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 journalist 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 said 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 journalist 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. 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".
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.
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 said, “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 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, 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?
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 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.
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 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 case of 40-year-old Adeleke Owolabi, who was allegedly assaulted by his Chinese boss, Mike Jackson, and his (Jackson’s) cousin was reported. One kicked him in the private part, the other smashed a bottle on his head.
Many of this kind of incidents go unreported. Workers in some factories run by foreign firms in Lagos said 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 journalist 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 said.
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.
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.
A Nigerian who currently lives in Ilupeju as a tenant confirmed 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.
Journalist 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 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.”
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 government has abandoned its regulatory responsibility as it concerns the operations of foreign companies in the country, a labour leader, Abiodun Aremu said.
He said the problems that brought about the “enslavement” of Nigerians were multi-faceted.
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.