Miners working in the underbelly of coal-rich hills find themselves groping in the dark for their rights and occupational safety.
Jaw crushers break rocks to size and rattling conveyor belts offload the blackish grains into trucks that queue for nearly a week or two. The humming machines welcome you to Mchenga Coal Mine in Rumphi.
On the Northern Corridor, the hive of activity marks the beginning or the ending of a hugely potholed winding tarmac that snakes past the accident-prone Chiweta escarpments.
For miners, the truckloads of coal departing the loading bay only symbolise goods delivered—an arduous task that exposes hundreds to “harsh working conditions” underneath the hills.
When the surface workers say “it’s good to go”, it is no end to the job many term dirty, unrewarding and not worth doing until retirement.
“When one truck leaves, another arrives. The job goes on and on. It’s risky down there, a matter of life or death. But what do we get at the end of the month? The paymaster’s change,” said one of them but he requested not to be named.
Garbed in dirty overalls, the miners talked about more work and less pay, complaining about massive exposure to coal dust which leaves them with coughs, chest aches and other respiratory conditions allegedly symptomatic of graver consequences of their job.
The risk is greater for miners who work underneath the hill, they say.
Race to the bottom
Depletion of coal seams on the surface has left mining firms racing to the bottommost seams of coal using a room-and-pillar method which Mchenga operations mining engineer Johnson Dandazi described as expensive and wasteful.
It is almost outdated as well, said Malawi Institution of Engineers president (North) Francis Gondwe.
The tunnel lies slightly over 10 kilometres away from the jaw crushers splitting rocks into pea-size coal destined for flue-cured tobacco estates and factories; smaller grains sold to Central Poultry; and the finer duff often exported to Tanzania.
We travelled the narrow, rocky road which meanders across the slopes of Livingstonia coalfields on the way to Mwandila Mine which churn out nearly 250 tonnes of coal a month.
On the way, danger lurks and workers were spotted rushing for their shift in the shadow of signs warning against ‘explosives’ and ‘steep slopes’. There are about 290 of them and one out of every 10 is a woman, official figures show.
Mwandila is a ‘hard hat area’—a no-go zone for people without helmets. However, some workers were seen working without protective gear. Hinting at lax enforcement of safety standards, insiders said part of the at-risk workforce, especially the old-guard, wear and take off the helmets at will.
“We have requisite accessories, but some people feel uncomfortable wearing it given the abnormal temperatures in the tunnel,” said our source.
Last year, Dandazi, who refuses to speak to journalists without permission from above, told MIE students from Mzuni that mining is a hazardous profession by nature.
He alluded to falling rocks, injuries and other eventualities, saying: “Accidents occur, but we have a zero-harm policy to ensure nobody is injured or killed at work.”
He bragged: “Our safety record is impressive. We have had no rock fall or fatalities in a long time.”
During the MIE visit, at 11.30am, we ventured into Mwandira tunnel that lies 120 metres under the hill where some workers had been holed up since 6am.
Behind a narrow entrance constricted with supporting logs, hardships in the belly of the earth begin. The floor is wet, something which lessens sweat-provoking temperatures and dust in the confinement. There are also compressor pipes pumping out excess ground water seeping in. The roof of the dimly lit hole is a rocky affair with electricity wires, cloudy bulbs, the conveyor ejecting mineral rocks to a spot where they are tipped into vehicles that ferry the black cargo to the crusher zone.
Carpenters were seen fixing the woodwork which reinforces the walls comprising seams of soil, coal and rocks — measuring 10m by 10m — which are left unmined to prevent the mine from falling in. The leftovers make the ‘room and pillar’ approach inefficient.
“It leaves behind a lot of coal. But if you take it out, it will collapse,” warned Dandazi, indicating the pillars are often mined as an exit strategy.
Delving deeper, fresh air gives way to a humid heat wave. Some workers take off their hats, protective masks and overalls to keep cool despite a special underpass which refreshes air across the tunnels, a natural ventilation system supplemented by fans here and there.
At the dead end of the constricted subway, we saw miners ferrying coal chiselled from seams of coal estimated at 2.5m high. Some people were seen racing with wheelbarrows—they call them trammers—to meet their daily work demand.
The race to the bottom has left workers endangered for inadequate pay, shows a report produced by the Rumphi district labour officer Kaleni Malema after inspecting Mchenga and Kaziwiziwi coal mines in April 2014.
Weekend Nation obtained the April 2014 report in which the labour official finds both mines wanting.
It reads: “The working environment was reported to be relatively harsh for workers at both Mchenga and Kaziwiziwi mines. A tour into one of the deepest mine section of Mchenga coal mines Ltd reported unfavourable working environment in the underground mines which include inadequate light, loneliness, and heat, among others.”
According to the report, Malema further verified the findings with a government occupational safety, health and welfare expert who reportedly described the underground work environment as “generally health hazardous”.
“A situation where one has to work in a confined space [is] bound to affect the worker’s work efficiency,” the expert is quoted as saying.
Underground miners at both sites work for eight hours as required by the country’s labour laws and the United Nations’ International Labour Organisation (ILO).
The mines’ staff at Mchenga is split into three shifts which rotate on weekly basis. The first works underneath the hill from 6am to 2pm. The second takes its turn from 2pm to 10am. The last spans 10am -6am. Kaziwiziwi, however, operates a nine-hour shift, from 7am to 4pm, with an hour-long lunch break.
The inspector found the working hours good, but not good enough for the underground miners, the human faces behind the race to the bottom.
“The working-hours condition is not really the problem but rather the work environment,” reads the report, explaining: “With such work environment, an 8-hour work schedule may not be favourable on the part of workers. This could be complicated by the fact that any resting time utilised while at work in the underground mine may still not be of much relevant in a bit lonely working environment.”
Low pay, no play
The Ministry of Labour and Manpower Development reports that in April 2014, the monthly pay at Mchenga was higher than the minimum wage of K16 530 set by government in 2013.
The salaries range between K17 540 and K80 000, with the underground workers being the least paid as drillers were pocketing K21 286, timbermen K20 050, trammers K20 199 and safety officers K17 540.
By contrast, the salaries were below the legally acceptable minimum at Kaziwiziwi where 44 people in a random sample of 70 were earning K12 415. These included sorters, checkers, compressor attendants, safety officers and security guard. Equally underpaid were the tunnel labour force — drillers (K15 500), timbermen (K13 585) and trammers (K14 000) — whose pay was over 15 times less than the mine manager’s K195 000.
“Paying workers correctly is a right. Failure to honour the minimum wage is a serious labour issue, but employers are encouraged to pay more because the cost of living is rising every day,” reads the report.
In random interviews at Mchenga, the workers said “meagre pay” compels them to sacrifice their leisure time for overtime shifts which fetch more than normal hours.
Trapped between a rock and a hard place, a candid miner said the workers’ constrained livelihood boil to one rule of life: “booze all weekend and starve or go back to work and be welcomed by a smiling family.”
Malema says better pay is necessary for the labourers to engage in leisure activities and less harmful income generating alternatives.
His report elaborates: “This would be better because high wage rate will help these workers to have increased or rather sufficient monthly earnings for their upkeep and, hence reduce their tendencies of struggling to work even on Sundays to increase their pay. Instead, they will opt to rest.”
It adds: “The reduced work hours will help workers to be in a rather unfavourable work environment for a lesser period of time to allow for relaxation thereafter.”
Ample rest is known to save workers from preventable accidents which are allegedly reported later than 21 days prescribed by law.
For three years, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) has been campaigning for improved governance and transparency in the country’s extractive sector, including Mchenga and Kaziwiziwi coal mines.
According to Karonga Diocese’s CCJP programmes manager Sydney Mwakaswaya, concerns of low pay and shortage of safety accessories were raised during their advocacy in Rumphi North.
“Three years ago, some workers were earning as low as K8 000 and the salaries were raised to around K12 500 after negotiations in October 2013,” said Mwakaswaya.
He said the workers are justified to negotiate for more than just the minimum wage to match the high cost of living and compensate for the prevailing inhumane working conditions.
But the main tragedy, according to Malema, is that the miners have no trade unions to push their interest despite the existence of the Chemicals and Miners Trade Union which Malawi Congress of Trade Union (MCTU) secretary General Pontius Kalichero said was a recognised defender of their rights.