top of page

Working with poison

Deep in the forests of Natal where nobody can see her, you will find Maria Sibiya hard at work with a tank of poison on her back. Like thousands of other workers in the forests and on the farms, she works with poison everyday.

The poison is good news for farmers and forest owners. It is a cheap and quick way to kill insects and weeds. But it is bad news for the health of workers like Maria. Maria lives and works in a forest near Richmond. It is a small town in Natal, surrounded by sawmill factories that turn trees into planks of wood.

In the centre of town, a few run-down shops do business by selling goods to the sawmill workers and the people who work on the farms and forests in the area. From the shopping centre, many dirt roads spread out into the sugar farms, orange plantations and forests that cover the green hills.

One of these roads runs for 16 kilometres through the tall pine and bluegum trees. At the end of the road stand ten rows of black and white brick buildings. That’s the compound where Maria lives together with 500 other men and women.


Every day Maria wakes up at 4am, long before the sun throws its first rays between the rows of trees. She prepares food with the three women that share her small room. They eat and quickly tidy the room. Then it’s a rush – down to the tractor and trailer that waits to take them into the forest.

By 6am they reach the place where work begins. Maria climbs the steep hills in the forest with a tank on her back. Inside the tank are 25 litres of poison. She sprays the trees with the poison. When the tank is empty she rushes down the hill and fills it. She must finish six tanks of poison to get paid for the shift. This is what the workers call “itoho” – the piecework system.

Maria uses many different kinds of poisons. One of these is a poison called 245-T. It is used to kill the wild bushes that grow between trees.


But bushes are not the only things that die from 245-T. The poison was made by the British during World War Two. The British army wanted to use it to destroy enemy crops. But the war ended before it was used.

The poison was used by the Americans in their war against the people of Vietnam. They wanted to destroy the jungle that gave shelter to the soldiers who fought for the people of Vietnam. More than a million gallons of a poison called Agent Orange were dumped on the forests of Vietnam by American jet bombers. Agent Orange was made from 245-T.

After the war strange things began to happen in Vietnam. Babies were born with no eyes. Some had tiny brains or small hearts. Others had too many fingers or stumps instead of legs and arms. Doctors blamed 245-T for the damage to the bodies of the babies. Back in America, soldiers who fought in the jungles of Vietnam began to get ill. Doctors blamed 245-T for causing cancer, liver illnesses and skin diseases. Many of the soldiers’ wives also gave birth to deformed babies.

Dow Chemicals, the company that sold Agent Orange to the American army, was forced to pay the American soldiers R360 000 damages. At the time farmers in America were using 245-T to kill weeds on their land. The government put a stop to this. In 1970 245-T was banned in America. Today most governments believe 245-T is too dangerous to be used. 245-T is now banned in countries like Japan, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Norway, Holland, Germany and America.


But in South Africa the law does not protect workers like Maria who still spray with 245-T. Nobody has ever told Maria about the dangers of 245-T. The company gives her a plastic suit, goggles and a small mask – and tells her to get on with the job. The workers who spray the poison, like Maria, are not the only ones in danger.

When the wind blows, the spray from Maria’s poison can easily enter into the lungs of her fellow workers – like those who cut down trees nearby. They are not given masks for protection.

An organisation in Natal called Chemwatch says that 245-T may have already caused deformed babies. In South Africa Chemwatch says 245-T may have caused the many damaged babies born in Natal. For example, they tell a story of twins who were born in January 1987 – one was healthy, the other had no fingers. The father of the twins works in a forest near Richmond.

In November 1986 a baby girl was born with a tiny left ear. Her mother and father live and work in a forest near Richmond. They say the company sprays with 245-T.

Chemwatch believes that there are many stories about the damage caused by 245-T. They are doing a big study about the poison – but they believe there is already enough proof of the dangers of 245-T. Scientists working for the organisation say that 245-T must be banned in South Africa.


Chemwatch is not the only organisation fighting to get 245-T banned. The Paper Wood and Allied Workers Union (PWAWU) fights for the rights of forestry workers – and is also deeply worried about the dangers of 245-T.

“We know about the dangers of 245-T,” says Jeremy Baskin, general secretary of PWAWU. “And we are prepared to fight tooth and nail against the dangers in the forest. We will not rest until the forests are safe.”

“We are also fighting other dangers in the forest – like the ‘itoho’ system. ‘Itoho’ forces workers to work so fast that they have no time to worry about their safety.”

“Safety is not the only thing we are fighting for,” says Jeremy Baskin. “Forestry workers are among the worst-off workers in the country. Many get wages as low as R5 a day. There is no minimum wage in the forests. Many of the workers have never heard of paid leave and sick leave. Our job is to change this.”


In the meantime PWAWU has written a book about the dangers of work in the forests and sawmills. The book tells about the dangers of noise, machines and the poisons that workers use.

It tells workers about their right to fight for a healthy job. “A safe workplace is every worker’s right. You can demand protection from dangerous chemicals. If you stand together management will be forced to listen,” says the book. The book also says that workers like Maria can do the following things to make their jobs safe:

  1. Workers can ask management about the dangers of the chemicals they use. The law says bosses must tell workers about the dangers of each poison.

  2. Workers must use gloves, plastic suits, masks and goggles. The law says that bosses must give these safety clothes to workers for free.

  3. Workers must see a doctor once a year. They must tell the doctor what poisons they work with. The doctor must check to see that the poison has not made them ill.

  4. If workers know of anybody who has suffered from poisons like 245-T, they must tell the union about it. They can write to PWAWU, P O Box 35208, Johannesburg, 2000. (Workers can also write to Chemwatch, PO Box 158, Cato Ridge, 3680.)

  5. Most of all, workers can demand that the company must only use posions that are safe. In other countries 245-T was banned only after the workers united in their trade unions and demanded an end to the poison in their countries.

(Maria Sibiya is not the real name of the woman in this story. She asked us not to use her real name for fear of being fired.)


If you would like to print or save this article as a PDF, press ctrl + p on your keyboard (cmd + p on mac).

bottom of page