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Working with metal


“Benoni, Boksburg, Springs, Egoli, We make you rich. We hostel people make you rich. You send us back home to die. Our pockets are empty, Our dreams are empty, And our lungs are full of dust. Our hands are chopped off And your machines are grinding in our brains.”

This is a metal workers’ song. It tells the story of thousands of men and women who work in the metal factories of this country.

In these factories the workers make steel pipes, pots, pans, railway lines and many other things that keep this country going. And they make something else – plenty of money for their bosses.

“The metal bosses are rich. They own some of the biggest factories in the country,” says a metal worker from Benoni. “But the metal workers don’t get much for making their bosses rich. All they get is a little bit of money, a few empty dreams and a broken and worn out body.”


Every year thousands of workers are hurt in the metal factories. Many of these workers die from their injuries. In 1978 the metal factories had 14,674 accidents – and 92 workers died in these accidents

Workers in the metal factories also get ‘many diseases – diseases that damage their lungs, their eyes and their ears.

You find the worst kind of metal work in the foundries. Foundries are factories where workers must heat up iron and steel so that it melts. Then the metal is soft and workers can make many things.

These factories use big fires to melt the metal. When the metal is soft, the workers pour it into moulds. Then the metal takes the shape of the things the workers make. And then it gets cold, hard and very heavy.

“The foundry is hot and the work is heavy. The place is like the hell you read about in the bible,” says a worker from a big foundry In Boksburg.

“Working in the heat the whole day is horrible,” says another worker. “You knock off from work and you feel like killing somebody. You’ are exhausted. You want to collapse somewhere and sleep until Christmas.”

“The work is dangerous, especially the pouring,” says another worker. “There are many accidents at the furnace when we pour and when we carry pots. Very often the melted metal falls out of the pot and burns us. It can burn you from the waist down, mostly on the legs. When the metal spills, it gets into your boots. There is no way you can escape the danger of burning. We could use coats, gloves and boots. But the firm does not give them to us. The metal has burned me so many times I can’t count anymore.”

“My skin is like a snake’s skin because of the burns,” says another worker. He was burnt in a big foundry accident. “Now even my children do not know my true colour.”

Workers in metal factories have many other kinds of accidents. Every year heavy metal falls and crushes workers’ bones. And machines break many hands and legs. In 1978 1,741 metal workers were so badly hurt at work they could not do their jobs anymore.


Metal factories also have many other dangers. The work in these factories can give workers many kinds of problems.

DUST DISEASES. Metal factories use a special sand to make the moulds. This sand is very dangerous. It can give workers a disease of the lungs called silicosis. Silicosis is not the same as TB but it gives the same problems.

Workers with silicosis cough a lot. They feel weak and tired. And they have sore chests. Sometimes it takes 20 years before a worker knows he has silicosis. And then it is too late for the doctors to help. The rural areas are full of workers broken by this disease.

NOISE. Metal factories are very noisy places. And this can damage the hearing of metal workers. The noise can make workers go deaf. The first signs of damage are.

Workers cannot hear well for a few hours after work. Workers hear ringing in their ears or the noise of machines for a few hours after work.

POISON. The dust from many kinds of metal can poison workers. When workers are grinding, they breathe in a lot of metal dust. This metal poison can make the workers feel tired and weak. It can give them stomach pains. The metal dust can also cause diseases of the lungs and the liver.

FIRE AND HEAT. The heat in the foundry can also cause many diseases. The heat can make a worker feel tired and dizzy. If workers sweat a lot then the heat can damage a worker’s kidneys badIy. The heat and brightness from the burning metal can also damage a worker’s eyes.


Workers cannot find jobs easily these days. So they cannot leave these factories that destroy their bodies. “It is very difficult to change factories, says a metal worker. “All you can do is join a union and try to make things better.”

Today many metal workers are united in trade unions. They are fighting together to make things better in the metal factories.

The Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU) is one of the biggest trade unions in the country. It fights hard for the health of metal workers. For example, last year MAWU in Vereeniging decided to show their members how to fight for ‘tsereletso bophelong ba basebetsi’ – health and safety for all workers.

So MAWU had a meeting In Vereeniging. At the meeting workers spoke about ways to stop the dangers in the metal factories. These are some of the things they said:

DUST Bosses must use machines to suck the dust out of the air.

They must give masks to workers for free. These masks help to stop the dust from going into a worker’s lungs. But some masks are cheap and useless. Many masks are uncomfortable. Bosses must get good and comfortable masks. Otherwise masks will not help workers.

Workers must also get X-rays to see if dust has damaged their lungs. If their lungs are damaged, then the bosses must let them work in a part of the factory with no dust. They must not fire sick workers – like bosses often do.

NOISE The bosses must keep machines in good order. They must sell old, noisy machines and get new ones. New machines don’t make so much noise.

If the bosses cannot keep their factories quiet, then they must give workers ear muffs. Ear muffs can sometimes stop noise from harming a worker’s ears. But ear muffs have problems. A worker with ear muffs cannot hear warnings so well. This can make the work more .dangerous. Ear muffs are also uncomfortable. So quiet machines are better than ear muffs.

FIRE AND HEAT The law says foundry workers must not stand in front of the fire for longer than half an hour at a time. Bosses must also give these workers lots of water. This will help stop damage to the kidneys of workers.

Bosses must also give foundry workers goggles, overalls, boots and aprons. Workers must not pay for these clothes. These clothes can protect workers’ eyes and bodies from heat and burns. But these clothes to protect workers must be made from good material. Otherwise they will not help much.

ACCIDENTS. Bosses must put covers or guards on all machines. Guards can stop machines from crushing many bones. Bosses must also show workers how to work the machines well. And they must keep their factories clean and tidy.

The workers know that these things will cost money – and bosses don’t like to spend money. For example between 1970 and 1976 the profits of metal bosses went up four times and so did the number of accidents.

“We know that profits mean more to the bosses than our lives,” says a foundry worker. “So we must fight for our health. We must make our unions strong and united so that we can fight well.”

Parts of this story come from a new book called “The Sun Shall Rise For The Workers” by Mandlenkosi Makhoba. Do you want this very good book? Send R 1.75 postal order to: Ravan Press, P.O. Box 31134, Braam­fontein 2017.


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