By Steven Godfrey Mkweteza

John Butao of Mpembu area in Ndirande Township in Blantyre district will live to remember the night of January 20, 2015. It was the night when his hand was cut off by the machine he was operating at his workplace within the Makata Industrial area in Blantyre city.

According to the thirty-two-year old Butao, he could see the incident coming.

That day, when his hand was cut off, marked the beginning of a new era of miseries in life and all his de-pendants considering that he was a bread winner. John could help to take care of his brothers and sisters who were about to turn into street beggars because their parents were too poor to provide for the entire family of five members including grandchildren.

The situation worsened when his company did not take any responsibility of taking care of him during hospitalization. Worse still, his compensation was not given despite taking the issue to the union, labour offices, industrial court and compensation commission.

Even though Butao tried to plead with the company to give him a soft work he could manage to do with his right hand alone, the company gave him a cold shoulder. He in no time started begging for alms in the city streets, having been rejected by other companies too due to his status.

Ironically, after the accident had handicapped, Butao was fired from his job and now has no any source of income to support his family, he now depends on the family and relatives for his day to-day upkeep.

The story of Butao is among the many narratives about people who become handicapped following accidents at workplaces. They are tales of misfortunes that lead to long disability or eventual death.

They are sad tales as many employers and employees seem not aware of what to do or where to go with issues of compensation when accidents occur at workplaces.

Ironically, after the accident had handicapped, Butao was fired from his job and now has no any source of income to support his family, he now depends on the family and relatives for his day to-day upkeep.

In a poor country like Malawi where illiteracy levels is high and there is extreme poverty, occupational safety and health risks at workplaces are not taken seriously and its victims remain quite. If they report the cases to their authorities, they risk their jobs and if successful, their success is further hampered by corruption.

Some critics have observed a pool of factors that compel Malawian workers to suffer in silence just like Butao, one of them being high levels of job insecurity that capture workers in intense dedication in their workplaces, even though they are going through unpleasant situation which put their lives in jeopardy.

Other investigations reveal that most employees do not know safety measures at their workplace because of its unavailability and lack of awareness. They use sophisticated plants though not trained on how to operate potentially the hazardous machinery to prevent injuries or deaths resulting from mishandling of the machines.

“Some of us know that our job needs personal safety and protective gear but we cannot dare discuss the issue with our bosses for fear of being regarded as troublesome,” one worker confides under anonymity.

“Whenever we inquire to our bosses about occupational safety and health measures in our workplace, they threaten to suspend or fire us. So, due to the scarcity of jobs, we just choose to close our mouth for fear that we may end up losing the hard fought job and go back to poverty,” he adds.

Authorities, however, are not ignorant about the occupational safety and health risks the workers are subjected to. According to Chief Labour officer and regional labour officer for the southern region, Lenius Daiton, they are aware of the malpractice which heavily affects the well-being of workers since they die due to poor working environment and that most of them do not perform well because they suffer from various diseases, resulting in the collapse of machines due to poor performance on the market.

“Most industrial accidents indeed go unreported. They are either caused by sheer negligence or wrongly placed machines that prevent workers from escaping as was the case at Venus Garments factory,” says Daiton.

This is aggravated by the fact that the occupational health and safety department in the ministry of labour fails to conduct their routine inspection of factories and industries and faces many challenges when it comes to recording accidents that have happened within their premises because of meager and inadequate resources it is allocated with.

As a result, employers relax in providing or observing safety procedures. They also fail to provide information, instructions, training and supervision to employers. That aside, safety committees in most industries are non-existent and this compromises safe use of machinery and other equipment.

Government, according to Good luck Kayange, the chief occupational safety and health officer and regional occupational safety, Health and welfare officer for the southern region, is reviewing labour laws to promote social justice and labour rights.

Failure to hold regular inspection of workplaces has its price. It poses risks to the health of employees and the public. Industrial accidents that could easily be prevented happen, causing injuries or even deaths to workers. Of course, the deceased families are compensated but that is not the solution to the problem.

Reports indicate that there are over 900 registered workplaces in the southern region alone that require inspection. However, Kayange acknowledges that the department of occupational, health and safety is underfunded yet it is expected to inspect factories regularly.

Kayange however, says some companies of good will pick inspectors from the department to have their workplaces inspected. But he was quick to say the tendency compromise the department’s stand on safety.

“Promotion of safety, health and welfare of employees is the principal objective of the occupational, safety, health and welfare act. This objective can only be achieved through inspection by the ministry to create safe conditions in workplaces. ,” says Kayange

The Malawi government enacted the occupational safety, health and welfare act in 1997 with an aim of promoting health and safety at work.

The OSHW act sets out the general duties of employers as follows-“it shall be the duty of every employer to ensure the safety, health and welfare at work of all employees” (section 13 and 14).

“All accidents at workplace must be reported at labor office and employers must ensure that there are proper safety measures that are put in place for the safety of the employees, “says Frank Adini, the executive director for the local labour advocacy organization, the labor rights organization (Laro).

He says the ministry of labour has a department that follows up on such issues by, among others, working hand in hand with the hospital to ascertain the degree of injury.

But Malawi congress of trade unions (MCTU) secretary general, Dennis Kalekeni, says deliberate ignorance of the laws by the employers waiting for employees to complain first is an example of abuse.

General duties of employees at the workplace are also set out in the act; “to take reasonable care for the safety and health of him and other persons who may be affected by their acts or omission” and to comply with any institution issued by or on behalf of the employers in pursuit of their legal duty.”(Section 18).

Kalekeni warns workers against compromising the safety of their lives for fear of losing their jobs and told them to confront their bosses when they notice any anomaly in the safety of the workplace.

He also warns foreign investors against using local workers as ‘machines’ by exposing them to risks in their workplaces and demanded they should be paid according to the work they are doing. Kalekeni observes that most companies do not have enough staff, hence overworking human resource.

Government needs to get to the root of the accidents to find lasting solution. Memories are still fresh of the Kayelekela accident where two people were injured and died in South Africa where they went for treatment.

The solution lies in committing enough resources to the department to ensure that companies comply with legal instruments on the safety, health and welfare of workplaces. In the 2020/21 budget, the department needs a meaningful allocation. Otherwise, it will be the same story of injuries here, death there.

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Robert Ngwira
Attended Our Future Private Secondary School in Rumphi from 2006-2009 Holder of Diploma in Journalism from Malawi Institute of Journalism (MIJ) Hobbies, reading newspapers, going out with friends, listening to radio and watching football. Email: info@faceofmalawi.com

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