By Chima Nwafo
ADVOCATES of devaluation of the naira as panacea to the nation’s current economic woes must have quickly forgotten that both the national currency and the economy have not recovered from the distressing shock of military President Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida’s Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) of 1986, and Gen. Sani Abacha’s liberalisation policy, which exposed Nigeria to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). SAP, whose highpoint was massive devaluation of the naira, jolted the economy into a state of coma. As a result, the manufacturing and agric sectors continued on a downward trajectory. Industrial production became a case of ‘survival of the brutest.’
Multinationals, such as UACN, Unilever, KC Chellarams, etc., which exploited our agricultural produce for centuries, but shunned Federal Government’s appeals for backward integration, quickly reverted to massive importation of goods to remain afloat. Today, Unilever manufactures in South Africa and sells in Nigeria. The sole alibi for this woeful crash of the real sector is hostile operating environment. That scenario of unfriendly operational milieu continued unabated, leading to where we are today: An economy driven by holistic approach to importation, sustained by petro-dollar-generated Foreign Reserve.
Political leaders were so busy celebrating the oil loot that no one had time to think about diversification of the economy or re-engineering the productive sector. To this end, die-hard optimistic investors who manage to survive the harsh conditions ran their businesses as if they were being charitable to the Nigerian public, especially their workers. They took advantage of the systemic corruption and parlous state of the economy to flout extant statutory regulations with impunity. Most of the Asian and Nigerian factory operators now put their hapless employees on 12-hour work schedule: 6am to 6pm or 7am to 7pm, without any provision for over-time payment. You begin to wonder what happened to the 40-hour per week agreement reached in the 70s. In most other industries, including the media, sometimes workers are owed up to 18 months without apology. As if these are not enough, there is widespread disregard for industrial safety and occupational health requirements and regulations. This is facilitated by the damning rate of corruption in the system.
A glimpse into the industrial society shows that in the advanced free market economies, it is generally accepted that when a business organisation fails to meet its ethical obligation to satisfy the needs of its employees, consumers, host community, among others (which to them constitute corporate social responsibility, CSR), the government has a duty, through elected representatives of the people, to pass laws that will force the companies to do the right thing. But given the prevailing modus operandi in the economy, one wonders if our mostly-self-serving National Assembly members realise that, under the 1999 Constitution (as amended), they are duty-bound to make laws for the welfare of the Nigerian worker. Welfare in this context includes condition of service, commensurate/regular payment for work done, safe and healthy work environment.
While the House of Representatives could be said to, sometimes, pander to the needs of the electorate, such cannot be said of the elitist Senate, which has turned out to be a well-paid vacation job for ex-governors, some of who inflicted so much harm on their respective state treasuries. So, it’s not surprising that current efforts by the President, National Industrial Safety Council of Nigeria (NISCN), Dr. Reginald Anyanwu, to enforce statutory industrial safety and occupational health measures often meet brickwalls. As a last resort, he reports offending companies to the Senate.
On one occasion, a clerk of the Ethics Committee did not only tell the indefatigable safety professional that there was nothing the Senate could do about Nigerians being killed and amputated in avoidable industrial accidents without due compensation, but also went ahead and rescheduled a meeting initiated by Anyanwu with some company chiefs, met with them without the NISCN’s notice. Through his unwavering advocacy and investigative effort of a News Express Online reporter, Theresa Moses, a multinational soft-drink manufacturer was compelled to pay a long-forgotten accident victim, who lost both eyes to chemical, N10 million compensation. In another investigative work by same reporter, News Express unveiled the daring breach of safety/health regulations by a leading plastic manufacturer. Confirming the revelation, Anyanwu exclaimed that the company had “breached safety and health regulations of Federal Republic of Nigeria, killing and amputating Nigerians…I’ve petitioned them to the Senate.” The list is disturbing. It includes a popular food-drink maker at Ajao Estate, Lagos; a multinational soft drink maker, which shuns NISCN’s HSE manual on the grounds that it operates with one from their international headquarters in the United States; cosmetics company, steel firm at Amuwo Odofin, Lagos. At a recent NISCN training workshop at Ikeja, Lagos, an official of NISCN, Dr. Ifeoma Igwueze-Anyanwutaku, mentioned the pathetic case of a Nigerian staff of a chemical company who worked without safety-gears and in the process lost his manhood. How do you compensate for that?
In a nation where unnerving corruption stories and treasure-looting by elected governors dominate the headlines, it is heartening and a welcome deviation to read of a Nigerian public servant that looks like an oasis in a desert of greed, sleaze and ineptitude in public service. As a result, one is drawing the Senate’s attention to this exemplary Nigerian, because his life may not be safe given the antecedents of companies in capitalist economies. Given that Anyanwu is driven by patriotism and empathy for less-privileged Nigerian factory workers, the experience of America’s pioneer ‘Public Citizen’ and legendary consumerist, Ralph Nader, fits in here.
In 1965, the 31-year-old American law graduate wrote a book, Unsafe At Any Speed. The book indicted unsafe automobile design in general. When it became public that General Motors had hired private detectives in an attempt to discredit the youthful author and consumerist, it was reported that the US Senate Committee responsible for automobile issues (not Ethics) summoned the president of General Motors to explain his company’s harassment of Nader, and personally apologise to him. Can our Senate summon a multinational boss to apologise to a 31-year-old ‘inexperienced author’? That is not all. Living in an under-developed economy where all manners of industrial malpractices are tolerated and culpable monopolists who fed fat on fiscal and monetary lapses are worshipped as saviours, it is important to draw from the book, Business and Society: Cases & Texts, co-edited by two American Professors of Business Administration: Robert D Hay, University of Arkansas and Edmund R Gray of Louisiana State University. In one of the cases, they quoted paragraph two of Nader’s media statement of February 7, 1970 in support of a ‘Campaign to make General Motors Responsible.’ It reads: “Ours is a corporate society. Corporations produce, process and market most of the goods and services in the nation. They constitute the most powerful, consistent and coordinated power-grid that shapes the actions of people in the public and private sectors. Yet, far less is known about the actual operations of giant corporations than any other institutions in America, including the national security.”
If Nader could say such of US corporations in a literate, well-informed and free society, how much, my dear reader, can you boast of knowing about companies in semi-literate, ill-informed poverty-stricken Nigeria, where every manner of information is hoarded, even after the passage of the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act? Against the foregoing backdrop, it is encouraging that despite systemic ineptitude in our public service, there is a Nigerian civil servant who’s so committed and resourceful with such an intimidating intelligence network that mere mention of his name sends cold shivers in the spines of factory operators – both foreign and indigenous. But part of the encouragement he deserves is cooperation from the National Assembly, including the sponsorship of a bill to make the current Occupational Safety and Health Unit of the Ministry of Labour and Productivity, an independent agency. The gains need not to be recounted here, but they are enormous.
- Nwafo is Consulting Editor, News Express Online/Business&EconomyWatch Magazine; e-mail: [email protected]’ 08175220355.