Fighting poverty and creating jobs is high on the agenda as African labour ministers, employers and workers meet this week in Addis Ababa for a major regional meeting of the International Labour Organization. It’s easy to see why they are concerned: half of Africa’s population, over 300 million people live in extreme poverty. Faced with no other option, the poor will do almost anything to make a living, often outside the protections of a formal workplace. But sometimes that very living threatens their lives as ILO TV reports:
Lake Katwe is the only source of salt in Uganda… the only source of income for thousands of people who work in the evaporation ponds around the lake.
One time I remember in history, there was a plant, the salt in that lake is too corrosive, it ate away the plant… but now the human beings are endeavouring to mine the salt that ate away the machines. You can see the kind of pain we are in…
In the early 1980’s there was a plan to commercially process up to 40,000 tons of salt per year, enough to compete with neighboring Kenya for the domestic market. But the corrosive effects of the salt proved too costly for investors. Not so, for those who had little more to invest but their time, their effort and in some cases their health.
Kimulya Yowasi, Laboratory Technician
If you have a small crack on the body and then you enter into brine, that brine has to dig that thing that cut it and it becomes a very big wound… if you continue working it continues digging and you loose one of the parts of the body.
They scrape together an existence from the lake while the brine seeps into their bodies, eating away at their flesh and organs, causing miscarriages…
Other risks include dehydration and drowning. They improvise protective gear using rubber boots and condoms, to protect themselves from the briny water. Hundreds of workers bodies and lives have been mutilated by working like this, but no one is leaving.
Jova Kyomuhangi, salt worker
Its because we are poor that we do this kind of work. Otherwise we would do something else. This is not a job that anyone should do.
Joseph Katende is part of the International Labour Organization’s SLAREA project to strengthen labour relations. He sees Katwe as example of what happens to workers who lack the protection of a formal workplace.
Joseph Katende, ILO SLAREA Project
What we are going to do as ILO SLAREA project is not only to talk about freedom of association and collective bargaining but also to bring to the attention of the world that there are people suffering because there are no proper investors in a particular sector. And if the world could find such investors, take them to Lake Katwe, they would set up machines and we would help them create away they could harmonise with these workers.
Estimates say that Lake Katwe can sustain salt production for decades to come as it has supported generations gone by. But in its present form, it will continue to pour salt into the wounds and lives of the thousands who have no other option for work.