Breaking their backs in mines in the country and often at the risk of their lives and health, workers are suffering untold abuse in these obscured enterprises. Surprisingly, authorities seem not interested in the dark happenings in these mining operations
By Wezzie Gausi:
Tucked in hard-to-reach nooks and crannies of the North, some coal mines in Chitipa and Karonga districts are rarely in the limelight.
In those shadows, we have established, the mines are flaming with all manner of crushing injustices to communities and their workers.
From 11 to 14 October 2022, we visited Hara, C&M Group and Lisikwa coal mining sites in the two districts — got threatened by security that we would be shot at if we tried to enter some sites.
We saw and heard heart-rending testimonies of direct and indirect suffering of the people at the hands of the mines.
The injustices range from sordid working conditions, abandonment of workers that get injured in the line of duty and extensive damage to the environment, putting the health of the communities at a potentially grave risk.
For the communities Malawi News interacted with, the general position is that the official narrative that mining brings positive transformation does not apply to them.
Hard work and no pay
Workers at Lisikwa Coal Mine, for instance, complained of exploitation by the mining company.
Crushers told Malawi News that they are required to produce 15 wheelbarrows of coal every day. But rarely do all workers manage to meet this quota because the work is hard. The price for not reaching that quota is that one does not get paid regardless of the number of wheelbarrows filled – as long as it is not 15.
“To me this is workplace abuse. Imagine we do our work in the sun, and only not to get paid because one has failed to crush 15 wheelbarrows even when you have done the best part of the job,” said one crusher (We have chosen not to name our sources for their protection).
We also learnt that rarely are the workers paid on time, neither do they have holidays.
“We are the slaves here. This job does not have holidays, sick leave or funeral excuses. If anything of that nature happens to you, you are assured of not being paid.
“Sometimes, we stay for close to three months without pay. The company supervisors end up lending us money in form of katapila [usury]. We are suffering,” said a sorter at the mine.
Group Village Headman Kamtenthenga, in whose area the mine is located, said the community, through the Wasambo Mining Committee, has been trying to negotiate for improvement of conditions of the workers at the mine.
“Whatever we agree is not being implemented by the mining officials. I am at a loss as to what else to do. But my community needs help,” Kamtenthenga said.
We contacted one of the managers of Lisikwa Coal Mine, Jere Kapirimtende, for comment.
He charged that what we visited was not Lisikwa Coal Mine because his mine closed in September due to fuel shortages and there were no people working at the mine.
“I don’t deal with Malawian newspapers as you always write bad things about mining. Whatever you heard is not happening at Lisikwa mines,” he said.
Crushed to paralysis
Despite their contribution to the operations of the mines, not all workers are lucky to get reasonable support when they get injured in the line of duty.
Forty-year-old Gracewell Kayange of Mtende Village, Traditional Authority Mwaulambia in Chitipa, had worked with Hara Coal Mines for five years as a driller when, in 2019, a tunnel he was working in collapsed. Two rocks came down on him, one crashing the helmet on his head and the other falling on his back.
Colleagues pulled him out of the rubble.
“I thank God I was wearing a helmet that day. Otherwise, I could have been dead,” Kayange said.
But the incident left him paralysed as he now uses a wheelchair.
Despite pushing for compensation from his employers, there has been no result. At best, the company still gives him K35,000 every month. His salary was K50,000. At the time of our visit, he had gone three months without receiving the money.
Hara Mines owner Magoli Gondwe said the company has been paying all Kayange’s hospital bills and taking care of his family.
He further said the support the company has rendered to him surpasses the compensation which he could have received.
“Our conscience is clear. We asked him to choose what he wanted, whether to be compensated or remain on monthly salary, but he opted for a salary and that is what we have been doing.
“Of course, we haven’t been able to pay him for a month as the economic landscape has not been okay with this fuel crisis,” Gondwe said.
In the communities we visited, the impact of the mines was evident: vegetation, rooftops and water points in the rivers covered in mass of black dust.
In Paulosi Village in Traditional Authority Kilupula in Karonga District, for instance, there is no alternative source of water for the community other than a river. But since C&M Group opened a mine in the area, the water is contaminated by coal dust.
Village Headman Paulosi said all their efforts to have clean water in the village have proved futile.
“We have grown to accept the situation now. As you can see, our soils are being affected. The river is contaminated with coal.
“With the mining happening in this village, we cannot eat outside the house. We inhale the bad smell of coal and other substances from the mine,” she said.
In addition, the community was never made aware about the coming of a mining operation in the area. In 2018, Paulosi village just woke up to trucks and graders clearing fields and roads.
In 2019, noticing the environmental degradation the mine was causing, people planned a protest for the closure of the mine but they were blocked by a senior traditional leader for the area.
In Kambenene Village, two children, 8 and 10 years old, got burnt by coal spilled into a river bank and buried in the sand, leaving them with serious wounds and difficulties in walking.
Farmer Kalolo Mzuma lost three of his cattle last year also to fire caused by coal from the mines.
According to him, the miner “secretly managed to extinguish the fire and cordoned off the area”, effectively limiting the grazing range of the animals.
Until recently, for five years, the community lived in fear of the fire raging in the mountain in the village, courtesy of coal mine.
“The fire could not be extinguished and the miners just left the hill and started mining on the other side,” Mzuma said.
What do the authorities say?
Labour offices in the two districts and civil society organisations such as the Karonga Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace are aware of these developments and they have tried to intervene in some cases.
But there has been no success, leading them to refer the issues to higher ranks.
Yet, when contacted, Labour Commissioner Hlalerwayo Nyangulu, told us he was not aware of some of the developments we brought to him.
For Kayange’s case in particular, he said he would need more time to consult.
“We will be looking into the issue and see where we are stuck on the matter. I am sure that something is being done. All labour issues will be resolved,” he said.
Director of Mines in the Ministry of Mining, Burnet Msika, said his office has not received any formal or informal complaint on developments at the mines.
He further said officials at the ministry have been conducting routine inspections and did not find anything concerning.
“What the workers are saying maybe true or at the same time false. Mining will always have positive and negative impact,” Msika said.
Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) Director of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Makhumbo Munthali said the Commission did receive a complaint against two of the mentioned mining companies. But the Commission’s investigations have stalled due to lack of funding.
“Relating to the general appalling situation of working conditions in mining companies, the Commission plans to, subject to availability of funds, carry out a nationwide human rights monitoring of working conditions in all key mining sites in the country,” he said.
Munthali said while MHRC can intervene on such matters from a human rights angle, the primary duty to inspect labour working conditions rests with the Ministry of Labour.