/ 9 March 2021

ArcelorMittal is ‘slowly becoming a burial site’

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Thami Molefe’s colleagues carry his coffin through the streets. Molefe was one of three ArcelorMittal employees who died recently at the company’s Vanderbijlpark plant. (Magnificent Mndebele)

Three ArcelorMittal workers were trapped in a control room in the early hours of Wednesday 17 February when the room collapsed after a stack structure fell on it, following an explosion. Workers who witnessed the scene at the company’s plant in Vanderbijlpark in south Gauteng paint a grim picture. But the company denies an explosion occurred, despite no managers being there at the time. 

The workers say the flames from the batteries were unusual that day, resembling an explosion, with large flames in the ovens. Gas escaped to the stack structure adjacent to the control room, where Thami Molefe, 53, Lesenyeho Mofokeng, 32, and Mpho Madumisa, 30, were stationed. They all succumbed to their injuries and were found dead on recovery. Amokelang Baloyi, 12, described his older brother Madumisa as “a good person. He was quiet and had a very good heart.” The workers were buried on Friday 26 and Saturday 27 February.

On a funeral pamphlet titled Celebration of Life for Mpho Madumisa, Amokelang said the navy blue T-shirt his brother is wearing in the picture is the same one he wore on a vacation they took that the teenager will never forget. “We had so much fun there. It was last year. We went for a spa massage and then ate at Ocean Basket,” he recalls.

“I will miss my brother a lot,” Amokelang said, adding that Madumisa would amuse him by tickling him and insisting that they play football. During these brotherly sessions, Amokelang said he’d end up dribbling past his older brother.

“Today means that I will never see my brother ever again. When I heard that he’s no longer coming back home I cried a lot. He did everything for me. A day after he passed away, he was supposed to come fetch me so that we go to buy a PlayStation.”

Safety measures bypassed

All the workers who spoke about the death of the trio say this incident could have been avoided. “What I’ve realised, the company is putting profit first over its workers. I could see how management would tell us to bypass some of the safety procedures,” said Molefe’s younger brother, Paseka Molefe, who works for ArcelorMittal as a superintendent. 

“The bottom line is that there is no safety at Mittal,” said Madumisa’s uncle, Mahlomola Maluka.

Tami Didiza, the group manager for stakeholder engagement and communication at ArcelorMittal, said: “The company rejects, in the strongest possible terms, the accusations made against the company and its management. The health and safety of employees and contractors remains the company’s key priority. Employees play a critical role in ensuring a safe workplace and are therefore encouraged to be actively involved and constructively raise any safety concerns. All managers have the powers to stop any unsafe production at any point in time.”

Mofokeng’s and Madumisa’s injuries were severe when their bodies were recovered from the rubble. “Just think about losing your family member in such a way that the deceased is unrecognisable. His skull was broken, bones were broken, he lost an eye and a leg and the rest you can imagine. Just think about the workers that had to retrieve them. Who’s attending to their trauma?” Maluka said, describing Madumisa’s injuries.

Paseka said that when Molefe died, he was working the night shift. “My brother was not badly injured and had there been a rescue team on time, I think he’d have survived. It is actually very bad that I’ve lost my brother.”

Numsa wants justice

When the company was unable to source a rescue team, workers had to “volunteer all night and they removed the fallen rocks with their bare hands because ArcelorMittal does not have an in-house emergency rescue team … The bodies would never have been found, had it not been for the efforts of ordinary workers,” according to the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa).

“And the worst part is that this is a big company that generates quite a lot of money. So, this is when I realised that this means that our brothers and sisters who work for that company are neglected and the company’s attention is primarily on generating revenues,” said Maluka.

ArcelorMittal has rejected that it doesn’t have a rescue team. “Within minutes, paramedics, firefighters, ER24 local doctors on call and the municipal fire brigade were on the scene, along with safety specialists and specialist riggers. Removal of the rubble and debris had to be done in the safest possible way to avoid harming anyone involved in the search-and-rescue efforts. Extra hands were needed to assist with digging and removing rubble and employees volunteered to assist. This was done under the strictest supervision to ensure their utmost safety,” said Didiza.

In a list of demands handed to the company on 24 February, Numsa said it will not back down until the company takes the necessary steps to guarantee the health and safety of employees. “We will not rest until Amsa [ArcelorMittal South Africa] is transformed, and until we get justice for the workers and their families who died under the watch of a callous, cruel and racist management.”

The union is demanding a health and safety audit of all the company’s operations, that chief executive Kobus Verster be held criminally and personally liable “for the untimely death of our members, which is the direct responsibility of the company”, and an inquiry into the event with the inclusion of the union’s health and safety shop stewards in the investigations.

The third incident

“This plant is slowly becoming a burial site for workers in South Africa, which is something we must never allow. This plant is slowly and slowly resembling an apartheid workplace. The life of a Black worker is very cheap in this company … Three of these workers who have died did not know that they will not make it at home. Their children are still waiting, their families are still waiting, hoping they will come through the door, and they will never return again,” said Numsa president Andrew Chirwa.

“What we are confronted with here is more dangerous than the coronavirus pandemic. There is management who’s adopted an ‘I don’t care’ attitude … To show that the company has no regard for the workers, they’ve cancelled the memorial service. They’ve no time to remember those workers, they’ve got no time to mourn for those workers. Production and profit are prioritised over the lives of our members, and this is a sadden reality that is confronting us,” he added.

Didiza said that because of Covid-19 restrictions, the company wasn’t able to hold a memorial service. However, it has committed to do so once “the situation normalises”.

According to a union shop steward on duty, when the three workers were trapped, this wasn’t the first explosion. “In March 2020, when we were all on alert level five [of the government’s Covid-19 lockdown], an explosion happened at a mixing station and no fatality happened, and again in June, another second explosion happened when a gas pipeline fell on top of the changing room number 10 and luckily again there were no employees. This is the third incident.”

The shop steward added that those are the signals that something is not good. “If the management was serious about the safety of the employees, management should have done something early as then. Even those three, remember on that same night, same shift, we were working with them. There could have been 20 people dead, and luckily the 17 were on a resting period when the explosion took place … This is more than sad.”

‘Reckless’ companies

When these allegations were put to the company, Didiza said: “The independent investigation into the cause of the accident is ongoing, and not only would it be premature but it would also completely undermine the process if statements on the cause of the incident are made at this stage. The health and safety of employees and contractors remains the company’s key priority. 

“Employees play a critical role in ensuring a safe workplace and are therefore encouraged to be actively involved and constructively raise any safety concerns. Where safety risks have been raised, these are addressed immediately by the company.”

The family members of the workers who died are demanding justice. 

“We are sick and tired of companies that are reckless. Our people get injured and at the end of the day, there is not any form of justice,” said Maluka. “The company will try by all means to deny any wrongdoing. As a family, including all those who lost their loved ones, we want the company to take responsibility. These people were breadwinners.”

For the workers who remain, seeing colleagues lose their lives in such a gruesome fashion haunts them. They worry about their own safety too. “Even now, when I arrived at my house, I got scared after remembering what happened and that those families will no longer see their loved ones. This is a wake-up call for the labour movement, that we must rise up and hold the management accountable. This time we must not try, we must fight until we see the results,” said the shop steward.

This article was first published on New Frame