"You can't come all the way from China to be a racist here," fumed Sydney Gata, the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (Zesa) executive chairman.
Gata was speaking on the sidelines of a tour of units 7 and 8 of an electricity generation project being jointly implemented by the Zimbabwe Power Company (ZPC) and a Chinese company, Sino Hydro Corporation, in Hwange over a week ago.
A three-month investigation by The Standard, in partnership with the Information for Development Trust, discovered that ZPC, a public sector enterprise and Zesa subsidiary, and line ministries have been turning a blind eye on the rife abuse of local employees by the Chinese management at Sino Hydro Corporation.
"The only remedy is to fire those Chinese people abusing workers," said Gata, but there are no signs that such redress will come any time soon.
Even as Gata expressed anger at the reports of abuse at Sino Hydro Corporation, the minister of State for Presidential Affairs responsible for Monitoring and Implementation, Joram Gumbo, who had also travelled to Hwange for the tour, brushed the issue aside.
"That's not what I came here for," he said.
In early 2019, Sino Hydro Corporation started the construction of the Hwange 7 and 8 units as part of a US$1,4 billion expansion project after signing a deal with ZPC.
The government, which has been painting a rosy picture of the project, estimates it to increase the capacity of Hwange Thermal Power Station -- Zimbabwe's biggest -- by 600 megawatts when complete.
ZPC and Sino Hydro Corporation formed the Hwange Electricity Supply Company (Hesco) as a special purpose vehicle (SPV) to run the project.
But this SPV remains academic as ZPC has, in practice, surrendered the project to Sino Hydro Corporation through its Chinese management, which workers and other sources said is riding rough-shod over local employees with impunity, despite repeated complaints by their labour union representatives.
Numerous lobby letters by the Zimbabwe Construction and Allied Trades Workers' Union (Zcatwu), workers' testimonies and interviews with other sources add up to show the extent of abuses at the Sino Hydro Corporation project, which employs at least 400 people, most of them semi-skilled and unskilled cheap labour.
Correspondence by the union dated March 18 2019 shows that labour representatives, after several attempts to engage the Sino Hydro and ZPC managements over workers' rights violations, handed over complaints to their lawyers with the hope that, that would bring change.
Slightly a month after, the union, apparently on the advice of its own advocates, took its battle to the ZPC lawyers demanding a meeting to discuss a plethora of grievances against Sino Hydro Corporation.
Their grievances included "underpayment of wages... use of unapproved contract forms, non-provision of protective clothing, unfair dismissal of employees, improper grading, non-provision of pay-slips" and management's deliberate efforts to set up a workers' representative body at Sino Hydro.
The majority of the employees who have been there for longer than a year work on three-month contracts that keep being renewed, in contravention of local labour laws.
Zcatwu, which represents most of the workers at the project, says it has tried in vain to stop the alleged abuse by the Chinese.
Muchapiwa Mazarura, the union's secretary-general, said they believed that government and ZPC officials were getting kickbacks from the Chinese to keep a lid on cases involving the abuse of workers.
Mazarura claimed ZPC managers were given top-of-the-range vehicles by Sino Hydro Corporation last year and workers believed the Chinese were buying the power company's silence.
"Workers have been injured and some died due to negligence, but we are being frustrated by ZPC's failure to intervene," he said. "We have tried to engage since last year, but nothing has changed."
Subsequent letters show that the Office of the President and Cabinet as well the Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare ministry were also approached to address the labour malpractices without success.
Zcatwu, one of the letters showed, even appealed to the local traditional leadership to intervene, but that also did not bring good news.
Instead, ZPC and the Chinese management at Sino Hydro, as shown through email correspondence, banned the union leaders from visiting their premises for lobbying for better working conditions for the workers and threatened them with arrest.
The union is now pushing to sue Sino Hydro for violating workers' rights.
Most of the workers said they were routinely exposed to life-threatening situations in the course of their work.
So bad is the situation, the workers claimed, that some employees had died on-site while others suffered life-threatening injuries after being forced to work without safety clothing.
Twenty-four-year-old Brighton Shara lost four fingers from his left hand when he was forced to operate a pole machine without the requisite training.
Officially, he had been hired as a general hand, but was being moved from one department to another to fill gaps left by labourers who are often kicked out summarily
"I was new in the department and was operating the machine to straighten electricity poles, but I had not been trained to do that.
"The machine seemed to have stopped working and I decided to put my palm on the blade.
"It started running again and that's how my fingers were chopped off," narrated Shara.
The casual worker was admitted at the Hwange Colliery Company Limited hospital where he received overnight attention and was promptly discharged afterwards.
The Sino Hydro Corporation management summoned Shara for an interview where it blamed him for negligence, and he has not received any help from the company.
"I was called to give my version of the accident and none seemed to believe my story.
"Now, my fear is that I will lose my job since this is a permanent disability and they will lay me off like many others who were not given any compensation," Shara told The Standard.
Another employee, Mpilo Dube, recently lost his sight while using a welding machine without protective goggles and sparks damaged his eyes.
The corporation rushed him to Mpilo Central Hospital in Bulawayo, but fellow employees told The Standard that he may not regain his sight as the management seems to have abandoned him.
"Accidents and injuries are reported almost every day, but our bosses don't seem to care," said a disgruntled Sino Hydro Corporation employee.
"Victims are forced to foot their medical bills whenever they decide to consult a specialist or private doctor," he added, while employees working in a usually dusty and smoky environment were given a single mask a month yet the protective item is supposed to be disposed of after each shift.
The workers, investigations revealed, often work 11-hour daily shifts throughout the week for long periods, break for only one meal a day and are too spooked to complain to their superiors because colleagues have been fired on the spot or threatened with dismissal for doing so in the past.
The small Hwange coal mining community is still talking about how one of the Sino Hydro employees, Remmington Katsumbe, who was in his forties, met his death on November 21, 2019.
Colleagues at the corporation told The Standard that Katsumbe fell headlong off a tower he was working on after his supervisor forced him to go up on an old and worn-out support belt that had one hook instead of two.
Mazarura claimed that, after Katsumbe's death, the Chinese, who reportedly took away the belt, helmet and boots hurriedly, manipulated hospital authorities to produce a post-mortem report that absolved them.
Katsumbe, who left behind a wife and five children, was pronounced dead on arrival at the Hwange Colliery Company Hospital and the post-mortem affidavit that The Standard hunted down says he suffered "spinal shock and pelvic crack".
A tearful Fortunate Chiwaya (39), the late Katsumbe's wife who is based in rural Rusape in Manicaland province, said she was not aware of where Sino Hydro took the belt, helmet and shoes removed from the scene of the incident to.
She said she had repeatedly engaged Sino Hydro and the National Social Security Authority (NSSA), another public entity, to pay compensation, but she was being ignored.
When her husband died, she said, Sino Hydro gave her $6 000, which was meant to cover funeral expenses and hired a local burial company to ferry Katsumbe's body to Rusape.
"I raised the issue of compensation with ZPC management and the Sino regional human resources manager, Guo Chenguin, when they came to my place after the funeral, but they said that NSSA was supposed to assist with compensation and children's well-being," she said.
They implored her not to take her complaints to the media, she said, adding that the NSSA office in Mutare had failed to help her outside a mere $80 payout in February.
The NSSA account of circumstances leading to Katsumbe's death, which seems to have been influenced by the Sino management's own input, is cautious.
NSSA noted in an emailed response to The Standard that he "fell-off a scaffold after he slipped" and is silent on the failure by the corporation to provide adequate safety to the worker.
According to NSSA's Tendai Mutseyekwa, the marketing and communications executive, the "widow and children are already receiving a pension under POBS (Pension and Other Benefit Scheme) with effect from February 2020", in reference to the $80 (US$2.20) paid last month.
A second type of pension under the Accident Prevention and Workers Compensation Scheme (APWCS) will commence in April, Mutseyekwa said.
"The pension under APWCS will be paid starting from the month of April 2020 and a funeral grant of $2,000.00 under this APWCS was paid into the widow's account on 11 March 2020," said Mutseyekwa.
NSSA paid the funeral grant a week after The Standard approached it with questions, and more than three months after Katsumbe's death.
The delay in processing the APWCS benefits, Mutseyekwa added, "was because of a duplication in claims as the deceased's employer submitted one through the NSSA Hwange office, whilst the widow submitted documents through our Mutare regional office".
The Sino Hydro management did not respond to questions from this publication, insisting that only ZPC could comment on alleged abuses since it is the one that had contracted the workers.
ZPC project manager Forbes Chanakira acknowledged that they had heard of the abuses, but said they could not take action since the workers were too afraid to make formal complaints, despite the union's written correspondence.
He promised that ZPC would be making "regular audits" of all sites to enhance employees' safety and said they would investigate the Katsumbe case.
ZPC, according to Chanakira, had in the past intervened at Sino Hydro, but only by firing a Chinese national without requisite qualifications.