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Sugar mill deaths raise safety concerns

Monday 17 August 2015 | Published in Regional


BA – Two accidents in less than a week at the Rarawai sugar mill have raised questions about the level of safety in the factories in Fiji’s sugar cane belt.

Keni Senimoli, 44, was a father of five from the Fiji town of Ba, an urban centre of around 20,000 at the northern end of the island of Viti Levu in the heart of Fiji’s sugar cane belt.

He died in a horrifying industrial accident last month involving a conveyer belt at the sugar mill, leaving behind his children.

Another man cleaning a tank at the same mill fell into boiling liquid just a week later.

The spike in incidents has raised a number of questions about safety in the industry – none of which have been answered yet.

Senimoli is described by his family as a “good man and a hard worker”.

His wife had left the family a few years ago, leaving him the sole provider for his children, the oldest of whom is 18 and the youngest seven.

He was killed last month from injuries sustained after he got entangled in a conveyor transporting bagasse, the residue left after sugar cane is crushed, at the Rarawai sugar mill.

“He was one of those labourers in the mill who was cleaning a choke, trying to get the bagasse out of the conveyor belt, when someone turned on the conveyor and he basically got crushed in the conveyor itself,” general secretary of the Fiji Sugar and General Workers Union (FSGWU) Felix Anthony said.

Anthony believes the government-owned Fiji Sugar Corporation (FSC), which runs the Rarawai mill, is not emphasising safety enough because their priority is keeping the mills going no matter what.

“The switch ought to have been tagged to say that it should not be turned on, apparently that was not, so we see another death in the mills,” he said.

Senimoli’s body was removed and work recommenced almost immediately, despite union concerns that there should have been an immediate investigation about what led to the accident.

FSC staff, ministry of labour officials and police are all investigating what happened.

Repeated attempts to speak to FSC executive chairman Abdul Khan have been unsuccessful.

The victim’s brother, Taitusi Tirau, who also works at the mill, told the ABC’s Pacific Beat he only knew of the death after he came to work in the morning on July 26.

Tirau said his brother’s children were struggling to cope.

Senimoli’s wife had left the family but his brother said she has since returned after her husband’s death to look after the children.

A union delegate, who spoke to Pacific Beat on condition on anonymity and who was at the Rarawai mill when the incident occurred, said work resumed on the same day the fatal accident happened.

“I was in the same shift, what I saw was a group of people carrying a man to the hospital,” the union delegate said.

“Afterwards they started the mill again. It should have stopped, investigation should have been done.”

It is understood that the FSC paid for the funeral costs and offered 50,000 Fijian dollars ($31,000) as compensation.

But the Tirau said the amount was insufficient.

“No, not enough. The small kid of my brother, is aged seven,” he said.

“We’re hiring a lawyer to fight the case of my brother – a police case against the FSC.”

Tirau said his brother was a “hard worker at the FSC, he was a good person”.

In the second incident at the Rarawai mill, another worker was taken to hospital with severe burns after falling into extremely hot liquid.

Samuela Sigatokacake died in hospital after being sprayed with boiling sugar syrup. He left behind a wife and five children.

“In the mill there is a special team that does the tank brushing,” FSGWU assistant general secretary Mikaele Mataka said.

“Before they go into the tank, there’s a procedure to be followed to make sure the water inside the tank is cold before they go in.

“But in Rarawai the procedure wasn’t followed – the water in the tank was not checked and when he slipped from there, he fell into the boiling water.”

The trade union has called for greater safety measures and a proper investigation into the deaths.

“What we have noticed is that the situation has deteriorated over the past few years and Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) has basically become a non-issue in the mills,” union head Mr Anthony said.

“Particularly since the unions have been removed from the mills and where we have been stopped from doing our own inspection in the mills.”

Anthony’s deputy, Mataka, said industrial action was futile in Fiji.

“It’s a rubber stamp democracy that we have,” he said. “The problem is that the prime minister himself is the minister for sugar so they follow his directive whether it’s with the law or against the law, whatever the prime minister says will have to go.”

The FSGWU has filed a criminal negligence case to the police over the fatal accident, but said it did not expect the authorities to take action.

“These deaths have been explained by way of the FSC and the ministry of labour, telling the public a full investigation would be carried out,” Anthony said.

“But our concern is the fact that the public has never got to know the outcome of these investigations, as to what actions the authorities have taken on the sugar corporation.”

The Fiji Cane Grower’s Association, which represents the farmers, said it was seeking assurances from FSC that such similar incidents would not happen again.

“What we would like to say to FSC is that OHS is there and they should comply with that,” Fiji Cane Growers Association chief executive Mohammed Rafiq said.

“If there is a failure then whoever is responsible should be brought to task.”

Rafiq said accidents at sugar mills were a matter of concern for sugar cane farmers as well.

Meanwhile, opposition leader Biman Prasad said he intended to raise the issue of safety standards in FSC mills in the house when parliament resumed.

“All this highlights the broader question and the inability of the FSC to come out openly in a transparent way in how they have handled the management of the mills over the last several years,” Dr Prasad said.