South Africa: Workers Protest Against Labour Exploitation by Indian owned Fortune Steel

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By Pavan Kulkarni/ The Dawn News/ April 16, 2018

The day after workers protested against the unsafe working conditions at the Fortune Steel smelting factory, a furnace explosion in the premises injured seven workers, one of whom is in critical condition. On April 13, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) along with the company’s workers marched to the Department of Labour to protest against the labour exploitation and hazardous working environment in the Fortune Steel plant in Nigel, which owned by India based Fortune Group.

“If the officials of the Department of Labour in Nigel had taken the complaints of the workers and our members seriously and intervened, this accident would probably never have happened,” NUMSA has said in a statement.

In an attempt to avoid drawing attention to the incident, the management of this India-based firm, of industrialist Bhagwan Das Bansal, operating in the Nigel region of South Africa, “refused to call the ambulance and attempted to transport the injured themselves using private vehicles,” the statement alleges.

However, the explosion, which was loud enough to be heard in the surrounding townships, drew the attention of police, who on arriving at the scene apprehended a management personnel for attempting to transport the injured workers to the hospital using a private car. It was only after this police intervention that the ambulances were called, Hlubi-Majola, the national spokesperson of NUMSA, told Newsclick/ The Dawn News. The union has further alleged that the families of those injured were not informed about the incident by the management.

Instead of providing trauma counselling to the workers reeling under the shock from the explosion, the management forced them resume with their night shift work from 7 p.m to 7 a.m. This, Hlubi-Majola said, is a violation of South Africa’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, which stipulates that such incidents should be reported to the Department of Labour, following which officials from the department must inspect the place to ensure the safety of the work environment, before production can be resumed. However, the firm did not report the incident and resumed with production “as if nothing had happened”, NUMSA has complained, and has demanded that the plant be shut down till the Labour department officials inspect the place and affirm the safety of working conditions. .  

Since the company started operating from February last year, a number of workers have sustained injuries while working. According to the Health and Safety act, all the injuries must to be reported to the Department of Labour by the management and all the workers should receive protective clothing. Not only has Fortune Steel failed to report these injuries and provide protective clothing to all its workers, but the company has also fired 19 of these injured employees without providing them with any compensation, Hlubi-Majola has told Newsclick. NUMSA claims to have recorded at least 70 cases of unlawful dismissals of employees by this firm. Fortune Steel has recently refused to grant trade organizational rights to NUMSA, which has organized the majority of the workers in the firm

Calling Fortune Steel as “the most abusive employer.. in the entire Nigel area”, NUMSA has accused the company of not only “flouting basic health and safety laws”, but also “ignoring labour laws.” Any employee working for more than 45 hours is entitled to overtime pay in South Africa. However, many employees in this factory have told NUMSA that they have been working for 7 days a week – for more than 45 hours – but have been receiving only a portion of the pay they are entitled to. “They have been robbed of their full wages”, Hlubi-Majola told Newsclick/The Dawn News. Fortune Steel has also been accused of failing to give payslips to its workers and of not registering its employees “for UIF and Provident Fund as required by the law.”

She has also alleged that the company has built a hostel on its premises to house workers brought in from India to work in its factory. Suspecting that these Indian workers are “undocumented immigrants”, NUMSA has called for an end to this system, which undermines employment generation in South Africa and allows for exploitation of foreign workers in the country.   

A day before this explosion of the furnace injured several workers, 300 of the 600 workers employed by the firm had marched to Fortune Steels and handed over a memorandum to the management and to the Department of Labour, demanding that the company should “adhere to the rule of law, whether they like it or not.”

Calling for the intervention of Indian embassy in South Africa, a separate memorandum was prepared, which the Indian Ambassador was invited to receive. “But unfortunately, the Indian officials didn’t attend the protest,” Hlubi-Majola said.     

A strongly worded ultimatum in the memorandum addressing the Indian embassy says:
“.. In South Africa, there are rights of employees which were fought for by our own forefather, therefore, we are not prepared to throw them away so easily and allow your Indian nationals to flout them..To those who are still planning to come to South Africa because they think it’s a country where it’s possible [to have a system of] modern slavery.. tell them that they must look somewhere else because we are ready to defend ourselves against any form of exploitation.”

Newsclick/ The Dawn News has been unable to reach Fortune Steel on phone. A questionnaire has been sent to the company, and this article will be updated as soon as a response is received from the company.

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