you cannot work forever.”

However, some workers seem to ignore the risks associated with their work.

The concerns come days after the world marked Occupational Safety and Health World Day on April 28, under the theme, “Preventing Workplace Stress by Promoting Occupational Safety and Health.”

In Rwanda, the activities that had been organised by the Ministry of Public Service and Labour were postponed indefinitely.

The choice of the would-be venue, Imana Steel Ltd, in Bugesera District was ironic, because workers at the plant have previously complained of lack of protective gear as well as insurance and job contracts.

In February, the Minister for Public Service and Labour, Judith Uwizeye, visited Imana Steel Ltd following workers’ complaints about lack of protective gear such as helmets, gloves, gumboots and goggles as well as insurance and contracts for some workers.

The factory was given 30 days to address all the concerns.

Challenge to employers

In an interview with The New Times, last week, Patrick Kananga, the occupational safety and health specialist at the ministry, criticised employers who think that providing conducive environment for workers is a favour, yet it is a responsibility.

He noted that, in many instances, workers, especially casual labourers, are not insured against risks and hazards at work.

“From our inspection, we found out that some employers do not pay 2 per cent contribution to RSSB for work risks and hazards for their workers. This puts the life of those workers at risk when ill or are involved in accident at work, they will not have required assistance,” Kananga said.

He called on employers to carry out risk assessment or avail personal protective equipment before undertaking a given business or taking on workers, to avoid exposing them to health risks.

The government has put in place various mechanisms to ensure that safety and health at work is guaranteed.

These include the 2009 Labour Law, the 2014 National Policy on Occupational Safety and Health, inspections at workplaces – which has since been decentralised.

Inspection was last year taken to institutional level where there is elected committee for safety and health of employees at work. The committee reports to the ministry any safety pitfalls so as to devise ways for improvement.

Kananga said the Ministry of Public Service and Labour trains inspection workers every year to build their capacities.

Jean Malic Kalima, the president of Rwanda Mining Association, said they have been sensitising miners to ensure their workplace is safe and that mining companies make sure that the miners are equipped with protective gear.

However, he decried the challenge exposed by illegal mining.

“Illegal miners even dare enter dangerous places without protective gear, such practices are the ones resulting in many deaths in the mining sector,” he said.

Kalima said they also ensure miners are insured against diseases and for post-retirement care both under collective or normative insurance. However, he admitted priority has been put on normal insurance, not work risks or hazards.

He called on employers to insure their workers since mining work is associated with many risks.

Figures from Rwanda Mining Association show that, as of 2013, there were 34,000 employees in mining sector and 32,000 of them were saving with RSSB.

The government expects the number of miners to hit 60,000 by 2018.

Gaspard Mpakanyi, the research, training and unions’ structuring officer at Trade Union Centre of Workers of Rwanda (CESTRAR), said they are happy with the various mechanisms put in place to ensure occupational safety and health.

He said they have been sensitising workers in tea and other factories about accidents, with accidents eventually reducing by about 98 per cent.

Mpakanyi said in construction, accidents were common but City of Kigali inked a memorandum of understanding with the union of construction workers, masonry and artisan workers requiring insurance, and protection equipment for workers before starting works.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) says every day, 6,300 people die as a result of occupational accidents or work-related diseases. Some 317 million accidents occur at work annually.

The human cost of this daily adversity is huge and the economic burden of poor occupational safety and health practices is estimated at 4 per cent of global gross domestic product each year.

Employers face costly early retirements, loss of skilled staff, absenteeism, and high insurance premiums due to work-related accidents and diseases.

Yet many of these tragedies are preventable through the implementation of proper prevention, reporting and inspection practices.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw

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