Posted by By IKENNA EMEWU (firstname.lastname@example.org) on
Other factories, described by the labour camp veterans as purgatory where lives of several thousands of Nigerians have been ruined over the years included Whassan...
Other factories, described by the labour camp veterans as purgatory where lives of several thousands of Nigerians have been ruined over the years included Whassan, Five Star Industries, Arcee, Aswani Textiles, Reliance Textiles, West African Rubber Products (WARP), Super Engineering, Shangai Shen-mei Beverages and Food Company and Bagco Bags, to mention just a few.
While some of these companies have folded up completely, a few of the others have transmuted into something else. For example, Tonobi Plastics used to be Rubber Shoes Nigeria Ltd. One of the many liabilities the Asians were running away from was the horrifying accident in 2000 that saw a Nigerian worker falling into a trough of molten rubber. By the time he was scooped out, the victim was close to becoming an Egyptian mummy.
OK Foods: Far from okay
The toil and indignities to which Nigerian workers are subjected in labour camps run by Asians find a different expression at OK Food Nigeria Ltd. This biscuit and sweet factory owned by Lebanese and located at the Ladipo area of Mushin, very close to Minaj Television Station, was the next place Saturday Sun went to work in the course of the investigation.
Three times a day at 6am, 2pm and 8pm, hundreds of casual workers throng the gate of OK foods, hoping to be hired. Forbidden to go beyond the gate, the Nigerians stand under the sun and in the rain waiting to be called in. Shocking though as it is that some of the highest paid workers here go home with N1,750 a week, the Lebanese still make the Nigerians beg for the job. When the gate slides open, the mad rush begins as the Lebanese make a show of picking the strongest-looking labourers. It is a re-enactment of the auction sales to which slaves were subjected in the Americas – with plantation owners bidding for the strongest-looking slaves.
Not muscular enough
Given that this reporter had considerably emanciated and lost colour after only one week in Eskimo, he stood no chance in this tough labour market. This meant that he had to turn up every morning and sometime afternoon for four days to try his luck which, in reality, depended on how furiously you could push and shove to get to the front. In one ugly incident, a middle-aged job-seeker, apparently with some kids back home, almost scratched out the eyes of this reporter with a spoon he was carrying in his pocket. There was no provocation; just the wild claim that this reporter stepped on his bandaged foot. He would later limp away to a corner and busied himself pronouncing some of the most profane curses, telling no one in particular that he had almost made it to the front “before this man carry him bad luck come meet me”.
After four days in a largely hostile crowd, it became clear that to be hired at OK Foods, one needed to know somebody or somebody who knew somebody in the factory. Having sat through the morning hours without any luck, some of the Nigerians continued to wait at the gate till 2pm when they jostle again for the afternoon shift. A few of these people arm themselves with garri and beans or God -knows-what, neatly packed in black polythene bags. Others go home or take the brave walk from Toyota bus stop along the Oshodi-Mile 2 Expressway to another factory, Deli Foods, at Berliet bus stop, Itire.
Bribing my way through
Given the experiences of other people, it is not unusual to go to OK Foods for three weeks without any luck. At the end, money did the magic for this reporter. A suave security officer promised to arrange something. And he did. A new employee (names withheld) had gone on. AWOL after only a few days. This reporter could use the boys ID card to work in the factory. What more, the wage in the section was N400 a day. It was like the oil company job of this seemingly cursed world.
Saturday Sun jumped at the arrangement. His fears about being found out dissolved when the ID card arrived. The Lebanese issue their Nigerian workers ID cards that have no passport photographs. According to the security man, the workers name doesn’t really matter unlike the card number. The card is to let you pass through the gate. As far as the Lebanese are concerned, anybody can be Adamu or Segun provided the work is done. As you enter the gate, you hand over the card to the security. After work, you request for it because you would need it to enter the factory again the following day. The card lasts only three months.
Earning every kobo of N400
When Saturday Sun resumed earnestly at Ok Foods, it turned out that the original employee was on a permanent shift from 8am-5pm. It soon becomes clear why workers in this section are paid so much. It becomes even clearer why the card owner absconded. If anyone was looking for hard labour, here was one. The men here are called ‘loaders’, and for N2,800 a week, seven days a week, they are expected to toil nine-hours non-stop, off-loading bags of flour, drums of margarine, bags of sugar and other raw materials brought in by trailers. The workers here are no different from the load-carriers at Daleko Rice Market in Lagos who manoeuvre enormous weight to their backs with incredible dexterity.
At the close of work on the first day, this reporter was not only covered in white dust, he had developed a stiff neck.
Face-to-face with a slave driver
The strength to return to work the following day could only come after the security guard, now acting like a sympathetic mentor, had promised to approach a supervisor to help wangle a deployment. It was his assurance that helped this reporter to survive Mr. Hussein, one of the Lebanese supervisors who proved himself a thorough slave driver. Cruel as anyone thinks the Indians are in running their labour camps, they are more benevolent than the Lebanese who treat their Nigerian workers with sadistic mockery. While the Lebanese permit their Nigerian workers to eat all the biscuits they can, the same Lebanese give them no time to nibble anything, not with the presence of Mr. Hussein who appeared to have been imported to ensure nobody is ever found resting, waiting or engaging in conversation.
If at Eskimo one occasionally has to watch out for the Indian bosses, a worker at OK Foods cannot possibly blink without a Lebanese seeing him. They are always lurking around you. Virtually all the supervisors are Lebanese. The forklift drivers are also Lebanese. Same with the technicians and people in the sales department.
Redeployed at last
After two days as a loader, and two more days of waiting, the security officer did help to get this reporter a place in the production line on a wage of N1,750. It must be said that OK Foods was the most modern of all the factories visited by Saturday Sun. Beginning from the store house, there is a gate connecting the store to the production line. From here the store boys supply the needed materials to the production line. To the right is the quality control laboratory where the formula for the particular biscuit is clinically mixed, tested for colour and taste and when approved, is written out on a sheet as a guide for the mass production that follows. Everything here is by precision. There is a water line that supplies cold and warm water. Next to it is an industrial scale where things like flour, butter, water, milk, sugar, flavour and colour are sorted out.
Beginning with the flour and butter, all the materials are added at predetermined intervals into the mixing machine. The next stage is the oven which has a block that carries the mould. It is this removable mould that determines the size and shape of the biscuits; be they round, rectangular or square-shaped biscuits. The flour mixture is then moved from the mixing machine into the mould side of the oven. The biscuits are shaped accordingly and are moved by a conveyor into the oven proper. There are over a dozen burners along the network while about an equal number of pipes dissipate the heat and flames from the oven. The biscuits, propelled by cylindrical rollers, make a circuitous journey inside the oven and by the time they begin to pop out, they are already baked. An arrangement of fans cools the hot biscuits as they fall off into a basket.
There are waste baskets into which burnt or broken biscuits go. These are later ground into fine powder by a grinding machine and recycled in future productions.
At break-neck speed, the good biscuits are manually poured into a packing machine. The machine selects equal number of biscuits and then packages same. The hundreds of packets pour onto a large parking table from where another set of workers put them into cartons. While the store boys maintain a regular supply of empty cartons, the sealed cartons are put on a conveyor and travel along what looks like an overhead bridge on their way to the finished product store.
To ensure that not one piece of biscuit is smuggled out of the factory, the Lebanese are obsessed with security. There are a total of five gates, manned by security men, inside the premises of OK Foods. No matter which part of the factory you are coming from, the workers are subjected to rigorous searches. If a worker comes late to work, he gets a deduction in wages or is turned back at the gate, depending on the mood of the supervisor.
If you are sick, the Lebanese consider it as absence. Once you enter the factory, you are not allowed to come out until closing time. Even new employees who want to abscond from the hard labour only after a few hours are rarely granted their wishes. The supervisors insist you complete that days work. Those determined to survive are due for wages every two weeks. Curiously, workers toil at OK Foods in Ladipo, but to collect their wages, they must travel to OK Plastics at Iyana Itire which is considered the headquarter.
Get pregnant, lose job…
The tyranny of the Asian factory owners in Nigeria assumes a pattern: slave labour, poverty wages and high turnovers. The Nigerian workers in their thousands are faced with humiliating employment regulations that tolerate no pregnancy, no medical services, no annual leave and no pension. As was witnessed in the various factories, the Asians survive on flagrant violations of labour laws, negligence and apparent lack of concern for workers’ general safety. Rather than put in place adequate health and safety measurers the factory owners prefer to pay “heat and (hazardous) chemical allowance” to the Nigerian workers which, in some places, is a mere N200 a month.
Such was the discovery of Saturday Sun when he put in only three days at a nail-producing factory called Eureka Metal Limited. Run by Indians, this factory makes no pretence to how it stays afloat in Nigeria’s harsh manufacturing environment. “It is six to six,” this reporter was told on the first day.
Eureka! But I didn’t find it
Located on Ladipo Oluwole Avenue, off Oba Akran Avenue in Ikeja, Eureka is a noisy mockery of Nigeria’s Independence and indeed, the lofty dreams of the late Premier of Western Region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. This factory which also produces wire mesh, roofing sheets and iron rods operates inside the fabled concrete structure built by Awolowo as a cocoa storage facility. The expansive wonder is now on lease to the Asians who have successfully turned the place into another Uzbekistan.
There are over 50 crude machines that must have been salvaged relics of the former Soviet Union. The only cheery news here is that this factory sources all of its raw materials from the moribund Ajaokuta Steel Rolling Mill. When all the machines are at work, the noise here will run anyone crazy. For some reasons, which nobody bothered to explain, all the production halls are hazy and dimly lit.
In the nail section, you can bump into the next man without seeing him. Since everybody is covered in black dust, you begin to get the impression you are inside a coal mine. One corner here and another corner there, you find some Nigerians crouching and doing something that this reporter completely failed to understand. The only thing that makes sense is that some workers are feeding thin strips of rod into the machines and by some crude and complicated mechanism, the machines are spitting nails, which in an event of mishap can fly in any possible direction.
This reporter worked in the zinc section. Here, roofing sheets are produced. The most dominant features here are the huge blast furnaces that produce enormous heat, the different casting moulds buried in the floor, the foundry and the gas supply system. In simple terms, the furnaces melt the ingots, which is a sort of raw material, into a motten state. Inside the mould, the zinc sheet are made, after which some pulps of brass are melted and used to galvanise the zinc sheet to prevent rust. The waste product of some of the things they do here is like sand which is used in the manufacture of matches.
Pitiable as all the workers here appeared, those tending the blast furnaces consider themselves privileged because of the N200 heat allowance paid to them at the end of every month.
Preference for women
In all the factories penetrated by Saturday Sun, the entire workforce is virtually casual. That way, there is no trade union and no organised dissent. At KRS Investment Ltd, for example, it is forbidden for two or more workers to be seen holding discussion. Paranoid by the prospect of possible revolt, the Asian managers run the factory with rigid regulations possibly borrowed from communist North Korea.
The same is true of Deli Foods, another biscuit factory owned by Malaysians and located at Berliet bus stop in Ilasamaja Industrial Scheme. This factory has a policy of hiring 70 per cent women for its workforce. The women do not only accept lower wages, they are unlikely to give anyone any problem.
Unable to afford more than N60 on food a day and N40 on transportation, Saturday Sun discovered that many of the Nigerian factory workers skip a meal or two just to make their take-home pay look a bit reasonable. Though they produce the foods, it is a criminal offence for a worker to drink any of the fruit drinks at KRS or eat the biscuit at Deli Foods.
Indeed, rigorous and dehumanising searches are carried out on the Nigerians before they can leave the factory premises. One of the most infamous of these companies, is said to be a sac-making company. A former security guard at Bagco told Saturday Sun that body searches are carried out in a room equipped with close-circuit television. Conducted by both male and female security guards, the workers take turns to strip to their underwear to show they are hiding nothing while the supervisors watch through the CCTV system.
In his daily struggle for survival, it is indeed a no-win situation for the Nigerian worker. Such is the case of Solomon Leku, a young Nigerian who for N14.50k a day toiled under sub-human condition inside a Chinese factory called Super Engineering. Then came the ill-fated day in February 1996 when a machine chopped off his left fingers while he was on night duty. As if that was not enough nightmare for the factory worker, his Asian masters, before dismissing him, robbed him of indemnity paid by Elmac Insurance Nigeria Ltd. Out of the N118,825 paid by the Insurance Company, the victim was handed a paltry N14,300 for his troubles before he was shown the door.
Of all the indignities, abuses and risks suffered by Nigerians in the hands of the Asian employers, none is yet to surpass the record of West African Rubber Products Nigeria Ltd (WARP) where in September 2002, over 120 Nigerians were burnt alive while on night duty in the Chinese factory. The fire roasted all the workers because there was no way to flee. The only expatriate supervisor on duty had, as a routine, padlocked the only exit and gone home to sleep, promising to return in the morning to let the workers out. By the time he did, the scene of the horror was littered with the charred remains of workers in grotesque positions.
Putting profit before lives, the Chinese had a policy of locking in the Nigerian workers on night duty on the excuse of checking pilfering, thus turning the factory into a prison where inmates cannot escape even in the face of death. Before the tragic incident, there was no adequate ventilation, no emergency exits, and no fire equipment even in a factory that uses and produces inflammable materials like bathroom slippers, rubber sandals and soles, etc.
…And the law looks the other way
Apparently the Asian factory owners know Nigeria inside out and have invested heavily in ‘connections’. A disillusioned Nigerian worker told this reporter that officials of the Inspectorate Division of the Labour Ministry who are supposed to enforce safety standards in the workplace rarely leave their desks except when they visit the Asians on “courtesy visit”. What more, many of the factory owners, especially Indians and Lebanese had, until recently, police escorts that follow them everywhere while their immigration counterparts fall over one another to serve the foreigners. Little surprise then, when Saturday Sun discovered that some of the names behind the infamous WARP were once deported from Aminu Kano International Airport Kano, only to resurface with a bigger factory in Ikorodu Lagos, where they continued the enslavement of Nigerians with a passion comparable only to apartheid.
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