Seven workers were injured and one needed critical assistance after a furnace exploded at the Fortune Steel plant in Nigel, on the East Rand.
The National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (Numsa) alleges that during those critical moments, management at Fortune Steel overlooked the safety of their employees and instead tried to squash the severity of the explosion to a minor incident.
Numsa’s Siyabonga Mbuqe said he received a call at around midnight on Saturday, notifying him of the explosion.
“The explosion was big; it was heard by communities who stay around 20km away. Instead of calling medical services to the scene, the injured employees were transferred in private vehicles to the nearest hospital,” Mbuqe said.
He said that when the police arrived on the scene, they weren’t allowed into the premises initially.
“We had to tell them that the injured employees were already being transported in private vehicles, so the police chased down the vehicles, stopped them and then called the ambulances for the employees,” Mbuqe said.
Mbuqe said that he saw the state of the injured employee, and he required urgent medical care.
Speaking to City Press on behalf of Steel Fortune this morning was Gaurav Bansal, a director and shareholder in the mining company.
Bansal refutes allegations of mistreating its employees, and says that the company has made every effort to ensure that it is complying with labour law procedures in the country.
Bansal said that the reason the employees were rushed off in private vehicles to the hospital was because they needed urgent medical care.
“There is no reason for the company to cover up the situation as we are not doing anything against the law over here. The company is fully registered with Rand Mutual Assurance for compensation for any injuries on site due to any accidents that happen. We have been told that the reason for taking the employees in a private vehicle was to not lose any critical time in [the] emergency and to take all necessary steps to give the required care to the injured,” Bansal said.
He said that the company was aware of two employees who were critically injured, and that others with minor injuries received onsite treatment from the paramedics .
“We do understand [and take note] that his incident was definitely not a minor workplace issue and the necessary investigation is being undertaken to go to the bottom of the [incident] to [assess] the cause of the incident,” Bansal said.
He said that the company’s priority at the moment was to investigate the cause behind the explosion, and that foul play had not been ruled out.
“We feel we need to cover all avenues, because it could be that since the company has been doing so well and there are people who are unhappy that the company has been doing well, we need to make sure that foul play is not the reason why the furnace exploded,” he said.
Responding to allegations by Numsa that employees have not been receiving compensation for things like Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) and provident funds, he called these “unsubstantiated claims”.
“The payslips clearly show that UIF is deducted and submitted to [the South African Revenue Service] on a monthly basis. There is no legal requirement to contribute or deduct provident fund as per the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.”
Mbuqe, however, says that the company does not provide payslips.
“I have seen for myself that the employees do not receive payslips. There is no UIF, provident fund or anything,” Mbuqe said.
Last week, workers of the plant presented a memorandum to the company with a list of grievances, including that there had been an increase in injuries at the plant. Numsa also alleged that there had been 70 cases of “unlawful dismissal” at the company since it began its operations in February last year.
“At least 19 of those were fired because they sustained injuries on the job and they were never compensated,” Numsa said in a statement this morning.
Bansal has asked Numsa to provide proof.
“We would request Numsa, to please give us names of such persons for further investigations as we do not have any communication from CCMA for any unlawful dismissals. We are of the opinion that it is for the CCMA to decide if any dismissal is un-lawful. Numsa should also let us know who the 19 injured people are who have been dismissed,” he said.
Bansal said that the company is committed to the safety of their employees.
“The question that needs to be asked is whether Numsa is acting in interest of the employees by putting false allegations against the company which is trying to create jobs for the local community. We would like to put on record that these false allegations has seriously caused huge reputation damage to the company and all expansion plans of the company and creating an extra 500 jobs have been put on hold indefinitely,” Bansal added.
Last week City Press reported that a worker, who had been injured in a separate incident, after he was impaled with a steel rod which had fallen, has been receiving a monthly salary of R750. His medical costs were however covered by the company.
Bansal has since said the following:
“The employee who was injured was a casual and was at his first day [on] duty. He is an unskilled person and was entitled to R150 a day in normal circumstances. But due to the unfortunate incident, he was unable to continue his duties with us, so his injury compensation was accordingly calculated and is being paid. We can confirm that his monthly compensation would be higher than R750 a month based on the above.”
Mbuqe said that they had tried without success to reach an amicable agreement with the Indian-owned company, and said that they were busy negotiating worker’s rights with the company.
“All allegations as put by the trade union are totally false and we condemn these actions and we request them to cooperate with us for the benefit of the business and workers in specific and the community and economy in general,” Bansal said.