The shame of our marble mines

In sharp juxtaposition of where the mined marble goes, the miners who take the precious commodity out of the earth are working in squalor.

12 July 2019 | Business

Health and safety hazards, below-minimum wages, harsh working conditions and working without employment contracts are just some of the issues marble miners continue to endure in the Erongo Region.

Despite various interventions by different governmental departments, this situation has persisted over the years, with employees at some of these quarries, mainly run by non-English speaking Chinese nationals, are still working under difficult circumstances.

The workers, some of whom came from as far as the northern regions to seek employment in the many marble quarries in the Erongo mountains, say they are forced to work seven days a week, drilling, cutting and loading marble for a paltry N$1 600 basic salary a month with no additional benefits.

A labour study conducted in 2018 indicated that a person earning this amount per month would not be able to cater for their basic needs and would still be living in poverty.

One of the said quarries is the Ekungungu mine, located about 20 kilometres from Omatjete in the Daures constituency.



Unsafe

The 20 employees at this mine who spoke to Nampa anonymously, due to the fear of intimidation and victimisation, revealed that they work for close to 12 hours a day. They further risk their health as they are each required to use one dust mask and a pair of gloves for at least three months as instructed by their Chinese supervisors, using sign language as a means of communication.

“At times, three months would pass without receiving any new masks or gloves and they would tell us to just wash them and reuse them, which is unsafe as the gloves are not durable and dust masks are disposable,” said one of the workers.

All the workers share three prefabricated bedrooms, in which until recently, they have had to sleep in makeshift beds of pallets and planks.

“They just recently welded these beds together after the [Mineworkers Union of Namibia's] visit here last month. That one toilet was constructed last week,” the workers pointed out.

They added that the company has no transport available onsite for emergency cases and often when the need to travel arises, they wait for hours before a hired pick-up arrives.

“When somebody gets sick, we are just forced to walk 10 kilometres to the main road to try and find transport into the nearest town. When we need to buy food and other necessities during pay weekends, they drop us off in Omaruru and expect us back on site by Sunday, and finding transport into these mountains is not easy.”



Paid peanuts

The employees, although very dissatisfied with their salaries, have given up questioning the matter as they have been “threatened to just leave if they had any issues”.

“The work we do is so much for what we are earning, but we have no choice as we have nowhere to go and have families to feed back home.”

At Ongeama mine, a neighbouring quarry, the seven workers there work in gumboots and have to use pieces of cloth over their mouths and noses as there are no dust masks.

Here, the workers made their living structures from marble cut-offs, which although steady are not durable, especially during the rainy season.

“The tiny rooms always get flooded when it rains, leaving our belongings damaged,” they said.

One of the workers confided in this reporter that he was requested to drive and operate one of the heavy vehicles, even though he does not have a driver's licence.

Contacted for comment, Ekungungu managing director Lukas Sasamba denied the allegations of the employees, saying they are given masks and gloves at least every week.

“I have a trusted community member whom I have tasked to go and inspect the workers' conditions every now and then and unless he is not telling me the truth, he says everything is going well at the site,” Sasamba said.

Sasamba, who revealed that his last visit to the site was about four months ago, also said although he has given them the freedom to contact him, none of the employees have ever called him or spoken to the supervisor onsite about any grievance and that he was shocked to hear about the claims made by workers through Nampa.

He refused to discuss the wages, only telling this agency that the company is “busy making adjustments to make the employees' living conditions better at the site” and that they are also busy with wage negotiations with the MUN.



Union needs help

In an interview, MUN western regional coordinator George Ampweya condemned the working and living conditions of the workers at the quarries.

Ampweya told Nampa there have been numerous correspondences with the companies, while minimal changes have been made.

“The union intends to engage with relevant stakeholders to look into possibly determining a minimum wage in the marble and granite cutting industries as indeed these employees are exposed to extremely low wages and little to no benefits,” Ampweya said.

Additionally, he noted, however, that the union is faced with significant challenges of blatant disregard and non-compliance of Namibian legislation by these mostly Chinese-owned companies.

“We equally call upon the offices of the labour inspectors to partner up with us in our efforts to ascertain that the minimum employment conditions are met and adhered to.”

The director of labour dervices, Aune Mudjanima, told Nampa that the labour ministry advises bargaining unions representing these employees to take up such issues with the line ministries, and that the necessary investigations will be done.

“The unions are our stakeholders and they know where and what exactly to do when it comes to issues like these. If it is an issue of conditions of service such as salaries, benefits, then we deal with them,” said Mudjanima.

–Nampa

Isabel Bento

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