By Frederick Womakuyu
HE is crippled but hopeful. Three years ago, while working at a stone quarry, Katuntu, 34, was buried alive when a section of the quarry collapsed. It took his colleagues 30 minutes to get him out of the rubble.
â€œMy right leg was fractured and the right shoulder shattered. I thought I would die, but my employer met my medical bills,â€ he said.
But when Katuntu demanded compensation after recovery, his employer said he treated him on humanitarian grounds and, therefore, he was not obliged to compensate him.
â€œWith help from my friend who is a lawyer, I sued my employer and managed to get my compensation immediately,â€ Katuntu adds.
Like Katuntu, many people in Uganda work in places where their health and safety is at risk. When they get injured, fall sick due to the poor conditions at the workplace, or die on duty, employers take advantage of their ignorance of the law and never compensate them.
It was for this reason that the Occupational Healthy, Safety and Compensation Act was put in place.
Worldwide, the act has come a long way. It came into effect in 2003 by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), after the organisation realised many workers were getting injured or killed on duty yet their employers were neither addressing their safety and health needs nor compensating them.
Many factory workers spent 14-16 hours daily in deplorable conditions or operating dangerous machines. Their only option was to sue their employers, but the process was time-consuming and offered no guarantee of victory.
The injured workers often had to cover costs of their medical care or rely on public welfare.
â€œThree million workers worldwide were dying annually on duty from work-related accidents. So, ILO made it compulsory for every country to have a law to protect the health and safety of workers,â€ Mwesigwa Rukutana, the state minister for labour, says.
In Uganda, there is hardly any data on the number of workers who lose their lives or get injured on duty. â€œThe majority of the cases go unreported. But sources say 17 lives have been lost this year from work-related accidents although the figure could even be higher.
Uganda became party to the Act in 2006 and prior to this, there was the Compensation Act which stipulated that any person who gets injured or dies on duty is entitled to sh29,000 as compensation.
There was nothing on occupational, safety and healthy measures at workplaces.
â€œThe same amount was paid for death and injuries suffered. It was also not clear on how the figure had been reached,â€ says Henry Mukasa, the organising secretary of the National Organisations of Trade Unions.
But now, with the Occupational Healthy, Safety and Compensation Act, the health of the worker is protected.
Adrine Namara, the Kampala City Council labour officer, says: â€œIt reminds the employer to ensure safety standards in the company, for example having fire escape exits. The employer should ensure that each worker is covered by a medical insurance policy.â€
The compensation act requires employers to compensate workers who have suffered job-related injuries, illnesses and death.
Highlights in the act include work-related injuries and how to avoid them. The Act outlines some of the likely injuries at work, for example doing repeated tasks which can wear one out.
â€œSuch work like lifting heavy sacks of goods that involves using a lot of energy, wear the worker out or injure them, requiring them to be compensated and treated.
â€œFor effective compensation, the worker should report the accident to any labour office for help. The labour office helps the victim to negotiate with the employer on how much he or she should be paid and how to access it â€“ many employers cheat their workers,â€ Namara adds.
She says the Act also addresses issues like lack of protection of the worker, for example from harmful chemicals, allergy that can cause illness and death or any other accident that may cause injury.
â€œIt states that the employer should get protective gear for his workers and address issues that may affect their performance at work,â€ she adds.
How compensation is done in Uganda
IN Uganda, compensation is done according to how much the person earns and the degree of injury, since some injuries may be more life-threatening than others.
Oloka Mesilamu, the general secretary of the Construction and Building Workers Union, says if one loses a hand while on duty, that person is entitled to a compensation of 70% of his salary for the next 60 months.
â€œBut if it is not serious and it has so been determined by a medical worker, the employer has to meet the cost of treating the worker until he or she recovers and resumes work,â€ Mesilamu adds.
He adds that in case the person dies while on duty, the dependants of the deceased are entitled to a 60 monthsâ€™ salary of the deceased, starting from the time of death.
â€œThe employer is also supposed transport the deceasedâ€™s body to the burial site,â€ he adds. He explains that the Act is advantageous to both the employee and the employer.
â€œThe law addresses the safety, health and compensation of the employee and, therefore, he or she gets treatment when injured.
The Act encourages the employer to ensure there are health standards at the workplace so that costs of health and compensation are reduced. It also means more productive work,â€ Mesilamu says.
Namara, however, regrets that the law is still bogged down by lack of proper implementation. â€œBecause most workers do not know their rights, many never receive the compensation.
Some employers even threaten them if they attempt to report the matter to the labour office,â€ she adds.
Rukutana says lack of sensitisation is the main problem. â€œMany of the workers are not sensitised and it is our mandate to create awareness,â€ he adds. â€œIf we are to succeed, all stakeholders, including the media, the unions and the Government have to play this role,â€ he says.
Mesilamu is disappointed that the minimum wage has not been harmonised and because the workersâ€™ compensation is calculated according to the amount they earn, the Act may not offer them much help.
â€œFor workers who get peanuts, the compensation may not do much. They are crippled in that state and condemned to poverty,â€ he adds.
But, as for workers like Katuntu, getting something small is better than getting nothing. â€œIf the Act was not there, I would have had no legal basis to argue my case out,â€ he says.