Labour Imperialism: Plight of Nigerians Working in Foreign Firms

Foreign companies continue to expand their investments in Nigeria, while their local workers endure harsh working conditions.

Obinna Adigoha, 25, is a former employee of Linda Manufacturing Company Ltd., makers of the X-Pression brand of weave-on and hair attachments.

He is still bitter with the way he was sacked over the company’s controversial ’27 Points’ policy.
’27 Points’ attaches 3 points to workers who miss work even when they have genuine reason(s) and 9 points for being suspended for one day. This is almost inevitable because workers are unable to meet specified targets for the day.

As a result, the points keep piling up until they get to ’27 Points’ when the worker is automatically sacked.
The company does not have a functional hospital for workers, yet its management is notorious for not allowing workers the permission to seek medical care. Therefore, the race to avoid getting to ’27 Points’ often have fatal consequences. It led to the death of 19 years old Wisdom Atukpo on 24th of September, 2014 while on duty.

According to eye witnesses, Wisdom’s corpse was subsequently dumped in the gutter outside the premises to give the impression that he died outside the company’s premises and evade responsibility.

Describing his experience at the company, Obinna said: “The expatriates in that company are nothing but racists. They are cruel and mean; caring only about their work and result.”

“If after the training period you could not meet up with the targets given, they will lay you off immediately.”
“In my section (the three-head machine), I was given 26 bundles of weave-on to sew per day, which I did with my bare hands.”

While he worked in the company, Obinna was hardly seen at home. He left for work before dawn and arrived after dusk. Yet, nothing about him could be describe as good as his mien portrayed someone facing rough times.

Also last year, workers of Solpia Nigeria. Ltd. (a sister company of Linda Manufacturing Company Ltd.) in Agege protested the death of their colleague to the Lagos State House of Assembly while on duty. They alleged that late Nnamdi Solomon had complained to the management that he was having stomach ache and should be permitted to go and get treatment. However, he was denied until he died later that day in the company premises.

The protesting workers claim the company management dumped dead body of their colleague in a gutter within the factory premises for two days. They further reported that the company, which employs mostly casual staff, has been exploiting their workers for years. To make matters worse, the management got the senior brother of the deceased working in the same company arrested and detained by the police. His offense was complaining about the manner the company treated his brother and seeking redress.

Bisi Yusuf, a member of the Lagos State House of Assembly representing Alimoso Constituency 1, assured the aggrieved workers that the government will “investigate the matter and we will not spare any guilty person, no matter who he or she is.”
The company was shut for almost a month as a result.

It is now a common sight to see hundreds of young Nigerians converge at the entrances of such companies where they are recruited as daily paid casuals on meager stipends and work for long hours under hazardous conditions.

Investigation shows that many foreign owned companies in Nigeria engage in anti-labour practices like casualization, disregard for safety in the work environment and human rights abuses which have often resulted in avoidable loss of lives.

In 2004, about 100 workers on night duty in a Chinese owned factory at Ikorodu in Lagos were burnt to death as none of them could escape because the owners had locked the premises and went home with the keys.

In 2013, one Kenneth, an electrician working for a Chinese company in Ikeja, Lagos, that produces nylon bags, allegedly died from electric shock while carrying out repair work in the company without safety kits like boots and plastic gloves. The company which employs mostly casual workers who are not unionized did not have a clinic or sick bay for emergency. Some of his colleagues who were protesting his death showed newsmen burns on their bodies and hands, complaining that they were made to pack hot nylon bags with bare hands.

Mrs Nonye Dappa, a former employee of Lebanese owned Mikano International Limited in Ikeja described her experience as being “not funny, especially for Nigerians who don’t know their right.”
“Perhaps because these people know that Nigerians are really hunting for jobs, they trample on their employees. If you complain you’ll be fired and before you say ‘jack’ someone else is hired.”

She continued: “Once while I was there, a Nigerian died on duty because of the carelessness of one of the foreigners. On the day of the deceased’s burial the management asked everyone to go back to work, which caused protest among the workers.”

Earlier this year, Grace Okpara, a cleaner at Buildwell Plant and Equipment Industry Limit¬ed, a logistics company along the Lagos/Ibadan Expressway claimed she was brutalized by her bosses who dragged her on the ground during an argument.

The accused couple, Lebanese Joseph and Hala Yazbeck, are said to be directors of the company. Mrs Okpara sustained serious injuries and had to be hospitalized. The matter was reported at the Ibafo Police Division.
She said, “I work as a cleaner at the Lebanese company, and I earn N20,000 as salary. The incident happened on January 14 at about 11.30am.

“That day, Hala said I did not clean the premises very well, but as I tried to explain, she kicked me and I fell. Minutes later when the husband showed up, I reported Hala to him, but he also slapped me.
“I fell ill after the incident and went to the hospital for treatment. I was treated at a private hospital in Ibafo.”

Sometimes though, the abuse is not physical, as Mrs Bunmi Badejo learnt while working for the American owned New Nation Finance House in 2012.

She recounted her ordeals: “These people also brainwash and talk down on people. The boss, Charles Dukwe can just look at you and say: “Shut up, you this idiot!”

Oluwafemi Bagbe has been working as a contract staff for Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Ltd for about 8 years now. For him, “the abnormality of Shell is the idea of not being responsible for any third party staff.”

“Our contract as direct contract staff is usually between 3-4 years. After it expires, it will either be extended or renewed. There are people who still collects as low as 28,000 naira as salary in Shell – a whole multinational company like that!”

He continued: “It doesn’t matter the number of years of service. When you are leaving you leave with nothing. There was the case if a woman that worked for 27 years, but left with her very last salary.”

“If it were to be a staff of Shell, he or she will go with not less that 30-50 million naira,” he said.

Aggrieved workers of Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd protested the ill treatment of outsourced staff in a statement circulated in December 2013.

The document revealed the terrible attitude of the company’s management in Nigeria towards their staff. One of the workers confirmed the development to this reporter but refused talk about it for fear of being identified.

The circular complained that “the engineers work round the clock, without any form of incentive, risking their lives even at night for a company that shows no sympathy. Many have died on duty without any form of compensation.”
“Some of the staff have worked for almost 3 years and earn less than those who have worked for just few months. Imagine someone earns N100,000, while another earns N300,000 doing the same job!”

It frowned at the management’s ‘racist’ decision of replacing Mr. Francis Agbodike (a seasoned profession with vast international experience) with R.S Tomar and Anicho Ogbonnaya.

“Mr Tomar has once said that even if we do not want to work, there is a long queue of people willing to take our jobs for a smaller salary,” it reads.

The legal frameworks do not help matter either. For instance, the Nigerian Labour Act. Section 40 subsection 1-4 talks about the terms and condition for a good working environment from employer to employee. This brings the rise to Section 46 subsection 1-5 that talks about punishment for any company that breach its contract to employee.
It says that company should pay a fine of N500.

The founder of Institute of Human Rights and Business Africa, Eustace Onuegbu, believes large part of the Nigerian constitution is “an insult to the country, not protecting the citizens while the Government spends huge sums of the oil revenue on National Conference and on the Senate / House of Assembly which does little or nothing for the citizenry.”

Mrs Dappa, who worked for more than two years with Mikano International, feels the company has a discrimination policy against Nigerian workers.

“When you are employed there you are placed as a contract worker, which should normally last for period of six months. But you will find some Nigerians who have been on contract for 2 years and even more.”
“But when a foreigner is employed he is made to be a staff immediately. It doesn’t matter if that foreigner was a shoe maker in his country,” she concluded.

Some foreign construction companies load their Nigerian workers to construction sites in modified cargo containers attached to trailers while their foreign supervisors cruise to those sites in chauffeur-driven SUVs.

According to Emmanuel Udosen, a student who worked for eight months at Dana Plast Limited: “You can’t even meet the ‘white guys’ on your own as that might lead to an immediate sack.”

Obinna Adigoha said: “We don’t see the Koreans often. They stay in the air conditioned offices.”
In his opinion, many of expatriate workers do not have legal stay in Nigeria.

“They have their house in the company premises so they don’t go out. And if they do, they go out in groups. They import their foodstuff and whatever they need. They have everything in the compound – including a swimming pool. Some come with their wives and kids,” he said.

At the entrance of Indian owned OK Foods Limited, along the Apapa Oshodi expressway, Wasiu and Yinka sat and chatted at 11.13am on a Tuesday morning.

When asked if the company was recruiting that day, they answered: “No.”
So, why are they waiting?

“We just want to wait as you never know if they will still come to call us.”

For Udosen Monday, who used to work in the serigraphy section of OK Plast Ltd, money was the only consideration.
“They pay every two weeks and I like it that way, because I can’t wait for 30 days,” he said.

“If many of us have better offer we will never work there. The reason why people work in these places is due to the money because for instance, after you have learned computer what you get are 7000 or 8000 naira jobs. If you want to teach, they pay you highest 10,000 naira.”

“Some workers in these companies have families and pay house rent out of the 20,000 naira plus salary.”
Accepting to work in demeaning jobs in foreign companies or leaving them are tough choices that requires introspection. Not many people can be like Mrs Badejo who quit her job in less than two months, for instance.
She concurred: “Whereas I left New Nation easily and quickly, other didn’t. They would say, ‘I’ll just manage it, maybe one day.’”

“You hear: ‘At all, at all, na im bad – even if it’s commission we can manage.’ The truth however is that the more they work, the less they get.”

According to Miss Bolanle Akinola, a worker at Ikeja based Orkila Chemicals Ltd, “I have a friend who no longer works here, what happened to him here is pathetic and sad. A machine dropped on his leg cutting off all of his toes. It was a gory sight that day. A human being’s toe cut off just like that.

“The most painful thing that happened that day is that when this incident happened we were working together on a machine and what amazed me was the manner at which our boss handled the situation. He did not feel sorry at all, I could see it in his eyes, he felt no different and that day I just knew we were nothing but slaves and animals in this factory working to be cut to pieces or die.

“I will not advice my enemy to do this kind of work, but my friend later left. He quit about three months ago, but I cannot do that, this is where I make my living. I have two brothers who are still in the university and I am assisting my parents because they are just petty traders. People are suffering in this country. This is what our government has brought on us. A case where there are no jobs what do you expect people to do? We have to do the available ones and that is why these employers, especially these ‘white men companies’ are taking advantage of the situation of this country.”