KISANGANI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Three years ago, when Anny Paonie’s husband died, she took his place in daily demonstrations that draw up to 150 protestors at the Place des Martyrs in Kisangani’s central square.
The group has been protesting every day since 2013, seeking the unpaid indemnities long overdue to 893 people who worked for the Complexe Sucrier de Lotokila, a sugar refinery that was partly owned by the provincial government and that fell on hard times in 1993 and closed for good in 2010.
Paonie, 62, never worked at the refinery, but she’s protesting for her deceased husband’s severance pay. When the sugar refinery was still in operation, Paonie’s husband was in charge of delivering sugar to customers, she says. He was the family’s sole breadwinner.
Sitting on a red piece of cloth and resting her cheek on her hand, Paonie says the only way to honor his legacy is to continue to fight for what he was owed.
“I will never grow tired of demanding my late husband’s unpaid wages,” she says. “It’s my only way to do him justice, because he, too, demanded the same every day, until the day he passed away.”
The daily protest has been going on for so long, now entering its fifth year, that 59 original protestors have died and are now represented by their widows, who continue fighting for the severance money owed to their loved ones.
Francine Ishay Mulumba, GPJ DRC
“Fifty-nine people – all of them are men – have passed away thanks to this surge of anxiety which preyed on their life,” says Roger Bosongo Wesinga, the chairman of the advocacy committee that leads the protest.
The Lotokila sugar refinery opened in 1973 as a public-private entity, co-owned by the provincial government and a Chinese company. In its best days, the refinery owned thousands of hectares of sugar-cane plantations and employed more than 3,000 people in Kisangani, one of DRC’s largest cities and the capital of Tshopo province. The refinery fell on hard times in 1993, when the Chinese company pulled out of DRC because of the worsening economic crisis and growing civil unrest throughout the country. Representatives from the provincial government would not disclose the name of the Chinese entity that used to co-own the facility.
The Lotokila sugar refinery closed in 1993, with just 300 employees staying on staff to tend the sugar-cane fields. By 2010, the factory and fields closed for good.
Upon liquidation, local law requires companies to pay severance, also known as indemnities, to all workers based on rank and length of service to the company. Because the refinery was owned by the provincial government, the labor code requires Tshopo province to pay all employees in the event of definitive termination of the enterprise.
The provincial government has settled claims with some workers, who were paid a flat rate of $200 USD in severance regardless of rank or length of service to the factory. But 893 former workers continue to protest for their indemnities, despite the provincial government’s insistence that they do not have the funds to settle any more claims.
Wesinga says protestors have been repeatedly asked to wait for payment since 2010.
“They keep telling us that we should wait – we don’t know how long we will be waiting,” he says.
When daily protests began in 2013, it became clear that the issue was not going to go away.
By 2014, La direction générale du portefeuille public, an arm of the central government’s Finance Ministry that oversees all business in DRC, took over the investigation, acknowledging that the provincial government did not have the funds to settle any further claims at this time.
Representatives from the provincial government refused to comment on the record about the status of the investigation or any future plans to settle the workers claims.
Since their investigation in 2014, workers have not received any word on their settlements. So, they continue their daily protest.
Jean Camille Bolabola, an 85-year-old father of 15, says he doesn’t know how much longer he can wait.
He was a supervisor at the refinery for 27 years. He says he was paid the $200 in 2013 when the provincial government was attempting to settle claims, but says that’s nowhere near the $12,000 USD he is owed according to the length of time he worked at the refinery.
He says he comes to the Place des Martyrs every day, hoping for justice.
“I’ve been here voicing my demands for four years and three months now,” he says. “But I can’t hope for a brighter future. We’ve been robbed of our jobs, which were solely relied upon to feed our families, and the government is not willing to give us compensation.”
The daily protest takes a toll on their health, protestors say.
Germaine Pawele, 58, is new to the group. She joined in 2017 after her husband, who had worked at the refinery, died.
“My husband died four months ago, and he, too, spent most of his time here,” she says. “And this is why I will fight for our rights until my last breath.”
Charlie Atshali, 57, is another of the growing number of widows who have joined the protest. She says her husband’s soul cannot rest in peace until the family receives justice.
“I’ve been here since my husband’s death because I have to voice my demands alongside others confronted with the same problems as me. I have to claim for him,” she says.
For Kisangani Mayor Augustin Osumaka Lofanga Koy’okenge, the ongoing protest is frustrating since the factory, though located in the city, was owned by the provincial government.
“My mayoral power to find a solution to the issue is pretty limited,” he says. “I’m like a frog coming face to face with an elephant.”
Wesinga, who has led the protestors since 2013, says they are increasing efforts and adding tactics, such as regularly sending representatives to Kinshasa, the country’s capital city, to try to meet with representatives from the labor and finance ministries.
“We’ve reached a tipping point, and enough is enough. We call on the government to care about our pain and do something about it,” he says.
Paonie says she wonders how many more will die before the provincial government settles its debt to its former employees.
“After many years of toiling away in the refinery, our husbands died never having heard of the slightest chance of recovering their unpaid wages,” she says.
Ndayaho Sylvestre, GPJ, translated this article from French.