SINOHYDRO has been contracted for the expansion project of Hwange 7 and 8 to increase electricity on the grid. The Chinese company has been accused of abusing its workers and failing to adequately address labour related issues.
Business reporter Kudzai Kuwaza (KK) spoke to the Sinohydro deputy project manager Tang Zhaolai (TZ, pictured) to discuss the accusations, the progress made on the project and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on operations among other issues. Below are the excerpts:
KK: First of all, please tell us more about Sinohydro. What does your company do and how long have you been operating in Africa and Zimbabwe?
TZ: As the international business flagship and a subsidiary of Powerchina Corporation, which is a Fortune Global 500 company, Sinohydro is an internationally renowned and management –oriented contractor. Its businesses cover almost all areas of the construction sector, including energy, transport, water works, civil engineering and building.
Sinohydro has six regional offices in East and Southern Africa, Middle East and North Africa, Central and West Africa as well as Eurasia, Asia and Pacific, Americas, supervising 162 overseas offices in 108 countries. Currently, Sino Hydro has nearly 855 international projects under construction in more than 82 countries, with a total contract value of approximately US$59,1 billion. In Africa, Sinohydro has 430 projects under construction in 38 countries with contract value nearly US$25,8 billion. The typical projects in Africa are like Kariba North Extension Project in Zambia, Soubre Hydropower Project in Ivory Coast, Adama
Wind Farm Project in Ethiopia, Bui Hydropower Project in Ghana, Memve’ele Hydropower Project in Cameroon, etc.
In 2018, the company completed Kariba South Extension Project which added 300MW for Zimbabwe. Currently we are working on the Hwange 7 and 8 Expansion Project with the capacity of 600MW.
KK: What have been your challenges and how have you managed to overcome them?
TZ: Material in Zimbabwe is relatively scarce, meaning the equipment for power stations is imported from China. Most of the materials and tools used for on-site construction cannot be purchased on the local market, and we have to purchase from other countries such as South Africa or Zambia.
The second is that there has not been such a large-scale power plant project for many years, which has resulted in a lack of local professional and technical workers with similar experience to build a power station. We have to spend more time and money to train them. The language barrier is also another challenge for Chinese engineers. Most Chinese supervisors are not very good at English, there are also some difficulties in communicating with local workers on the site, which has led to some misunderstandings.
In order to solve this problem, the project department has set up various training classes for local employees and Chinese employees. A group of qualified welders have been trained through the welding training class. So far, about 50% of the welding work on the site has been completed by local welders who got training from us. Through conducting technical training for operators and riggers, at present, more than 80% of various cranes on the site can be used by local technical employees. After training, local skilled workers have been able to independently operate concrete mixing plants and produce concrete.
KK: How is the Hwange Thermal Power Station expansion project coming and are you likely to finish on time?
TZ: Since the project started on August 1, 2018, and by the end of 2019, the project was progressing smoothly. All work was carried out on schedule, and even some important work was completed in advance. This year, due to the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic, the project has been seriously affected.
Firstly, the equipment manufactured in China and the transportation from China to Zimbabwe has been delayed by at least three months. Secondly, travel restrictions have led to serious man power shortage on the site. Works such as material procurement and site work efficiency has also been significantly impacted. It is hard to assess accurately by how much time the project will be delayed. It depends on how long the epidemic will last. However, Sinohydro will make all efforts to catch up the programme.
KK: On the Hwange project, you have been accused of abusing your workers through underpayment of wages, non-provision of protective clothing and unfair dismissal of workers. What is your response to this?
TZ: Salary and wages are paid according to requirement and in some instances, the company is paying even more. There are guidelines from the government, which the company is following religiously. All employees on the site, it does not matter whether they are Zimbabwean or Chinese, were provided qualified protective clothing and other safety materials. Each person gets one set every half-year in line with relevant regulations. But I heard that some people keep their new protective clothing at their homes for other purposes. Dismissals will never be fair to any employee who would have been asked to leave, even if all the principles of natural justice have been followed. This is the reason why we have the Ministry of Labour and the Labour Court to determine the fairness and unfairness of cases referred to them.
KK: You have also been accused of bribing Zimbabwe Power Company (ZPC) officials to keep a lid on abuse of workers. Can you shed light on this and also reveal the nature of relationship between you and ZPC?
TZ: Sinohydro Corporation is a well-known international company, and has always required its employees to strictly comply with the laws and regulations of the country where the project is located, and prohibits any form of bribery. Sinohydro has the reputation of integrity and bribery has never been its way of doing business, and therefore this allegation is false. The goals of Sinohydro and ZPC in Hwange expansion project are the same. Both hope to complete the project on schedule with high level quality, and strive to change the situation of Zimbabwe’s power shortage as soon as possible.
KK: In view of workers’ rights violations being reported at the site, what has management done to address concerns?
TZ: First of all, it needs to be made clear that workers are entitled to fair conditions of employment such as fair wages, being entitled to go on leave etc. We are in the construction industry and in any measure, the company complies with collective bargaining agreement of industry on conditions of employment. I am not aware of any violations of worker’ rights, if you know, you can point out, the project management will conduct an investigation and should give you the answer.
KK: Do workers have representatives at company level and also on the same subject, union representatives say you have banned them from visiting your premises. Is this the case and if so, why have you taken such a decision?
TZ: There is a workers’ committee which is fully functional and duly elected by workers themselves. The committee has free access to go to the site. We have channels for complaints: Human resources meetings are held every week, and senior management personnel of various departments are required to communicate with local staff.
KK: There is a report of a worker who has lost his four fingers while operating machinery with another having lost his sight and accusations that you have failed to adequately compensate them. Is there any substance to this and if so, how have you compensated them?
TZ: There is no substance to this. The company’s policy is that all injured employees are taken to the hospital and the medical bills are taken care of by the company. It needs to be clarified that the employee had three fingers injured on his left hand, not four fingers. Sinohydro paid all his medical expenses, salary and other allowance in full. Once the employee has fully recovered, he will return to work and should the work not be suitable for him, he will be transferred to a suitable post. I have no idea of the case of a worker losing his sight.
KK: You have also been accused of failing to compensate adequately Remmington Katsumbe’s family. He is said to have died while working at your premises. Can you elaborate on what happened and what you have done to compensate his family?
TZ: On the 20 October 2019, the now deceased Remmington Katsumbe aged (49) got employed by Sinohydro bureau 11, Hwange Branch as a general hand. On the 21st day of November 2019 at about 7.30am, Katsumbe was working on a scaffold with two other employees. They were working at a height of about four meters from the ground. As the trio was preparing to climb down, the deceased, who had his full personal protective equipment, slipped and fell to the ground, with his neck hitting against a scaffold steel bar that was supporting the scaffold. He lay motionless. A safety officer who is a qualified nurse rendered first aid and the now deceased was sent to Hwange Colliery Hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Sinohydro made a report to the police and Nssa, who jointly attended the scene.
The human resources manager, Duo Chengqun, together with his deputy and other officials made funeral arrangements after engaging relatives of the deceased. A funeral service provider (Nyaradzo) was engaged by the company. The deceased’s body was taken to Bulawayo Central Hospital accompanied by Hwange Police and a post-mortem was conducted. Company officials and three relatives of the deceased, escorted the late Katsumbe to his home village in Rusape for burial.
No adverse reports were received from any of the relatives who attended the burial. Another vehicle was released by the company with five employees to go and pay condolences to the family. After a week, the Sino Hydro bureau 11 human resources manager, Mr Duo visited the Katsumbe family in Rusape. A meeting was held with the family and the outcome of the meeting which included their demands were put into writing. They asked to visit the place where the incident occurred. The relatives were assisted with transport from Rusape and the company arranged accommodation for them for three nights. The company promptly completed and forwarded all the paperwork in order for Nssa to compensate the family according to law.
KK: There have been accusations that during the Iockdown, you forced workers to stay on site and that they are staying in overcrowded temporary shelter, meaning they are exposed to the coronavirus. What have you done to ensure workers are protected and informed about the virus?
TZ: First of all, the company did not force anybody to stay on site. We did talk to everyone. The ones who chose to stay did so voluntarily. Secondly, on the living conditions, we have difficulties. When planning and constructing the living camp, we did not consider local employees’ accommodation because they all prefer to go back to home after work.
But with the lockdown, around 600 more employees are in the camp, and there are some deficiencies in various accommodation facilities. We have taken measures to adjust the accommodation conditions of Chinese employees to make space for local employees by building temporary housing, transforming and upgrading toilets and bathrooms etc, so that the living conditions of local employees are significantly improved. We protect workers from viral infections by disseminating knowledge of novel coronavirus prevention to employees and distributing protective equipment such as masks during the rest every Sunday afternoon.
After the epidemic broke out in China, China controlled the spread of the epidemic within a short period. China’s experience in preventing spread of viruses informs us that, quarantine from each other is the best way of prevention and control.