SANDILE RAMBA, 26, had worked at Sovereign Foods in Uitenhage for about a year when he lost part of his ring finger after he accidentally grabbed a boring machine.The accident occurred in November last year while working night shift.
“We take turns to mix the waste with sawdust before putting it in the big bins. I was levelling the sludge when my foot got stuck in the wet waste. I tried to pull myself up but accidentally touched the auger in front of me. The next thing I knew half my ring finger was gone.”
His labour broker, Barries Barnard of Barco, took him to Livingstone Hospital where he waited more than two days to be helped. On the third day, Barco took him to Cuyler Clinic in Uitenhage, where he was admitted and stayed for two nights.
“Barnard gave me R100. I thought he would contact my family to tell them what had happened, but he did not. They did not know where I was for five days and were very worried. I had to spend three days wearing my dirty work clothes.”
“Barco paid me an extra week’s wages [R444]. Then for almost three months while I was booked off, I received nothing from the company.
“Barnard also refused to sign injured-on-duty forms and an accident report form, which I had obtained from the Uitenhage Labour Department office.
“When I contacted him in March, he told me I must not think I would make any money out of my injury because I had caused the accident myself.
“He told me to go back to work. I had no choice but to go back. I had no money and no family in Uitenhage, so I went back to work even though I can’t use my left hand. My shift now starts at 6am and ends at 4.30pm, leaving no time for me to go back to the Labour Department,” he said.
PORTIA DAVIDS, 32, a feather picker, badly injured her finger at work in December: “I was hanging chickens when my finger got caught in a moving chicken machine, breaking the bone. I stayed overnight at Cuyler Clinic because it had to be operated on. Then I was booked off for a month. Barco’s medical officer said I should receive IOD forms in three months, but I’m still waiting for them,” she said.
After a week Barnard phoned her, Davids said, and told her to return.
Despite asking to be put on lighter duties because her finger had not fully healed, she was put back into the same department.
MARIA BAARTMAN, 30, who used to cut chicken pieces and now cleans the women’s toilets at the factory, is also still waiting to sign IOD papers after a machine cut her thumb in May.
“I was working night shift, cutting chickens, when the blade hit my thumb. I received first aid but I was never given any IOD forms to sign. I stayed at home for two weeks, but because my salary was reduced I came back to work.
“I work straight shifts on light duty. Whenever I ask about the forms, no one has an answer,” she said.
PHUMLA STOOT, a packer in the crumbing department, fractured her ankle when five pallets of crates fell on her left leg in March.
Although her doctor booked her off sick for three weeks, she returned to work a week earlier after she realised the company was not paying her usual salary.
“They have put me on light duties. I still have not signed IOD forms. I’m waiting for the company,” she said.
Sovereign Foods chief financial officer Chris Coombes said all four incidents had been reported to the Labour Department, although the department denies this.
“All the incidents were reported to Sovereign’s on-site clinic. All the workers involved were transported to hospital by Sovereign. All the incidents were reported to the Labour Department by Sovereign in terms of legislation.
“All the incidents have been referred to the Workman’s Compensation Commission by Barco. Two of the four incidents have been assigned case numbers by the Workman’s Compensation Commission. Sovereign is 100% satisfied that all the necessary processes have been fulfilled by Barco and Sovereign.”
However, provincial Labour Department spokesperson Vuyokazi Mbanjwa said the department had no record of these cases. “There are no recorded cases with our Uitenhage office, but after investigating [following queries from The Herald] we found a number of minor incidents recorded in the company,” she said.
“The department’s compensation fund section will investigate further to make sure staff lodge claims with the department so their cases can be considered,” she said.
Mbanjwa said Sovereign Foods and the brokers that supplied the company were jointly liable should a worker be involved in an accident at work. According to the department’s website, employers must submit the required forms to the Compensation Commissioner within seven days of an injury.
“For the first three months of being unable to work, the employer must pay the workers at least 75% of their salary, but the employee can reclaim that money when the Compensation Commissioner finally pays the employer,” Nelson Mandela Bay labour lawyer Francois le Roux said.
“It can be a problem if the employer does not report these injuries when they occur.”
Compensation Commissioner Shadrack Mkhonto said employees could still report or claim from the commissioner if they had all the necessary documents such as a medical report and witness statements.
Mistake’ that claimed a life, left others sick
IT’S a story often told by workers at the chicken plant, but it is so horrific that it has almost reached urban legend status.
It goes something like this: four workers are preparing the feed for the chickens – a stomach-turning mix of chicken blood, feathers and chicken waste products – when the tap of the huge vat containing the blood blocks.
One of the workers climbs into the vat to clear the blockage, but does not return. A second worker climbs in to find out what the delay is, but he too does not return.
A third worker climbs in to investigate. He finds his two colleagues, dizzy and disorientated, slipping around in the blood. He shouts for help, then blacks out.
A fourth worker, hearing the shout, climbs to the top of the ladder and peers into the vat. There he see his three colleagues, face down and motionless in a pool of blood.
It may sound like the screenplay for a Hollywood horror movie, but it is true, and happened at the Sovereign Foods chicken factory in Uitenhage on March 17 2006.
The incident claimed the life of Sicelo Katsi while Bafana Jazela and Bonile Jafta were admitted to hospital.
After hearing of the incident while working undercover at the factory, The Herald managed to track down Jazela as well as the fourth worker who raised the alarm, Mzolisi Maqhina. Speaking from his home in Kwazakhele, Jazela recounted the incident.
“Maqhina, Katsi, Jafta and I we were preparing food for the chickens. Part of our job was to make sure there was a smooth running of blood from the tank’s tap which was at the bottom, outside the tank.
“Sometimes easy flow of blood would be blocked by feathers or when the blood dried, meaning one of us would have to climb into the tank and either remove the feathers or add water to soften the dried blood.
“Since no blood was coming out of the tank, Katsi climbed in the tank as we normally do. He didn’t come back, then Jafta went in to help him. From outside the tank, I asked if they needed water, but no one responded.
“After a while, I climbed the ladder to see what was happening inside. I could see Katsi was dizzy and his eyes were rolling and he was drowsy. I asked Jafta to help him but he also acted weird. It was as if both were on some drug. I quickly went inside to help Katsi who was falling with his face into the blood, which was ankle high.
“I remember shouting for help from the inside after Jafta also collapsed. I don’t remember what happened next because I woke up in ICU at Cuyler Clinic. I was there for seven days,” he said.
Maqhina said when he climbed the ladder to find out what was going on, he had been shocked to see the three men, lying across each other. “I screamed for help.”
Another source, who still works at Sovereign Foods and did not want to be named, said he had helped to pull the three men out of the tank. Because the floor was not level, they had slipped a lot in the blood as they tried to pull the men out.
“There was a strong chemical smell inside the tank. It smelt like teargas and it was burning our eyes and cheeks and choking us. But with the help of other workers, we managed to pull out the three men.”
Katsi was declared dead by paramedics. Jazela and Jafta were rushed to hospital.
Maqhina returned to the factory but was moved to another department. Both he and Jazela were left with chest problems.
Jazela left the factory soon afterwards and can no longer play his favourite sport, soccer. “I don’t go out in windy weather or take jobs which expose me to dust. I quit playing soccer because my chest burns.”
Maqhina said he often needed to go to the clinic and therefore had to miss work. “But even though I brought clinic papers as proof, a Barco official locked me out the factory in February, saying I was problematic.”
Jazela said no one had ever explained the cause of the accident to him. “I assume somebody put the wrong chemicals into the tank. We were told the company would give us IOD forms and compensation after eight weeks. I only received my normal salary for that fortnight and money for the seven days which I was in hospital. The whole amount was R1100,” he said.
Sovereign Foods chief risk operation officer Blaine van Rensburg said: “The company conducted an investigation based on the terms of the General Machinery Regulation 8 of the OHS. The machinery was isolated and access prohibited.”
Van Rensburg said the machine had since been replaced with a vertical stainless steel tank with no access.