In interviews conducted between January 6 and 7, workers of China Railway Number Five, a Chinese company building the Kabwoya-Hoima road, accused their bosses of mistreating, underpaying, assaulting and sexually harassing them.
China Railway Number Five is working on the 100km Kabwoya-Hoima road project worth about Shs 140 billion. The project began last year and is set to be completed in May next year.
Many of the workers bared their grievances during a weekend meeting with Uganda National Roads Authority (Unra) executive director, Allen Kagina, at the Chinese camp at Buhimba in the district of Hoima. Kagina was in the district for her routine on-the-ground inspection of road projects.
During the meeting, workers decried the poor working conditions, unfair dismissals, a lack of insurance cover and proper job contracts.
“We came from far to look for money but things are not good. We are paid so little yet we work a lot. I am a truck driver making more than 10 trips a day but I am paid just Shs 9,000 a day,” said a driver, who declined to be named for fear of being victimised.
Other workers interviewed said they don’t know the salary they are entitled to get. They said the salary stipulated in their contracts is not what they receive.
“I never saw what was written on my contract because I was told not to read anything on the paper but just to sign. As soon as I did, the man wrote Shs 11,000 somewhere. This is what I receive daily and it includes my transport to and from home and my lunch,” one surveyor said.
The workers also said they get no annual leave. Those who get the leave are not paid for it, while those who get accidents on the job are not compensated. They added that their salaries are cut in case of an accident.
For example, if a truck gets a flat tyre, a driver is fined.
“When you get hurt here, it’s up to you. You have to treat yourself and if you are absent that day, you are not paid. When you stay away from work during treatment, you come back here only to be fired,”another worker said.
The workers further said they are beaten or pelted with stones by their angry bosses if they take a break from work. They said they have lodged several complaints with the district police commander (DPC), the resident district commissioner (RDC) and the district labor officer but got no help.
They claimed the three leaders are often seen at the Chinese camp getting free fuel, adding that they have photographic evidence to support their allegations.
“The Chinese say that this is no longer Uganda, that it is now China and that however bad they treat us, we cannot report them anywhere because we are poor people. They say that in Uganda nothing is impossible if you have money,” another worker said.
Interviewed for a comment on the workers’ complaints, the RDC of Hoima, Isaac Kawooya, said he is being witch-hunted because he and other security officers in the district are thwarting the workers’ attempts to steal construction materials.
“These are some of the drivers I arrested red-handed stealing fuel. My humble question is, ‘do you think these drivers will say nice things about the RDC?’ Let whoever is implicated carry his own cross, and not blame some of us who have persisted in executing our duties ethically and diligently,” Kawooya said.
The Hoima DPC, Bernard Akwankwasa, also denied turning a deaf ear to the workers’ complaints. He said he has resolved several cases against the Chinese. He, however, admitted picking fuel from the Chinese camp.
“I have handled about five cases of Chinese beating workers and these workers have been duly compensated. These workers are stealing materials and when we arrest them, they claim we are mistreating them,” he said.
“About fuel, sometimes these Chinese give us work. Even the IGP [Inspector General of Police, Kale Kayihura] said these people should support us if we are going to do their work; so, we get fuel from there.”
After a two-hour meeting with the Chinese contractors, Unra boss Kagina told journalists that the authority will review its bidding process to see that contractors who can’t address basic worker-related issues are sidelined.
“Our assessment is that workers’ conditions must improve. We have agreed with the contractors and we have drafted a list of items that we are going to track,” she said.
Kagina added that Unra will report the local leaders that the workers are complaining about to their respective bosses. Similar complaints of little pay, poor work conditions and cases of assault were raised by workers of another Chinese firm, China Wu Yi Company Limited, which is working on the Kyenjojo–Fort Portal road. Some of the workers here said they are paid Shs 3,500 a day.
A World Bank team, which arrived on Monday, is scheduled to inspect some of the road projects the bank is funding, to assess whether the environment and social issues that led to the freezing of their funding in 2015 have been addressed.
The World Bank cancelled funding for the Fort Portal- Kamwenge road as well as Kabwoya – Hoima road last year. The government then took over funding for the road projects, which will be completed in February.
“It is our work to see that the work here is completed and completed well. The issues that came as a result of this road, we own them. When we have finished the inspections, a report shall be written to the World Bank and they will verify it as we wait for the lifting of the suspensions of the projects,” Kagina said.
At least 45 cases of defilement have been recorded on these road projects.