We're treated like slaves but we're afraid of losing our jobs -Nigerians in Chinese, Indian companies

By The Citizen
Click for Full Image Size

Ade Abbas (not real name) looked furtively around before he spoke. It was clear he was afraid. He was afraid like many other factory workers, who simply walked away when our correspondent approached them to inquire about working conditions in their places of work. They did not want to get fired.

The condition in the country has taught these youths to be thankful for their situation and count themselves fortunate to be employed, no matter how terrible the working condition in their places of work is.

Some of them told our correspondent that they were aware that their case was 'voluntary slavery;' but said they had become powerless as a result of the economic hardship in the country.

'I don't want to lose my job please, I cannot lose this job. My wife is pregnant. The survival of my family and I depends on the N15,000 I earn here per month,' Abbas said.

He tried to explain the reason why he had to be vigilant as he met with our correspondent some distance away from one of the factories of Lifemate Furniture, where he works on Oregun Road, Lagos.

Lifemate is one of the numerous businesses run by Chinese nationals in the country.

For Abbas, work begins at 8am and ends at 5.30pm.
Abbas's appearance was nothing close to what one could describe as good. His mien portrayed a man facing rough times.

'I finished secondary school but I had no means to further my education,' the 31-year-old man said.

His work involves lifting heavy materials as he has to carry chunks of marble and other materials used for the high-end products churned out from the company's factory everyday.

Abbas said, 'This job is slavery, there is no other way to describe it. In fact, the company only started paying N15,000 recently. Our salary was N12,000 before. But where else do I go if I leave this job? Even if I find another factory work somewhere else, it is not likely that it will pay better.

'We hear from many other factory workers around. Their bosses pay terrible wages as well. It is usually like that in Chinese factories,' he added.

Foreign investment or foreign slavery?
China is one of the biggest investors in Africa. In fact, recently, the outgoing Chinese Ambassador to Nigeria, Deng Boqing, said the trade volume between Nigeria and China in 2013 was almost $13bn.

'We encourage the Chinese companies to do their business, especially establishing  factories in Nigeria in order to increase job opportunities for Nigerians and industrialise products for Nigerians,' the envoy had said.

But stories abound how badly expatriate employers treat locals in the country.

Saturday PUNCH met Tade Babatunde, a 30-year-old former employee of Lifemate, who claimed he developed a recurrent chest pain as a result of lifting heavy materials while in the employ of the company. He was fired a few months ago.

He told Saturday PUNCH, 'The first time I took  permission to go for treatment since the company does not have a health insurance, N5,600 (about $36) was deducted from the N26,000 (about $167) I earned monthly. I was so shocked because I had thought my bosses would be considerate. I earned N26,000 because I had spent more than three years in the company.

'If you are ill, you are on your own. The second time I had to stay off work because of the chest pain, I got back to work and was fired. I was a healthy person before I got the employment. There are no lifting tools available to us. I developed health challenges after continuous lifting of heavy materials in the factory.'

Babatunde said that out of his N26,000 salary, N6,000 was spent on transport from his home to work and from work back home since he had to work Monday through Saturday. Only his Sunday was free.

'I live in Ijaiye and spent at least N200 on transport every day while I was working with Lifemate. I had to do a lot of trekking daily just to reduce the cost of transport,' he said.

A visit to the showroom of the furniture company reveals a repertoire of expensive high-end furniture and marble-topped kitchen cabinets.

Babatunde was bitter. He said the fact that he was paid far less than the heavy work he did should have made his foreign employers to be considerate when he complained of ill health.

In another part of Lagos, and in yet another high-end furniture factory, Alibert Products Nigeria Limited, employees work for pay they can barely survive on.

During a visit to the factory, one of the employees who volunteered to speak with our correspondent blatantly refused to give his name for fear of being sacked for whatever he had to say. He explained that no matter how small the wages the foreigners who employed them paid, they could never protest.

'I had been coming here for at least two years in search of work before I was offered work in December 2013. I am paid N15,000 per month. Of course, it is not enough but where is the job in this country? Don't you know things are hard in Nigeria?

'Nobody here complains about the little wage we are paid because we are all afraid of losing our job.  I cannot afford to lose this job because it took me a long time before I could get in. In fact, if not for a friend who helped me, I would still be coming here every morning with the hope that someday, I would get a job in the factory.'

This young man is a polytechnic graduate who learnt furniture making after school.

Having qualified as a furniture maker, our correspondent suggested that he should have set up his own workshop. But he said there was no fund to set up as he even had to scrounge for money to put himself through school.

He said, 'After I left school and there was no job, I had to go and learn furniture making. When I finished that too, there was no money to set up. I thought the best thing was to look for work in a factory like this. So you can see, anybody who complains that the money we are paid is too small is just stupid.

'Last month, my friend left this job. He said the money was too small for him. He was the one feeding me before I got the job. Now, I am the one feeding him.'

The case of the young man mirrors the plight of many young Nigerians who seek jobs in factories run by expatriates in different parts of the country.

He felt he was one of the lucky ones even though he admitted that out of his N15,000 salary, he spent between N6,000 and N7,000 on transport every month.

'I spend at least N150 every day on transport because I live in Egbeda,' he said.

N93 per hour work
Between 7am and 12pm of any week day, at least 60 youths, both male and female, besiege the entrance of Solpia Nigeria Limited, a company that manufactures artificial hair on Iju Road, Agege, Lagos.

The young men and women appear to be relentless because they are there everyday and remain at the gate of the Chinese company for hours before dispersing in twos and threes late in the evening.

One of the young men, Ayotunde Akinyo, who has become a regular 'customer' among those who visit the company every morning, explained the reason why he had been parading the place with the hope of getting employed in the last six months.

'Sometimes, the Chinese owners employ 50 people at a go out of the crowd of job seekers standing outside. Sometimes, they take just five. Before now, I used to come here irregularly, but it seemed that they usually employed on those days that I did not come. That is why I have been coming here regularly for the past six months,' he said.

Akinyo said he was 27 years old and had a Higher Diploma in Mechanical Engineering.

When he was asked by our correspondent whether he was aware of how much he could be paid if he was lucky to get employed, he said he knew.

The young polytechnic graduate said he knew that he would be paid N15,000, which translates to about N93 per hour for eight hours in five days a week. A worker had earlier hinted that the salary of a fresher in the company used to be N20,000 until it was recently slashed to N15,000.

'What other choice have I got? I did not just graduate and decided to come here. I had searched for jobs and was tired before I decided to come here,' Akinyo explained.

Akinyo found no reason to be ashamed as he was aware that there were many other graduates like him in the crowd.

Brutality, abuse by expatriates
The Nigerian government consistently speaks about the innumerable advantages of foreign investment in the country. But if the stories of many workers in the foreign companies and factories, narrated to Saturday PUNCH are anything to go by, it seems many of the foreign investors and expatriates come into the country armed with horsewhips.

In December 2013, a national outcry necessitated an intervention of President Goodluck Jonathan in a case of the assault of 34-year-old Mrs. Alexandra Ossai, who was brutalised by her Lebanese employer, Kaveh Noine, after which she lost her pregnancy.

Last week, which was barely a month after Ossai's case broke, The PUNCH reported the case of 40-year-old Adeleke Owolabi, who was allegedly assaulted by his Chinese boss, Mike Jackson, and his (Jackson's) cousin. One kicked him in the private part, the other smashed a bottle on his head.

Many of this kind of incidents go unreported as our correspondent would soon learn. Workers in some factories run by foreign firms in Lagos told our correspondent that most times, the victims would rather endure the abuse than lodge a complaint with the appropriate authorities and risk losing their jobs.

And sometimes, the abuse is verbal in nature. A case in point is Nigerdock Nigeria Plc, an oil and gas construction company run by expatriates in Apapa, Lagos.

Nigerian workers in the company, who would rather remain anonymous, told Saturday PUNCH about how their expatriate bosses assault them verbally with racial slurs.

'Our expatriate bosses feel that we are slaves and treat us exactly that way. Some of them unleash verbal abuses and unnecessary sanction against us just to keep us subdued,' one of the workers told Saturday PUNCH.

When asked to name the expatriates who treat them that way, he  promptly mentioned Chris Clark (Briton) and Nichola Marriott (Briton).

'If you see the way Clark treats us, you will realise that it is just a matter of time before he starts to whip us,' he said.

The issue of verbal abuse has been a bone of contention in Nigerdock for a while. But there has not been any intervention from the government on this issue.

In 2011, our correspondent reported how some expatriates in the company routinely called the Nigerian workers 'black monkeys,' a case that degenerated into a protest and the sack of many Nigerians in the company. Marriott was named as one of the expatriates responsible for the verbal abuse at the time.

Findings showed that the foreigners who were mostly guilty of abuse and maltreatment of their local workers are Indians, Chinese and Lebanese.

Systematic expulsion from neighbourhoods
The grouse some Nigerians have against some of the numerous expatriates in the country does not stop at workplace abuse. Some said, 'A systematic expulsion' of Nigerians in some Lagos neighbourhoods is taking place. Ilupeju is a typical example.

Princewill Okeagwu is one of such individuals who have experienced this.

He said, 'I lived in Ilupeju for at least three years before I got married. A few months after I got married, I got a notice to quit my apartment for renovation. It was fine by me.

'I got another apartment after some time but I later learnt that the landlord sent me away because a Lebanese offered to pay almost double what I paid as rent. I was paying a yearly rent of N500,000 but I heard the Lebanese offered to pay N900,000 per annum and he paid three years upfront.

'I thought it was ridiculous but my friends later told me that is what is happening all over Ilupeju now. The expatriates, especially Lebanese, are using money to shut Nigerians out of the neighbourhoods. You want to pay N400,000 for rent and a foreigner offers to pay N800,000, who do you think your landlord would listen to?'

A Nigerian who currently lives in Ilupeju as a tenant confirmed to our correspondent that the area was fast becoming foreigners' exclusive territory.

'It happens. That is what capitalism is all about. Landlords too want to make profit. Some of these expatriates just come here to enslave Nigerians and chase us out of the neighbourhoods,' the man, who identified himself as Peter, said.

Reaction of expatriates
Our correspondent contacted the companies cited in this publication but some of them were evasive.

A Chinese national at Lifemate Furniture initially said he was in a position to answer our correspondent's enquiries when he requested to see the manager. But when he realised it concerned the welfare of workers, he recanted and said his manager would be the one to respond. Asked when one could get the manager, he said, 'I cannot say, but he will call you himself.'

As at the time of filing this report, he had not called back.

The Human Resources Manager of Nigerdock, Mr. Segun Ashamu (a Nigerian), said he was not aware of any allegations of verbal abuse in the company.

'The expatriates against whom the allegations were made the last time were repatriated. Nobody has reported any case to me lately. We take such allegations seriously. But I will look into the matter,' he said.

Later on Thursday, Ashamu said he had discussed with his boss and that the company could not commence investigation into the allegations of the workers unless their identities were revealed.

'The company takes employees' welfare and security very seriously,' he said.

When our correspondent visited Alibert Furniture, an official said he would prefer if the Managing Director, Chief Maged Taan, responded to the questions himself.

When Saturday PUNCH called Taan, he seemed to be outside the country.

'I am in Ivory Coast at the moment, can you please call me back on Thursday?' the Lebanese said when our correspondent spoke with him on the phone.

His number was not reachable when our correspondent called back on Thursday.

Government and the workers are to blame - Labour

The government has abandoned its regulatory responsibility as it concerns the operations of foreign companies in the country, a labour leader, Abiodun Aremu, told Saturday PUNCH.

He said the problems that brought about the 'enslavement' of Nigerians were multi-faceted.

Aremu, Secretary of the Joint Action Front, a union that has always fought against casualisation of workers in the country, said, 'The major deficiency in addressing this issue has to do with the responsibility of the government. The government is the regulatory body in industrial relations. The position of the law is that every worker has a right to belong to a union. And it is only through a union that one can undertake a collective bargaining process, which allows you to discuss wages and the conditions of work.

'More often than not, government does not address issues relating to the workplace condition of workers. There ought to be factory inspection monitors from the Ministry of Labour but the government is not doing anything like that. That is why the responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of the government.

'Casualisation or contract employment is what allows slave labour and gives the employers the opportunity to undermine the rights of the workers.'

According to Aremu, workers themselves fail to report the terrible working conditions in many of these factories so that appropriate actions can be taken.

'Whatever is happening in those factories is a reflection of our irresponsibility as a people to determine what we want and how our country should be run. Workers themselves need to be forthcoming so that their rights can be protected. Only information from them can allow us to engage their employers. If you engage one employer, it would send signals to the rest,' he said. Punch