In many steel milling plants, the term ‘labour rights’ is unheard of. Workers are incinerated into nothingness. They were nothing, after all. Burning in the boiler is like burning in hell: A painful punishment for being poor. For having neither a choice nor a voice. In our first article of a two-part series of Kenya’s factories of death, a young man’s injury at a steel plant opens the lid on the harrowing conditions in these factories.
Sometime in October 2022, around mid-morning, a man lay writhing helplessly on the factory floor of a steel mill, his screams drowned out by the din of sparkling fire as boilers dissolved scrap metal at 1700 degrees Celsius.
Stephen* lay in grueling pain as thick red-hot molten steel spilled from the heated caldron and streamed down the calf of his right foot singeing everything on its way from flesh, overalls and his safety boots.
His duties at the plant had been directing molten steel from the furnaces to be shaped into billets. Billets would then be turned into metals of different forms and shapes. And it was while at this station that the molten steel suddenly jumped into the air.
It took almost 30 minutes for his colleagues to notice him. Steel mills are run by men who know one step in the wrong direction will get you killed and so concentration is a life and death choice.
A colleague spotted him like an out of place scrap and rushed to his side with words of encouragement instead of a First Aid kit.
But in this moment what Stephen needed most was just to dip his right foot in a basin of water. Ice-cold water to cool the magma-hot liquid, the result of carbon and scrap metal being subjected to a hell-like inferno of as high as 1700 degrees Celsius. Now that would be heaven-sent.
But Siku ya nyani kufa, kila mti huteleza. For all the eight years that Stephen had worked at the mill, he had not experienced a water shortage, but that day, of all days, the taps were bone dry.
The pain continued for four hours before Stephen heard what by then was like a sound of salvation- an ambulance’s siren.
When he’d been safely placed on the ambulance’s bed, a sigh of relief escaped his chest, despite the thick paroxysm of pain.
It turned out to be false hope. The drive to the hospital set Stephen off on a year-long journey of pain and suffering.
Save for the fact that Stephen might lose his proper gait forever after all the toes of his right foot were amputated, he is lucky to be alive. He’s still bedridden.
If Hollywood cared, the steel factories in Kenya would be a rich minefield of ideas for the scary movies. There are many surreal ways of meeting your Maker while working at steel factories: From a stray red-hot wire being lodged into someone’s eye to slipping into a boiler frothing with sun-hot molten steel.
We talked with several workers who revealed the horror of working in steel factories. Some workers become part of the impurities that find their way in the molten iron, which would ultimately be turned into steel—a metal that features in almost everything from skyscrapers to electricals.
These poor workers, to whom the term ‘labour rights’ is unheard of, are incinerated into nothingness. They were nothing, after all. Burning in the boiler is like burning in hell: A painful punishment for being poor. For having neither a choice nor a voice.
But a few of them like Stephen have survived to tell the shocking tales of Kenya’s factories of death.
It is a journey that has been well-trodden by the tens of thousands of poor steel factory workers, whose voices have been muffled by greed, graft and a society content for cheap metallic steel who care less where the roof over their heads comes from.
An ailing steel industry
Kenya’s steel industry is characterised by abuse of labour rights, inadequate workers’ safety that kills tens of workers each year.
Steel making in Kenya is not that big. The sub-sector accounts for only 13 percent of the manufacturing industry.
Major manufacturers of steel products in Kenya include Blue Nile Group, Tononoka Group, Apex Steel, Devki Steel Mills, Abyssinia Group, Tarmal Steel and many others.
The country does not enjoy the comparative advantage of producing its own iron ore, the main raw material for making steel. Kenya imports most of the iron ore that it uses to manufacture steel.
By the end of 2021, there were 11,477 people who got their regular paycheck—after a day, week or month—for being engaged in the manufacture of basic iron and steel, according to official data.
This is just around 0.4 percent of the country’s total wage employment.
Nonetheless, the industry’s well connected operators exercise very huge influence on the Kenyan government in obtaining policies that protect them from competition, subsidies and are rarely checked for unfair labour practices or neglecting the safety of their workers.
A capital-intensive and highly specialised industry, steel-making in Kenya is under the stranglehold of around six families that have minted billions by adhering to the old capitalism’s rule-book of using any means, including cutting corners, to minimise costs and maximise profits.
Nearly all of these workers are employed on casual terms. They will hover outside the factory, on the look-out for that slight opening of the gate, which is followed by an impish peer from the security guard before he beckons to the eager group.
Job opportunities arise mostly when there is a huge supply of scrap metals or other raw materials. They will take home as little as Kes 400 in a day.
But despite hiring cheaply, the business has not been efficient enough to compete with imports, which has seen the industry rely on state policy to remain afloat.
If you listened to the Budget Speech by the Cabinet Secretary for National Treasury and Economic Planning Prof Njuguna Ndungu, you would think steel-making is the mainstay of the country’s economy.
Since 2018, this industry has received massive support from the government in the form of increased tariffs–imported finished steel and iron attract 35 percent duty instead of the East African Community’s common external tariff of 25 percent.
In the current Finance Act 2023, the government introduced a 17.5 investment and export promotion levy on imported steel, clinker and paper products.
This protection is aimed at encouraging local production and helping create decent manufacturing jobs in the iron and steel sub-sector.
Despite being shielded from competition after the government slapped imported finished steel and iron with a higher duty from September 2018, neither investments nor jobs in this metal sub-sector has improved.
Rather than more jobs being created, the total number of wage employees engaged in the manufacture of iron and steel fell by 21 people in five years to 2021, data from the national statistician shows.
Scrap crime scene
Instead the industry has turned predatory, tearing apart the country’s infrastructure, feeding off vandalism of the scrap metal trade.
In the absence of its own iron ore, Kenya has relied largely on scrap metal bought from dealers to manufacture steel. Some of whom have been accused of vandalising railways and power lines or street lights.
Last year, retired President Uhuru Kenyatta banned exports and dealings in scrap metal after it emerged that dealers were stealing sections of the Standard Gauge Railway, Kenya’s modern railway that runs from the port city of Mombasa to central Rift Valley in Naivasha through the capital Nairobi.
A worker at one of the steel mills said he witnessed such cases while working at the mill which are concealed and quickly smelted in the incinerators.
A dangerous job
The worker said work at the steel mill is grueling, hazardous to their health and downright dangerous. Workers, he said, stay hungry for a long time and often sustain injuries when dealing with burnt scrap metal.
Scrap metal is brought in trucks but for efficiency, the junk has to be sorted. Steel millers save on sorting out the heavier cast that cost more than what it yields in steel.
This is not mechanised in Kenya and workers have to sift through the mound to separate metals of higher value from those of low value by hand.
“There is a metal known as cast that does not fetch a lot of money. It is weighty, but not valuable,” said a steel worker.
“When you remove it, they (scrap metal dealers) pull you aside and bribe you with Kes500. They tell you: ‘Enda ukunywe soda (Buy yourself a soda),” said the worker.
After that, the lorry together with the scrap metal is weighed. Then the lorry, without the load, is weighed. The difference is the weight of the scrap metal. Dealers are paid per weight.
The scrap metal is then sorted to remove impurities, especially air-filled cans or grenades which are likely to explode when dropped into the boiler.
These scrap metals are then fed into a boiler. Steel melts at temperatures of between 1,500° C and 1,700° C. Those feeding the boiler stand a few inches from the underground dug induction furnace.
Lack of safety gear
In advanced countries, molten metalworkers always wear aluminised apparel to protect them from radiant heat as well as molten splash and other thermal hazards. But in Kenya, every worker we talked to had never heard of such a thing.
Kenya’s Occupational Safety and Health Act outlines the responsibilities of the employers and the workers on health and safety at workplaces.
For example, employers are responsible for ensuring that plant and factory procedures reduce the risks to health and safety to prevent accidents.
Employers are also required to provide a safe working environment and conduct regular risk assessments. They should also provide information and training on Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) as well as personal protective equipment to employees.
But this is on paper. On the ground, as they say, things are different.
Shrinking shoes and libido
In fact, what happens in Kenya is the exact opposite of protecting their workers. Workers are exposed to the dangerous high temperatures for extended periods risking their health.
Some workers say they suffer respiratory problems as a result of the exposure while others claim it affects their virility.
Nicholas* is one of those workers who put scrap metal into a boiler. He told us that he has to stand at the edge of the boiler.
He says he feels a sharp pain in the chest at night. He suspects this is because of the heat. They stay in this heat from 7.30am to 6pm.
“People work with oversize shoes, otherwise after one month the shoes won’t fit,” he says.
“The old folks here tell me that they use ‘certain drugs’ to increase their sexual virility,” Nicholas adds.Nicholas, steel worker.
A human resource manager at one of the steel factories however said his company had taken necessary precautions against injuries and health risks.
“No one spends more than two hours on the furnace. After every two hours they take a break to cool off,” he said on the phone. “Should you visit us you will find some of them sitting outside, cooling off.”
Those whose responsibility it is to do just that, the government is sleeping on the job hoping the lack of wealth of the victims keep such cases away from the headlines.
On April 28, countries marked the World Day for Safety and Health at Work, which was started by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to stress the prevention of accidents and diseases at work.
The Kenyan Ministry of Labour and Social Protection too, marked it but with little fanfare. As a result, it never caught the attention of either the mainstream media or the omnipresent social media.
The ministry, which is headed by Florence Bore, attempted a few write ups on its website. But they fell short of informing the public on the number of people that die annually of occupational accidents and diseases or the measures the government has so far taken to prevent such occupational hazards.
19th Century mills with 21st century money
But even more critical, the government didn’t reveal what it is doing to address the issue of corruption that has made the working conditions in these factories to feel like Britain’s 19th century mills during the Industrial Revolution era. In these mills, the deafening roar of the machines drowned out the feeble voice of the workers.
The deep pockets of the owners make it hard to litigate against the millers and injured workers say what passes off as medical attention is usually third rate medical clinic with disruption in treatments over arrears.
And despite the clamour about compliance to the Environmental Social Governance goals, global lenders including reputable multilateral banks scarcely pay attention to the treatment of injured victims.
And with such callousness, steel millers are not incentivised to try and prevent deaths.
A glimpse of media but no reforms
Martin Oraro was shocked to hear about his son’s death at Thika-based Blue Nile Rolling Mills. The death was widely reported for its bizarreness. Media reports noted that only a few joint bones and teeth were retrieved after he fell into a vat of molten steel in March last year.
But for his father, the news was devastating. Mr Oraro traveled all the way from Kisumu to Thika in Kiambu County. He was accompanied by some of his family members, including his other son John Agwambo.
He suspected that Caleb Otieno had been pushed into the boiler. But the police, who had been conducting the investigation, ruled out foul play insisting that it was an accident.
Then he pursued the negligence angle. The family reckoned that lack of safety measures such as having guard rails around the boiler led to Mr Otieno’s death. Essentially, they accused the company of breaching the duty of care it owed its employees.
At Blue Nile, they met the company’s human resources manager, the managing director and the Thika police commandant Joseph Thuvi.
“The company offered me Kes 100,000, and when I asked them about the compensation, the HR manager told me that they would compensate me with a third of Kes 21,000 that my son was earning per month for the five years he worked as a permanent employee. That is the last thing I heard from the company,” Mr Oraro told one of the local dailies.
A quick calculation showed that the family would receive only Kes420,000 as compensation for the five years that Otieno worked at Blue Nile.
“We felt ridiculed and denied justice,” added Oraro, noting that the fault was the employer’s.
Blue Nile, which received a Kes 1.14 billion loan from the World Bank Group’s investment arm the International Finance Corporation (IFC), is one of the leading manufacturers of steel products in Kenya.
The news scarcely affected the firm and was only good fodder for a juicy fireside story for most Kenyans instead of an opportunity for the government to address one of the country’s worst safety and occupational hazards.
There were a few innocuous grumbles by trade unionists who expressed outrage at the fact that the accident could have been prevented.
Rose Omamo, the General-Secretary Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers Kenya, insisted the “horrific accident” would have been prevented if the steel manufacturer adhered to health and safety standards as set out in the laws.
“As trade unions we will continue to demand safety at work and compensation for the employer’s negligence,” said Omamo in a statement.
The steel millers however have the last say fighting long legal battles on flimsy technicalities and rubbing off bad press to become celebrated captains of the industry despite the gruesome injuries inflicted on the workers who build the empires.
*Not his real name to protect him from victimisation.
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