Unlicensed villagers who mine iron at Nthale Iron Ore Mine in Blantyre have accused government of not acting on reports of exploitation at the mine.
A Nation on Sunday visit to the area on Wednesday found the desperate villagers, especially women, some of them with babies strapped on their back, arranging stones into one-tonne heaps.
The people, especially from Msukwa Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Makata in Blantyre, claimed they are being exploited as they sell a tonne of the ore at K2 000.
But a search on the Internet about international prices of iron ore reveals that a tonne is sold at between $60 and $70 (about K33 600 to K39 200 at the current exchange rate)—over 18 times the price being offered at Nthale.
While men get armed with chisels and hammers in Nthale hills to unearth the precious stone, breaking it into sizeable pieces, women carry the stones in pails on their heads and walk about three kilometres to a strategic place where they assemble the stones.
Theresa McNight, one of the women, could not hide her bitterness in an interview on Wednesday: “I started this trade in 2003 when one of the companies started buying this stone, but over a decade down the line, I have nothing to show for it.
“It takes one week to manage a one-tonne [1 000 kilogrammes]. It takes us about three days to unearth the stone and break it into pieces and two days to carry the pieces in pails to this [strategic] place, but what we get is a K2 000 for a tonne.”
McNight said it is tough work and it feels as if their chests were breaking apart and are forced to take painkillers when going to bed.
“Look, some of us have done this work for over a decade, but I live in that grass-thatched house. I can hardly afford even a packet of milk, which is usually recommended to people that do mining.”
She said they do the job with their bare hands without protective wear, exposing their bodies to direct contact with sharp stones and dust, adding they expected Shayona to be providing protective wear.
Margaret Leonard, another miner, said the villagers who joined the mining job have risked their health as some have suffered fractures, sustained wounds and “some even paid with their lives after suffering from tuberculosis (TB)”.
Leonard said: “We have had cases of colleagues that have died after suffering from TB and relatives being informed that the cause of it could be related to their mining jobs.”
Leonard said government officials from Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining have been to the site and hoped they would rescue them from what they described as “exploitation”, but said it has been years now and nothing is happening.
Dickson Ndelemani, vice-chairperson of the mining group with membership of over 100 villagers, including some from T/A Chitera in Chiradzulu, said they have tried to complain to T/A Makata to take up what he described as “underpayment issue” with Shayona.
He said T/A Makata summoned and engaged officials of the cement manufacturing company a year ago, but nothing has changed.
“There is a feeling that these villagers are slaves on their own land. We gathered information that this one-tonne heap of stones produces 20 bags of cement, and how much is a bag of cement today?” queried Ndelemani.
He said the price per tonne increased from K700 when the mine opened in 2003 then K1 000, K1 500 and finally K2 000.
But projects coordinator for Shayona Cement Limited, a company that buys ore from the area, Gulamu Sherrif, dismissed concerns about poor working conditions and said claims of low ore prices were unrealistic.
“We are not operating a mine in the area and we cannot be responsible for the safety or protective wear of the miners who are doing it as traders. We just purchase what they mine. So, we cannot be expected to be responsible for their safety,” said Sherrif.
He also said the company’s prices for loads of iron ore were determined by market forces, but said while the company considers discussions on social corporate responsibility, there was a need for the communities to guard against unrealistic expectations.
On safety matters, commissioner of mines Charles Kaphwiyo said government was engaging the company to improve the conditions and address other issues raised. n