An employee of Chinese construction company Sepco1 has died during the clearing of vegetation for a giant transmission line originating at the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant in the state of Pará, northern Brazil.
Twenty-nine year old chainsaw operator Vagner Antunes, who had six years of experience, was sitting under a coconut tree sharpening his tools on September 20 when he was hit by the branch of a tree felled 27 metres away by another worker, according to Virgínio Pereira da Silva, 30, a co-worker and childhood friend of Antunes who was present at the scene.
“He was sitting within a 24 metre radius. We didn’t even have a stretcher on site to take him [anywhere] for help,” Pereira da Silva told Diálogo Chino.
Pereira da Silva said he and other workers took Antunes to the nearby town of Anapu but he required medical procedures the local helath facility could not provide. He was referred to a hospital in the city of Altamira around 130 kilometres (80 miles) away where he died two days later.
Sepco1 has yet to release an official statement about the accident. Diálogo Chino understands the company will provide Antunes’ family with compensation.
This is not the first time questions have been raised over Sepco1’s labour standards in Brazil. In 2015, local authorities in Pará found a number of irregularities with the company including workers being contracted without formal registration. According to Laura Fernandes, a federal labour prosecutor for the state of Pará, they also found 22 Chinese working illegally without visas. The company was fined and signed an agreement promising to improve its conduct in the future.
Big in Brazil
Sepco1 is a Brazilian subsidiary of energy giant Power China and is the only Chinese construction company to be subcontracted by Belo Monte Energy Transmission (BMTE), the company responsible for the 2100-kilometre transmission line. BMTE comprises China’s State Grid (which owns a majority 51%) and the state-owned Brazilian companies Furnas (24.5%) and Eletronorte (24.5%).
The transmission line will transport energy from the Belo Monte hydro project to the Estreito substation in the state of Minas Gerais. Construction of the line will clear some 17,000 hectares of native vegetation in the Amazon rainforest and Cerrado Savannah.
The company has also been involved in construction of the Candiota coal-powered thermoelectric plant in Rio Grande do Sul and transmission from the Teles Pires hydroelectric plant in Mato Grosso, central Brazil.
By the end of 2015, China Power, Sepco1’s parent company, had over US$77.1 billion in assets and 200,000 employees worldwide. The company is in charge of the nearly two thousand projects across 116 countries.
Chienju Lee, Sepco1 director of human resources, who is based at the company’s offices within State Grid’s headquarters in Rio de Janeiro, told Diálogo Chino the company has 1300 employees in Brazil but did not comment on the accident that led to Antunes’ death.
João Bosco, who works in Sepco1’s office in Anapu, said: “It was really unfortunate, nobody expected it. The workers are trained to stay 30 metres away from where the pruning is taking place. He was closer than that,” said Bosco.
But Pereira da Silva says security perimeters were rarely observed because managers of the tree clearing teams imposed great pressure on the workers to cut down as many trees as possible.
“We isolated an area of 25 square metres and took down trees that were almost 30, 40, 50 meters high. Often these trees fell outside of the area and knocked down other trees that were not supposed to be taken down,” said Silva, who along with other workers present was fired after the accident took place.
“The company was afraid. They said that we were to blame [for the accident],” he said.
Elizani Macedo, Antunes’ wife, was informed of her husband’s death by the wife of Pereira da Silva. Macedo immediately left for Altamira from her hometown of Ribeiro Gonçalves, in Piauí state, some 1150-kilometres away.
“In the middle of the trip I learned he had died. The company sent a car and driver to take me back to Piauí,” said Macedo. On returning home she learned that husband’s body had already been returned to Ribeiro Gonçalves.
“This is my second husband who has died. I have four small children to raise,” said Macedo, who is expected to receive US$9,300 from her husband’s life insurance policy. Antunes received a gross monthly salary of US$488.
The Pará Ministry of Labour, which should have been notified about the accident which led to Antunes’ death within 24 hours, learned of it on being contacted for this article by Diálogo Chino on September 29.
Weak safety standards
In Brazil, clearing vegetation is not governed by any regulatory standards. Maurício Barros da Silva, an independent workplace safety engineer who has advised major infrastructure projects, said he has made countless pleas to the Ministry of Labour and Employment to introduce safety regulations for tree felling, but complains that nothing has been done.
“Clearing vegetation can have very severe [consequences], with a large number of accidents involving mutilation, permanent disability, and fatalities,” said Barros. Little progress has been made with respect to the safety of employees who work on the front lines in these sectors with some companies and local authorities guilty of neglect, he added.
“Companies have not yet realised that clearing vegetation is a maximum-risk activity,” Barros said.