80 workers poisoned at flower farm

Trade unionist Jeniffer Nassali (in grey suit) registers victims outside the flower firm in Wakiso last Friday. PHOTO BY STEPHEN WANDERA

What you need to know:

  • Huzairu Mulindwa, a doctor at the same hospital, said “most agricultural chemicals when inhaled over a period of time cause cancer and mental illness.
  • The workers, who reportedly had no protective gear, collapsed and some threw up or suffered eye irritation and sudden onset of diarrhoea last Monday.

WAKISO- A number of workers at Royal Van Zanten flower farm in Wakiso District are undergoing treatment over various health complications following alleged exposure to poisonous chemicals at their place of work.

Last Friday, our reporter found some of the workers vomiting helplessly under a tree opposite the gate of the flower farm. A Saracen security guard issued strict orders from the management not to allow anyone into the company premises. Yesterday, the flower farm denied their workers were poisoned.

Information collected from the United States’ National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health links exposure to the pesticide to allergic dermatitis and respiratory allergy (asthma).

According to the farm workers’ leader Sylvia Nakamya, the workers usually are allowed to the green houses five days after the flowers are sprayed with metam sodium.

Metam sodium is an organosulfur compound (formally a dithiocarbamate), which is used as a soil fumigant, pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide.

This time, she said, the chemical was applied on a Friday and the farm managers let about 40 workers in the next Monday, and by midday, all of them complained of headache, stomach pain and vomiting.

“As if it was not enough, when the first group was pulled out, management pushed in the second batch who suffered the same effect three hours later,” she said.

The workers, who reportedly had no protective gear, collapsed and some threw up or suffered eye irritation and sudden onset of diarrhoea last Monday.

A doctor said some of the 84 patients could in future suffer from cancer or mental illness.

“We did clinical diagnosis on the about 50 patients brought here and all of them had similar complaints of headache, abdominal pain, skin itching and vomiting due to the chemical inhaled and body contact,” Ntinda Hospital clinical officer, Mr Mark Boaz, said.

Huzairu Mulindwa, a doctor at the same hospital, said “most agricultural chemicals when inhaled over a period of time cause cancer and mental illness. The good news for now is that the patients are out of danger and may be discharged soon.”

The company’s managing director; Mr Feico Smith, yesterday did not answer our repeated telephone calls however in a telephone conversation yesterday, the human resource manager, Mr Sam Wambi, said results from Ebenezer Clinic reported negative results.

Treated with painkillers
Speaking to journalists at the farm last Friday, Ms Nakamya said a few of their colleagues received pain killers and were discharged from the nearby First Care Heal Centre, without medical forms.

The health facility directly invoiced the flower firm, something that upset Ms Jennifer Nassali, the general secretary of Uganda Horticultural Industrial Services Provider and Allied Workers Union (UHISPAWU).

Ms Josephine Nabwire, a flower picker, said her colleagues dedicate their time to brave the hot greenhouses but their bosses never appreciate their efforts.

The company’s guards denied entry to Labour ministry officials and journalists.

The Saracen guard who identified himself as Lawrance Gonsia threated to shot anyone who went past the gate.

Ugandan Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA-Uganda) has since intervened to protect the workers’ rights.

According to UHISPAWU’s Nassali, 85 per cent of horticultural workers are women and Fida Uganda’s intervention is to fulfil its legal mandate to its constituency.

Fida intervenes
Last Saturday, Fida Uganda took some of the patients to Ebenezer Clinic on Bombo Road for further treatment, but they were bounced due lack of a medical report and referral documents from First Care Health Centre. They were later taken to Ntinda Hospital where they have registered steady progress.

Fida Uganda’s chief executive, Ms Irene Ovonji, said they are engaging management of the flower firm before they can determine the next course of action.

“They are cheating workers and we shall try our best to defend their rights,” she said.

The firm exports flower cuttings to The Netherlands, among other European markets.

Ms Nassali vowed to mobilise UHISPAWU members to block the firm’s export to overseas markets if it does not respect workers’ rights. “This is no longer a mistake because it happened last year in August. We cannot stomach this anymore, we are swinging into action. Some of these investors are taking Ugandans for granted,” she said.

Mr Mageni Ouma, an official of the National Organisation of Trade Unions (Notu), said they have invited fellow trade unionists from Holland to address the issue.

He said: “We want to address this issue once and for all --- both at national and international level. We demand that Royal Van Zanten managing director, Mr Feico Smith, parks and goes back to Holland. He is arrogant, does not listen to workers complaints and is unprofessional to be a manager. We have better Ugandan managers who can deliver.”

Pay rise
Last year, the company increased the salary of its employees by 5 per cent following workers’ protest. The least paid worker earns Shs100,000 per month.

Asked if the victims had reported to police, Ms Nassali said it was an oversight but they intend to formally register their complaints. When contacted yesterday, Kampala Metropolitan Police deputy spokesperson, Mr Paul Kangave, said police is on ground investigating the matter. “This matter has been ongoing and we are probing it closely,” he said.

Flower farm manager speaks out

The Royal Van Zantel management yesterday issued a statement explaining the circumstance under which its employees were poisoned at the Wakiso flower farm where a total of 84 were let into a greenhouse allegedly sprayed with chemicals that chocked workers with some collapsing.
“It is true some of our employees entered one of the greenhouses that had been sprayed by mistake. This has not been the case before. We have measures in place that ensure that employees are not exposed to unsafe environment,” the human resource manager, Mr Sam Wambi, said.

In a telephone interview with Daily Monitor, Mr Wambi apologised to the affected employees.
“This was an unfortunate incident that will not happen again. We offered treatment to all those affected at our in-house clinic while others were taken to our referral clinic in Bulenga along Miyana road,” he further explained.

According to Mr Wambi, four ladies who were not comfortable with the service at Bulenga, were given each Shs40,000 and referred to Ebenezer Clinic on Bombo Road but they never reached.
He added: “They were hijacked by Jeniffer Nassali, [trade unionist] and taken to Ntinda Hospital.

With the help of Fida Uganda lawyers, they also went to the clinic in Bulenga, interviewing patients and later took away all the patients to Ntinda Hospital. This was not called for because some of the patients were still under treatment and needed time to observe how they responded to medication,” he explained.

Mr Wambi said management has had several meetings with the employees, officials from Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development.
“We are going to have another meeting by director of Labour [Mr Martin Wandera]to sort out these issues,” he said.

He added that management has put in place more strict measures to ensure safety for its employees.

“No workers will be allowed to enter any greenhouse sprayed. It will be marked with labels and checked jointly with our line managers and representatives of the workers as a must before work starts,” he said.

Mr Wambi said the company has offered further treatment to affected employees at any medical centre of their choice.
He, however, said the few tests done at Ebenezer have showed that despite the exposure to chemicals, the victims are free of any chemical intoxication.

He appealed to workers to stay calm saying management was doing everything possible to ensure their safety at the factory.


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