Gbeminiyi Solaja brings to the fore the welfare challenges workers grapple with in factories run by Chinese and Lebanese nationals.
When Obiora Onuha, a worker in a Chinese factory in Lagos woke up on a sunny Tuesday morning, the world seemed bright and cheerful; little did he know it was a day he would never forget. Obiora got to the factory that fateful day at exactly 7: 15 am after closing 8:30pm the previous day. He left home hale and hearty after a meal of bread and stew.
The first person Obiora met on getting to the factory was his supervisor, a white man whom he and other workers nicknamed Moddy.
Work started as usual at about 8:15 am in the aluminium department where Obiora worked on the cutting machine. He had worked on the shinning equipment for a year. As he swayed the glazing rolling machine to cut a piece of aluminium, his left hand ran into the mouth of the sharp cutter, slicing his hand.
Suddenly, the room was dark, Obiora’ s eyes dimmed, the future became gloomy for the dashing 34-year-old bachelor.
When he was rushed to the health centre, his hands were gone; they had to be amputated from his elbow below.
Mr Obiora‘s life changed within hours, he was no longer the energetic man who could lift even an elephant with his hands.
When he resumed work, he could no longer perform as he used to.
Occupational health is a major concern around the world, especially in developing countries. However, in countries like Nigeria, this priority seems to have been misplaced as scores of workplace-related deaths are recorded each passing day.
In big cities like Lagos, cases like this are the order of the day. Employees are still treated in the most barbaric and uncivilised manner.
There are numerous cases of Lebanese, Chinese employers who mete inhuman treatment to their staff, in many cases leading to serious injuries and deaths, with practically no one to question them.
With cosmetic, engineering, and fast moving consumer goods companies springing up all over Lagos, there is need for increased human labour.
Many of these companies, located in industrial clusters within the state capital, make use of unskilled workforce employing teenagers with ordinary school leaving certificates.
Many of these youngsters are inexperienced and rely solely on quick tutorials given to them by their employers. They are left to their fate as they have to operate machines without much training.
According to Mr Charles Oloke, a social health worker in Lagos: “The state is first in the hands of the government, irresponsibility on the part of government to regulate and control working conditions has fuelled these incidences. Issues like these do not just happen any where, they happen only in a country like Nigeria where anything goes. Implementation of these principles requires appropriate legal provisions and if the ones who have the power to enforce these principles refuse to do so, then the rights of workers are trampled upon. It is important that sufficient awareness is created, most employees do not have up to date knowledge of their health and safety related duties and responsibilities.
“Everyone has responsibilities for health, but that is not what we are talking about here, in this case, the government needs to step in as a matter of urgency to formulate laws that protects workers especially foreign owned companies,” he stated.
Recounting his experience, Mr Chinedu Ononye, a former employee in a construction company located in Ogba described his experience as harrowing.
“This is the pathetic story of many Nigerians who have been subjected to assault and harassment in a bid to keep their job and get food on their tables. To an average Lebanese and foreigner in Nigeria, paying a monthly N12, 000 salary to a cleaner, for instance, is doing the individual a great favour, something their government and country will not give away in a hurry, little wonder the dose of blows thrown at them when the raunchy boss gets pissed off. And even when the police are brought in, they are cornered and they collude with these companies.
“This I am sure of because it happened to one of my friends. The government and relevant authorities need to do something about these cases because it is a serious issue. We have cases where angry and confused employers inflict pain on their workers by beating them with sticks, throwing blows, slapping workers and at times kicking them”
Findings by Inside Lagos also revealed that apart from these alleged inhuman treatment, the workers are also made to work ridiculous hours, paid ridiculous salaries, owed outrageous salaries; some are accused of theft, while others receive threats of dismissal at any slightest opportunity.
According to Miss Bolanle Akinola, a worker at a Chinese cosmetics company, “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.”
For Mr Bisi Omoleye, a Lebanese factory worker at a steel company, the experience is still the same.
“I only worked in that company for three days before I ran away. We were always warned not to touch the machine. In fact, a machine fell on my hand and twisted my bones. Till today I still nurse that hand. Though we were taken to their clinic, I want to tell you that we were not given first class treatment and when I complained, we were told to leave if the treatment was not okay with us.
“These Chinese companies don’t have any insurance for their staff. If you die, you die for nothing. These inhuman treatments made me run away after three days. Spending just that little time and till date I still feel the pain in this hand, that is the level of the kind of work we do there and the health hazards we are exposed to.”
Also commenting on the issue, Mrs Omoriye Victor said, “first, we are employed as casual workers, and I must tell you we resume as early as 8: 00 am and we close by 5pm and we are paid far less than the work we do. Normally, there should be uniforms we wear when operating the machine, but we wear our own cloths. The facilities in the factory are so bad, the toilets are in bad conditions, there are no private rooms for the ladies to change and so we have to change just any where around. Another thing is that when you are working, you are not expected to leave for whatever reason until break time. Though, in my company, if anyone sustains injuries , they treat and cater for the individual just because they don’t want it to go public. Some people who sustained injuries sometimes ago were promoted , but for how long will this compensation hold, after sometime when the individual can no longer perform as usual because he or she is now handicapped, then they dismiss him and someone who is already physically challenged will of course find it difficult getting another job.”
One common feature in most of the Chinese/Lebanese companies springing up in various industrial estates within Lagos State is the locked up gates.
The scenario is the same at a factory at Ogba Industrial Estate, which produces packed fruit juices, as well as another factory at Kirikiri Industrial Estate that produces perfumes, powder, nails and body cream.
However, a Chinese businessman, Mr. Lee Davids, pointed out that the practice of having factories firmly locked is not peculiar to Nigeria.
Davids said factories in Asia and many European countries are usually locked during production to prevent pilfering or theft.
“It is true that we lock our factories while work is in progress. This is because many workers have been caught in the past stealing their employers’ products. You will be surprised that despite the security put in place as well as closing the entrance of the factory gate, workers still steal products.”
On why the workers are made to work 12 hours, Davids said the extra hours are paid for as over time, adding that the workers are told the terms and conditions of service before they are hired.