Kitgum, Uganda: A minutes stroll through the cloud of cotton fumes coming out of the East Acholi Cooperative Ginnery in Kitgum is enough to choke you and force you to halt any further movements.
But for the young lads aged between 18- 25, who earn paltry income for several hard hours of labor, it’s only a matter of time, before they are diagnosed with a chronic chest or lung infections due to the constant inhaling of the cotton furs. Joseph Otim, aged 18, who dropped out of school after his dad died, is one of those we found among others working at the ginnery.
He works for 8 hours a day, from 8- 2 pm earning shs7,000 (USD$1.9). The casuals are paid every fortnight, through the bank that they also accuse of chopping off their money.
Apart from his shattered jeans and a seemingly ‘tired’ pair of vests, Otim spends the better half of the day sorting the tons of cotton before its sacked into the ginnery. He has no safety gears attached to him at all. The other ladies I found pouring water into the cotton to reduce the cotton dust are similarly not wearing any safety gears at all.
These are some of 57 casuals being employed by the Gulu Agricultural Company (GADC), a firm owned a South African, Mr. Bruce Robertson. Last year, (2018) this ginnery produced 17, 000 bales of ready for export lint.
Bruce, through GADC, that is one of the biggest cotton buyers and exporters in Uganda leased the ginnery from East Acholi Cooperatives Union Limited. The Cooperator established from the Union leaders that GADC pays shs120m annually and have leased the facility for five years.
Mr. Bruce Robertson is also the chairperson of the Uganda Ginners and Cotton Exporters Association (UGCEA).
What does our law say about Occupational Safety
In accordance with section 13 of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, 2006, it is obligatory for an employer to ensure the health, safety, and welfare of persons at the workplace.
The employer must take measures to keep the workplace pollution-free by employing technical measures, applied to new plant or processes in design or installation, or added to existing plant or process; or by employing supplementary organizational measures.
The employer must ensure a safe working environment including its vicinity. Proper arrangements should be made to ensure safety and absence of health risks related to the use, handling, storage and transport of articles and substances. Provision and maintenance of workplace which is adequate regarding facilities and arrangements for the welfare of worker are also important.
The Employer should provide and maintain safe and risk-free means of access to an exit from the workplace. Workers must be well informed of the real and potential dangers associated with the use of the substance or machinery and they must be well equipped with personal protective equipment to prevent the risks of accidents or of adverse effects on health.
What the Ginnery Manager says
The Ginnery Manager, Mr. Otukei Robert acknowledges the impasse but says the management has always purchased ear pins for the workers, but they either miss use them, lose or damage them as they wish. “We also got tired as management of purchasing ear safety gears and gas masks, because even if we give them now, by end of the day, they are either lost, misplaced or damaged.”
Otukei also said the ginnery has a risk factor of fire-outbreak. “It’s now a dry and hot season and for sure if the fire is to break out now, the entire ginnery will be burnt to ashes,” he said. He noted that the ginnery lacks water supply, especially during dry seasons.
“We rely on the water that we buy from the police fire brigade trucks. We have a 10,000-liter capacity tank, but it’s not sufficient. The management needs to think about digging underground water to be pumped in huge high tanks,” advised Otukei.,
The ginnery has a capacity of producing between 200- 250 bales of cotton daily. According to Otukei, they are currently producing under capacity, that is a minimum of 150 bales of cotton, (lint) daily. A normal bale ranges between 205 to 215 kgs.
According to Otukei, they employ 57 workers, majority casuals who work in three shifts of 8 hours daily, each earning between shs9,000- shs7, 000 ($2.4-$1.9) daily. The 8 technicians, whom we talked to are paid shs350,000 ($80) per month. In a week the plant produces a minimum of 900 bales of cotton, that generates the firm ($315,000. Shs1.2b). In 2018, the firm sold 17,000 bales of cotton earning them over $6million (shs21billion).