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China-Africa: Spotlight turned on abuse of Nigerian workers

By 'Tofe Ayeni, in Lagos
Posted on Thursday, 3 September 2020 19:35

Following public allegations online about abuse against Nigerian workers by Inner Galaxy Steel Co, Abia state government sends a team to investigate. But the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission is the one to confirm the allegations. (Abia state government/ twitter)

Allegations of abuse surfaced in August against Nigerian employees by managers of a Chinese company in Abia State, south-east Nigeria.

The whistleblower, simply known by his Twitter handle @Truthfully83 claims to have secured a job in the company in order to experience the maltreatment of the workers.

Speaking to The Africa Report, @Truthfully83 says that they “got wind from a source, who would want his identity concealed … I asked a few questions, and was convinced to go confirm the claims myself.”

The resulting Twitter thread was damning, exposing that “every Nigerian in that company is mandated to call their Chinese employers MASTER or MISTRESS and failure to do that attracts a direct sack,” and that “male Nigerian workers are physically assaulted, while their female counterparts are sexually assaulted. … Chinese MASTERS will boast of killing you and getting away with it.”

“There is a wide range of corruption amongst various government agencies,”

The thread exposed the inhumane treatment of workers, and the apparent pleasure taken by the employers in this maltreatment.

Response to allegations

However, in response, Inner Galaxy Steel Company’s solicitors, NunaLexis, claimed that the allegations are false, blaming the anonymous whistleblower for attacking the company with lies, saying: “This individual whose identity we do not know at the moment, made unsubstantiated, damaging and incredulous allegations which have led to public outcry and agitation from every quarter in Nigeria.”

READ MORE Nigeria and China: Understanding the imbalanced relationship

Speaking to government agencies via social media, @Truthfully83 wrote: “There is a wide range of corruption amongst various government agencies … the companies bribe them to look the other way. People saddled with the right to investigate most of my claims, are compromising it.”

“The ultimate responsibility for protecting the rights of workers falls on the Federal Government and state authorities to enforce labour codes,” says Eric Olander, managing editor of The China Africa Project website/podcast.

The Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment is responsible for following up with such complaints. However, the Ministry has been silent on this matter.

“They are racist, and they engage in bribes, using law enforcement agents to intimidate whoever that opposes them.”

Although @Truthfully83 continues to go undercover at various areas in the country, it’s not without fear: “The company and the government of Abia State are intimidating and threatening my life with arrest and death,” the whistleblower tells The Africa Report.

But @Truthfully83 believes the problem goes beyond Chinese-owned companies, and encompasses a wide range of foreign-owned companies, “especially Chinese, Indians and Lebanese.”

Investigations carried out by @Truthfully83 have discovered a pattern among these companies. “They are racist, and they engage in bribes, using law enforcement agents to intimidate whoever that opposes them.”

When asked about this, Babatunde Irukera, head of the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC), said: “We do not have sufficient information to authoritatively characterise this as exclusively within, or common to companies owned by south-East Asians.”

FCCPC investigation

However, the FCCPC did an independent investigation on  Inner Galaxy Steel Company, following allegations made by @Truthfully83 and the ensuing outcry from Nigerians.

But, as Irukera told The Africa Report: “This is a human rights and labour relations issue not on the FCCPC mandate. However, we intervened in a number of these occurrences because what people need is urgent intervention.”

Their investigation into Inner Galaxy Steel Company concluded:

  • Employees were housed in less than ideal conditions.
  • Some employees felt restrained on-site and could not leave even though they wanted to go home.
  • A workplace injury led to amputation for one of the employees.
  • Employees were required to work non-stop shifts of 11 hours with inadequate breaks.

The FCCPC’s advice includes:

  • Improvement of living conditions of on-site employees, including the immediate purchase mattresses and fans.
  • Modify working hours from 11 to 8, effective immediately.
  • Discontinue mandatory quarantine on-site for those who want to go home, effective immediately.
  • Improve on-site medical access and responsiveness.

All parties were able to agree on living conditions and no longer keeping emmployees on site.

However, through their solicitors, Inner Galaxy Steel Company said the employees had been given a choice, and “those of them who wished to continue working during the indeterminate period of the pandemic will have to be housed within the company premises … housed in temporarily, hastily erected accommodation as such did not exist prior to this time.”

The company effectively admitted to less than perfect living conditions but claimed that the employees knew the situation beforehand, as COVID-19 took them, as well as the rest of the world, by surprise. Those that decided to stay on-site and work were therefore expected to remain on-site, as their contact with others could not be monitored if they left.

Pattern of maltreatment in Ogun State

@Truthfully83 told us: “As I speak to you, I am in Ogun State in Nigeria, investigating another Chinese company using Nigerian employees as slaves, and subjecting them to detestable inhumane conditions.”

In Ogun State, a Chinese company was said to have locked up Nigerian workers and refused to let them go home, despite the lockdown order.

READ MORE China-Africa: ‘Enough is enough’, as #BlackChina anger spreads

Frustrated by this, and the fact that they were owed months of salaries, the workers rebelled, refusing to work, staging a protest, and setting a truck belonging to the company ablaze.

Irukera added: “There have been a number of allegations about labour practices in certain companies, or what may be otherwise characterised as ‘sweatshops’.”

But Olander cautions: “While there’s definitely been a lot more attention paid to the mistreatment of some local workers in Nigeria by Chinese business owners, it’s also important to note that it’s very difficult to ascertain if this is actually a widespread problem.”

While Nigerian social media and news outlets have exposed and covered these stories in the past year, “I’ve only been able to track somewhere around six to twelve instances, which is still a lot, but considering there are hundreds, if not thousands of Chinese businesses in Nigeria it’s a relatively small number,” stresses Olander.

How COVID-19 changed the game

The coronavirus pandemic has, without a doubt, increased tensions between Sino-African social interactions.

From the xenophobia in Guangzhou, where Africans were being made homeless – evicted from their homes by landlords then turned away by hotel – to the Nigerian Medical Association speaking out against federal government’s plans to bring Chinese doctors into Nigeria, it is clear that although the hostility is not new, the situation has been exasperated.

READ MORE ‘I am hoping the government has learnt from this pandemic,’ Nigerian Medical Association

The Nigerian government was quick to speak out about the abuse happening in China against their citizens, with the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, pursuing the case himself:

However, the government does not seem to be as eager to tackle the problem on their very own soil, with comments from government officials being hard to find.

Controversial Chinese loans

There has also been recent controversy surrounding loans from the Chinese government to Nigeria, that include waiver clauses putting Nigerian sovereignty at risk.

The controversial clause in the loan in question, from the Export-Import Bank of China, states: “The borrower hereby irrevocably waives any immunity on the grounds of sovereign or otherwise for itself or its property in connection with any arbitration proceeding pursuant to Article 8(5), thereof with the enforcement of any arbitral award pursuant thereto, except for the military assets and diplomatic assets.”

A similar situation occurred between Zambia and China. Unable to repay loans worth US$8.7 billion, there is now a high possibility of China taking over the African country’s airport, electricity company, national broadcasting network and major road projects.

READ MORE Zambia: IMF support needed to avoid Argentina-style default

Many are worried that the Nigerian government is allowing the same thing to happen.

Bottom line

Sino-Nigerian relations are strained, but more so at a societal level rather than a governmental one.

But the tensions have pushed Nigerians to call on their government to ensure that Chinese employers no longer abuse workers in Nigeria.

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