Uganda’s Construction Boom Carries a Brutal Cost for Workers

Laborer deaths and injuries are mounting as Uganda’s major cities try to meet the demands of a growing population. Low-paid “helpers” — who often work without contracts or insurance — bear the brunt of the consequences.

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Uganda’s Construction Boom Carries a Brutal Cost for Workers

Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda

Musa Muwonge (from left) and Hassan Manyindo pass bricks to Edson Kimbugwe at a building site outside Kampala, Uganda’s capital. Manyindo was injured in a workplace accident in September 2018 and worries about lax safety practices.

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KAMPALA, UGANDA — Hassan Manyindo was pushing a wheelbarrow through a construction site in 2018 when the load started teetering. The rains had just come to Kampala, the Ugandan capital, and the site was dangerously slick.

Manyindo slipped off the rickety timber board and fell one story, the filled wheelbarrow crashing on top of his chest. A colleague, who pulled the load off him, saved his life.

Manyindo spent five days recovering in a hospital and two at home. “On the third day I ran back, lest my job be given out,” he says. He still suffers chest pains.

Kampala’s construction industry is booming due to Uganda’s rapid urbanization. The country’s urban population is expected to roughly quadruple in the next two decades to 22 million, according to the World Bank, partly due to people moving from rural areas into cities. Developers are scrambling to meet demand.

But safety protocols haven’t kept up with the pace, fueling a rise in worker injuries and deaths. One in 3 construction workers in Kampala has been injured on the job, according to a recent study by researchers at the city’s Makerere University.

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Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda

Police retrieve the body of Henry Nyombi from a construction site in October 2019. Nyombi died after he was buried under rubble, one of numerous accidents that have occurred on Ugandan building sites in recent years.

Workers like Manyindo who fetch water, add cement, and carry building materials are modestly referred to as “helpers” since they are not permanent employees. They earn between 10,000 and 15,000 Ugandan shillings ($2.69 to $4.04) per day and many do not have insurance, despite their exposure to high levels of risk.

Manyindo, who has been working in the construction industry for three years, says he spends his days in fear, never knowing if one will end with another accident.

“We live on the mercy of God,” he says.

Some laborers don’t get to walk away from an accident. Workers carried Henry Nyombi’s body off a building site in a suburb of Kampala last October, after a wall of soil collapsed on top of him.

Sauda Nakabiito’s son died on a work site in 2008 along with nine others in one of the worst construction accidents in recent history.

“My son was sacrificed with many others,” Nakabiito says as she weaves a mat at her home in Budondo, a small town about 56 miles (90 km) from Kampala. She says she was not properly compensated for his death by his employers.

“They brought home his body and said they had bought his coffin and transported him to his ancestral grounds,” she says. “They financed the burial costs and went away.”

The coronavirus crisis has made the work even more dangerous. Fifteen workers, asleep at a construction site in May due to transportation restrictions and a government-mandated curfew, died when the building collapsed on them.

Builders and construction experts disagree on the reasons behind the high rate of accidents on Uganda’s building sites.

Musa Muwonge, a foreman with 16 years of experience, says he thinks most building collapses are caused by qualified engineers — those with a college degree.

“They come from university with lots of paperwork and they depend on us to mix and do all the measurements of the building,” he says. “They do not want to stain their clothes, so they won’t touch any sand. This makes them use eye measurements without feeling the mixture.”

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Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda

A shocked crowd of workers, media and the public gathers around a construction site as police carry the body of Henry Nyombi, who was killed in a workplace accident.

But Stanley Bukenya, a lecturer in civil and building engineering at Kyambogo University, says the opposite is true. He blames laborers who pick up the trade on the job.

Developers are not willing to pay for proper engineers because they’re very expensive to hire and charge up to 12 million shillings ($3,234) per project, he says. An unqualified engineer will charge 4 million shillings ($1,078) or less for the same work.

“He reduces the materials by half and, in the end, the building has less mixture and will crack, crumble and fall,” Bukenya says.

A shortage of qualified architects only makes things worse. Just 178 registered architects served a population of 43 million in 2018, according to the Commonwealth Association of Architects.

“Architects are able to test particular soil conditions and foretell what might happen in future,” says Faisal Kiberu, a building engineer and a colleague of Bukenya’s at Kyambogo University. Without this pre-planning, building sites are at risk of crumbling, he says.

Officials say they’re working to improve safety standards. Developers who don’t respect design plans are prevented from constructing their projects, says Peter Kaujju, spokesperson for the Kampala City Council Authority at the time of the interview.

The National Building Review Board, which sets standards for construction, reviewed Uganda’s Building Control Act last year and introduced a new building code intended to make the industry safer.

But Bukenya, the lecturer, believes workers remain at risk. While permanent employees might receive compensation for job injuries, he says, these rights do not apply for contract workers or those who work off the books.

Back on the Kampala work site, Manyindo says he and his fellow helpers have never seen any insurance or compensation for injuries suffered at work.

“By the time I raise my voice for terms, the foreman will call someone else who will come in a matter of minutes,” he says. “Just like that, I will lose my job.”