By Sanna Camara
At least 150 youths from Brikama, belonging to a group called ‘Gangalleh’ yesterday morning taken to streets in the West Coast Region, demanding “an end to exploitative working conditions” in the lumber business; demanding their Chinese employers to pay good wages and compensate their members where injuries and deaths occur.
The youths, most of whom despite observing the Muslim fast, embarked on a march that would have taken them over 20 kilometers from Brikama to Sere Kunda, were abruptly dispersed by the Police as they reached Yundum. However, they have already covered a distance of approximately ten kilometers by then. With some protesters marching with bandaged hands, legs and amputated limbs and fingers, they held placards, sweating under the morning sun, and shouting “down with exploitation, we want better pay”.
They were “determined” to make their voices heard over what they called “unacceptable working conditions” under which they work to load logs into containers for onward shipping out of the country by the Chinese traders. This job has associated risks, resulting in injuries and sometimes deaths of some workers, especially when logs fall on them for which there is no compensation, they said.
“We are not out for any disturbance to the peace… It is purposely to help ourselves. What we are being paid for loading timbers on to containers is too small yet risky. In Guinea Bissau, workers are paid at least D15, 000 while we are being paid D7, 000. And now they are even planning on cutting that to D6, 000,” one protester said.
He added that if anyone gets an injury that results in amputating your hand or limb, they do not get compensated. “In fact, the Chinese don’t allow our wounded workers to be driven in their cars. They do not give you any medical attention neither are you given water. Even drinking ‘Naan’ water, the injured has to buy for themselves.”
The job is mainly self-employed, as no contracts are signed between the Chinese employers ad their middlemen. The middlemen are usually Gambians who work with the Chinese employer to scout for labourers and negotiate for payment of service rendered by the workers. “Even though they have companies here, they cannot do this business without us loading their trucks and containers for shipments outside the country. We are important players in the timber business chain,” they said.
The workers have also claimed to have registered a lot of loss of lives already. “It is the same company operating in Guinea Bissau and they pay D25, 000 per container loaded, yet pay D6, 000 for our labour here. That is unacceptable,” said Ebrima Manneh, a youth from Brikama Wellingara.
Demba Taal, a team head at the container loading site, also add his voice to the workers: “We were uploading a container and our Chinese Supervisor came and asked us to stop work; that he is going to pay only D6, 000 for the service of loading the container. This is down from D7, 000 they were offering for the same job. Before we began the work, we negotiated for D10, 000 per container but they offered only D7, 000. We took it because we had no money and needed the jobs, even though it was not a fair offer for our service.”
Taal said they have agreed since on Wednesday to stop working for D6, 000 per container and that they are marching to all container loading points to stop all workers from working at such a rate: “The Chinese are willing to pay up to D15, 000 but the Gambians working with them are working are convincing them to pay far less, and we cannot accept that,” Taal said.
Meanwhile, the Police in West Coast Region have dispersed the protesters on the grounds that they don’t have a permit to hold a protest. Officers on the ground will not dilate further, instead referring us to the Police Spokesperson