Inside Labour: Unanswered questions

Inside Labour: Unanswered questions

2014-03-28 07:43

IN 1997 15 workers at the Sasol Secunda plant were burned to death in what was described at the time as a “catastrophic fire”. 

What caused the blaze that killed them, how did they die and could they have been saved? These were questions the next of kin and their union wanted to know.  

They are still waiting for answers. Because although an inquiry was held under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the labour ministry, in line with its normal practice, has not released the report. Nor has there been any inquest.

One reason the ministry gives is that such reports are sent to the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to decide on whether there should be any prosecutions. There are seldom any, and the DPP is on record as having expressed “serious concern” about the standard of these reports. 

The poor quality apparently makes further action difficult, if not impossible.

“But there is no reason why the reports cannot be made public,” says campaigning lawyer Richard Spoor.  He points out that, by suppressing the reports of its inspectorate, the department of labour avoids scrutiny and accountability.

And the Secunda tragedy is only one of many such incidents that have left grieving next of kin in the dark and without closure. However, later this year, in a high court action of which Spoor is part, the ministry may at last be forced to make available information that not only gives answers to the families, but may also provide suggestions as to how such tragedies can be avoided in future — and perhaps how better investigations may be carried out.

The case, lodged before the North Gauteng High Court, concerns the blaze that destroyed most of the Paarl Print works in April 2009, and in which 13 workers died and more than 10 were injured. 

It has been brought by the Industrial Health Resource Group (IHRG) of the University of Cape Town, together with representatives of nine families, represented by Spoor, labour federation Cosatu and two affiliated unions.

One of the unions, the Chemical Energy  Paper Printing Wood and Allied Workers’ Union, is the union still awaiting the report from the Secunda fire of 1997. The other union represented at Paarl is the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa).

But, as the court papers reveal, there are other unions and many other families that have asked, demanded and waited in vain for some answers about how industrial tragedies occurred, how they might have been prevented and how and why people died. 

Listed as examples before the court are the manganese poisonings at the Assamang smelter in Cato Ridge in 2007 and the furnace eruptions at Assamang and Highveld Steel a year later, that together claimed seven lives.

“It is essential that reports about any serious accidents be made public,” says Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven. The federation is concerned that, without such information, similar and preventable accidents will continue to happen.

Trapped by the flames

The same fear is expressed by Spoor. In the court application, IHRG director Nicholas Henwood states:  “The fire spread rapidly, accompanied by clouds of dense black smoke, reducing visibility almost completely. 

"It appears that the persons who died in the inferno were trapped by the flames and blinded by the smoke and could not find their way out of the premises in time to prevent their own deaths.”

Implicated is a polystyrene roofing insulation that continues to be widely used in business, warehouse and factory premises around the country. Henwood records that the same roof insulation was involved in a warehouse fire at the Duncan Dock in Cape Town in 1993.

“It was ignited by a stray firework set off in the harbour,” his statement adds.

Henwood’s group, the families, Cosatu and its affiliates were told in July 2009 that the labour ministry was “not at liberty to disclose” the Paarl Print report. More correspondence followed and, in February, 2011, came notice that the report had “not yet been finalised”.

By July 2011 the department stated that the report had been sent to the DPP. But the DPP noted that it was “not at liberty to disclose” the contents.

Frustrated, the IHRG and Cosatu in March last year filed an application under the Promotion of Access to Information Act. There was no response from the ministry. Assuming this meant refusal, the IHRG and Cosatu lodged an appeal in May. This time there was a response: rejected.

And so, five years after the event, with the DPP saying it has no objection to its release, a report that should be a public record, goes to court.

 - Fin24

* Terry Bell is a political, economic and labour analyst. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on twitter @telbelsa.