Labour union pushes for workers' safety

A labour union, the Congrès du Travail et de la Fraternité des Travailleurs (COTRAF), has told The New Times that more efforts are necessary to warrant the safety of construction workers countrywide.
Casual labourers at a construction site in Kigali. Some workers at construction sites don’t wear protective gear which puts their safety in jeopardy. Timothy Kisambira.
Casual labourers at a construction site in Kigali. Some workers at construction sites don’t wear protective gear which puts their safety in jeopardy. Timothy Kisambira.

A labour union, the Congrès du Travail et de la Fraternité des Travailleurs (COTRAF), has told The New Times that more efforts are necessary to warrant the safety of construction workers countrywide.

According to COTRAF Executive Secretary, Francois Ntakiyimana, last year alone, they received 12 cases were of issues related to safety in the construction sector.

“These accidents happen yet workers don’t even have insurance coverage. Most accidents appear in road construction where machines and equipment parts hit workers and some have their hands chopped off. Others were in building construction sites,” Ntakiyimana said while showing pictures of a worker who sustained gruesome injuries while working on the Rubavu-Rutsiro highway being constructed by Hunan Road and Bridge Construction Group Company Limited (HNRB).

“Besides lack of insurance coverage, in building construction, workers ought to be properly protected against the many potential hazards at a construction site.”

Ntakiyimana said in many cases workers do not have requisite personal protective equipment, a factor he thinks could have been at play mid last month when a catholic church that was under construction in Muhanga District caved in resulting in the death of two workers and more than 10 others injured.

Of the 12 cases they registered in 2017, Ntakiyimana said: “Most of them were in Kigali. Three were on the Rubavu road and six were here in the city, and particularly in building construction”.

The common findings in all these cases, he said, is that victims have no insurance coverage, which adds to their misery.

“As we speak we have the case of China Star Construction Ltd where a wounded employer who has just left our offices is still undergoing treatment at King Faisal Hospital. There is another case of a worker called Roger Namahirwe who lost part of his leg and this case involving NPD Cotraco is in court,” he revealed.

According to COTRAF’s records, which Sunday Times has seen, Edison Irandengera, a casual labourer employed by China Star Construction Ltd in Rusizi district suffered a knee injury in December 2015 when he was lifting a heavy machine with colleagues.

When the chains they were pulling ripped, he fell and damaged his knee. His employers took him to hospital but problems started cropping up last year when the employer reportedly threatened to fire him over what appears to have been a disagreement about medical insurance.COTRAF intervened and the employer agreed to recall the worker.

When Sunday Times tracked and found Irandengera, 23, at King Faisal Hospital, Kigali (KFH-K), where he regularly reports for medically recommended massage and exercise, the young man was reluctant to talk about his ordeal to a journalist.

His feared that it would only serve to cause him trouble with his employers.

But he talked anyway, albeit a little.

He said: “After the accident my employer took me to the district hospital where I got treatment but after a month I was still in pain even though I returned to work. Later, they transferred me to Butare for further checks and I was transferred here at King Faisal in 2016.”

But things got on the wrong footing, later, when doctors recommended he be operated for the second time.

As he recalls, he was supposed to be operated on for the second time in May 2016 but “this dragged on” until January 2018. He says there was a delay as the employer “dragged his feet” while considering other medical insurance options.

Irandengera’s ordeal highlights the likelihood that due to ignorance, lack of proper information and disregard to safety guidelines, many construction site workers are risking their lives as they work without appropriate gear, with safety concerns only surfacing when serious accidents like collapsing buildings occur.

Fearing for his health, Irandengera decided to turn to COTRAF.

“Ever since they got involved things became a bit easier. Before then, I had no idea about the law or what my rights were but now I am properly assisted when I face challenges,” Irandengera said.

“All I need is my employer to support me as required by the law. To date, however, I must state that despite all the challenges I faced, I cannot say that they do not help me because they have. There were delays and challenges but it is never forever as they eventually come through. It was not easy but they helped. They don’t go against the law.”

Reached on phone for comment, Henry Wei, the company’s General Manager, told The New Times on phone from Rusizi district that they do whatever it takes to protect their workers.

“We care about our workers’ protection and we have things such as helmets, and those working higher levels above the ground have belts and other required protective equipment. We also erect sign posts that warn against danger in areas where they could be”.

Asked about Irandengera’s case, Wei sounded a little bit upset but he acknowledged it. He pointed out that when the accident happened nearly three years ago, affected workers were quickly given due medical support and facilitation.

“We’ve had cases of people getting injured at work. And when this case happened we called the insurance company and also, we paid money for their treatment. They were not many and they got very good medical treatment. You can talk to our lawyer,” Wei added.

Wei admitted there were challenges with insurance at the onset “but now he [Irandengera] is fine,” adding that his company has spent more than Rwf2 million on Irandengera’s hospital bills.

Asked about what is being done to improve safety of construction site workers, Fanfan Rwanyindo, Minister for Public Service and Labour, declined to elaborate but noted that the five-year Decent Work Country Programme launched on February 22 “is closely related.”

The new project, the ministry says, includes strategies and priorities that will contribute to creation of more quality employment opportunities through promoting employment for youth and women; extension of social protection for all; and rights at work, among others.

A ministry of labour official off the record told The New Times that the ministry not long ago consulted stakeholders such as the Rwanda Housing Authority (RHA) and the Ministry Of Infrastructure and established proper regulations for the constructions sector and these, hopefully, will guarantee safety and health of construction sector workers.

The regulations are reportedly now at the minister’s desk awaiting her signature.

The regulations whose development reportedly started last year are in a document called “occupational health and safety regulations for the construction sector” and will cater for roads and buildings construction.

The ministry, the official said, met key stakeholders in the construction business two weeks ago and duly briefed them about the content and shared the draft with them.