Bimbola Oyesola and Olakunle Olafioye
When the news of the alleged forced labour in a rice factory in Kano State, where 126 workers were reportedly locked up in dehumanizing conditions for three months broke out few weeks ago, the rage and bitter feeling that greeted the report was singularly directed at the owner of the company, a foreign firm.
Not a few Nigerians, at the time, expressed surprise at the effrontery of the Asian owner of the company to subject Nigerians to such debasing treatment on their own soil.
But discreet investigation by Sunday Sun has, however, revealed how highly placed individuals in the Federal Ministry of Labour, National Union of Food Beverage and Tobacco Employees, NUFBTE an affiliate of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, and other Nigerians in the employ of the company connived with the owner of the company to subject their fellow brothers to degrading labour practices in the company.
The company, Popular Farms and Mills Limited, located at Challawa Industrial Estate, Kano has a rich history in Nigeria’s agricultural sector with 41, 486 member-farmers as well as 65,715 hectares of rice farm area with installed capacity of 430, 000 metric tons per annum. The company, which has been operating for about 50 years in Nigeria, prides itself as one of the largest automated rice milling units in the country.
But beyond the façade of being one of the heavy weights in rice production in the country, multiple sources confided in Sunday Sun that offensive stench of degrading and dehumanising labour practices ooze out from the company. The recent discovery of workers locked up to work in the factory throughout the period of the COVID-19 lockdown could only serve as the last straw that has threatened to break the camel’s back. Acting on a tip-off from a non-governmental organisation, Global Community for Human Rights Network, the police in the state stormed the rice mill on Sunday June 21 and reportedly rescued 126 workers held hostage for three months in the mill.
The state Police Public Relations Officer, Abdullahi Haruna, who confirmed the incident, said that a total number of 126 workers held hostage in the factory were freed at the end of the exercise while some officials of the company were arrested.
Haruna added that investigation had commenced on the matter. Findings by Sunday Sun further revealed how the workers in the factory were coerced to remain in the factory throughout the period without being allowed to go home to see their family members.
One of the workers who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Sunday Sun that the management of the company made life miserable for them in the factory throughout the period. “When the lockdown began, the management of the company announced to us that we would have to stay behind to work in the factory because of the restrictions on movement and promised to pay us for overtime. The impression they gave us was that the lockdown would not exceed two weeks. So, we all agreed to stay behind. We worked both day and night with little or no time to rest. They brought in a food vendor who cooked and sold us food throughout the period,” he said.
The source, however, revealed that when the lockdown was stretching into months, some of them became agitated about the whole arrangement just as their disturbed family members paid endless visits to the company without being allowed to see them.
“But when the management discovered we were getting agitated, they changed their tactic and started threatening us with dismissal. The most annoying part of it is that they did not allow us to see our family members while some of us who fell sick during the period were denied any medical care. As this was going on, some people whose relations were locked up in the factory started making contacts with those they thought could help secure our release until they got the right connection,” he revealed.
Asked what the stance of the labour union leaders in the company was while their ordeal lasted, he said that every attempt by the workers in the company to form or belong to a union in the past was thwarted by the management of the company.
According to him, the management knew that if they allowed us to belong to a union all their anti-labour practices in the company would be resisted. Initially we were adamant in forming the union, but when the management saw our determination they came down with the hammers and sacked the vocal ones among us. Since them nobody dared to raise the issue of unionism in the company again.
When Sunday Sun got in contact with one of the sacked workers, Mr. Babatunde Shuaib, he confirmed the allegation, saying: “I was one of the workers sacked then. We were eight or nine in number then. It is now over three years and we are yet to get a dime from the company in terms of severance package. When we were leaving Kano, we handed over the whole issues to one Comrade Usman, he is one of the Food and Beverage union leaders. But we are yet to get anything from him.”
Sunday Sun gathered that more than 80 per cent of the workers in the company are casual workers with some having spent more than five years in the position. While the casual workers are paid between N5, 000 and N7, 000 per week, those who are lucky to have been offered regular employment as staff earn between N30, 000 and N40, 000, a practice which runs contrary to Section 7 (1) of the Nigerian Labour Act which stipulates that a worker should not be employed for more than three months without regularization of such employment.
The state council of labour unions, particularly the National Union of Food Beverage and Tobacco Employees, NUFBTE, also came under severe criticism for failing to come to the aid of the workers in the company after its management unleashed terror on some of them for daring to become members of the union in the past.
But the Secretary, Kano State Council of NUFBTE, Comrade Usman Lawal, in an interview, told our correspondent that the state council of NUFBTE was still making efforts to get the company unionized when the news of the alleged forced labour by the company broke out few weeks ago.
According to Lawal, “the news of workers who were locked up in the factory came to us as a rude shock. Before then, we have been making efforts to unionize the company for over three years now, but the leadership of the company has been frustrating our efforts. In fact, we are at loggerheads with the company as I speak to you over this issue. The Nigeria Labour Union, Kano State Council at a point stepped into the matter and set up a committee of unionization and anti-casualisation of workers under the leader of veteran, Comrade Wada Waziri. He is late now. When we got to the company, the management of the company cooperated with us and we informed them about our mission.
“Later, workers from the company visited our office to obtain their consent forms to join our union. We later wrote to the management of the company informing them about the decision of the workers to join the union. But immediately this happened they started intimidating the workers, telling them to renounce their membership of the union. What we heard subsequently was that the company terminated the appointments of all their branch managers on the account of fraternising with our union.”
Lawal further revealed that all efforts to get the company reverse its decision to terminate the appointments of the affected officers and to get the company unionised were rebuffed.
“It was not until we involved the Controller of Labour in the Kano State Ministry of Labour and the National leadership of NUFBTE sometime in March, that the leadership of the company began to show some signs of cooperation with us. Had the company been unionized, the issue of forced labour or slavery would not have arisen.” Lawal said.
But another highly placed source close to the company confided in our correspondent that the office of the Controller of Labour, Ministry of Labour and Employment, Kano, and a particular national executive member of NUFBTE are part of the treachery and the grand conspiracy that have continued to rob the workers in the company of the opportunity to form a union in the company.
“Yes, there was a serious effort to set up a workers’ union under the umbrella of the National Union of Food Beverage and Tobacco Employees, but the leadership of the company found willing allies in the Controller of Labour in Kano and a particular exco member of the national body of NUFBTE to frustrate the efforts of forming a union in the company. These are Nigerians who are saddled with the responsibility of fighting for the welfare of the workers in the country, unfortunately, the same set of people are the ones frustrating the efforts of the workers and other stakeholders that are desirous of having a workers’ union in the company. Unless there is a union on ground in that company, the various infractions against the rights of workers in that company will continue unabated. In 2017, some of the senior workers who showed interest in forming the union were sacked without being paid their severance benefits,” the source said.
But while all efforts to get the reaction of the Controller of Labour in Kano proved abortive as he refused to speak on phone with our correspondent from Lagos and claimed to be out of town when Sunday Sun correspondent visited his office in Kano, the Deputy General Secretary of NUFBTE, Mike Olanrewaju, denied any form of complicity by the union in the plights of the workers in the company.
Olarenwaju confirmed the position of the state chapter of the union which accused the Indian owners of the company of frustrating efforts to unionize the company.
“We have been battling with them for long over three years, but the management has bluntly refused us to come in,” he said.
Olanrewaju said that the union having been frustrated by the management anti-labour posture has called for the intervention of the Federal Government through the Ministry of Labour and Employment.
He said: “The union has written to the Minister informing him about the refusal of the company denying us to inaugurate our members in the company. We sent the letter to the Minister early this year and if not for the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps we would have been able to complete the procedure.”
The Deputy General Secretary said anyone connecting the union to the inability of the workers to be unionised was only trying to blackmail the organisation, maintaining that the union has made use of all options available to labour, but with no success.
Attempts by Sunday Sun to get the reaction of the Managing Director of the company, Mr. Amit Kumar were rebuffed as he refused to pick calls to his mobile line while response of the SMS sent to his phone was still being awaited as at press time.