Are the conditions of Nigerian workers in Chinese-owned companies getting out of hand?
A worker at the Hongxing Steel Limited Company in Lagos State, Emeka Umoh, was scalded to death following a liquefied iron spill to his body, while he was on duty on September 23. He died at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, where he was rushed for treatment following the incident. In another event which occured at the same company in February, another employee, Adebayo Ajiboye, lost his life to a compressor.
Obinna Eze, another worker, recently lost three of his fingers to a faulty compressor. The company’s management has been accused of disregard for human lives, insistence on operating faulty machines, and a lack of safety standards. The deaths of Umoh and Ajiboye, and accidents such as Eze’s are only a few of the many that the company has acknowledged. And according to Eze’s account of the incidences, many are ignored without action.
The spokesperson for the company dismissed the allegations levelled against them as rumours. He attributed the deaths and injuries in the company to industrial hazards, which the company is prone to. According to him, it is impossible to record zero-injuries in their kind of business.
Hongxing Steel is not the only Chinese-owned company in the country where Nigerian workers are subjected to inhumane labour practices. In October of last year, investigations looked into the circumstances that led to the death of a 25-year old junior worker, Nnamdi Solomon, who worked with Linda Manufacturing Company, a Chinese firm located in Iju, Lagos. Nnamdi’s lifeless body was found at the backyard of the company, a day after he complained of a stomach ache, which he was asked to manage. His corpse was kept in a gutter within the company’s premises for two days.
In 2013, Kenneth, an electrician working for a Chinese company in Ikeja, Lagos, that produces nylon bags, allegedly died from electric shock while carrying out repair work in the company without safety kits like boots and plastic gloves. Some workers who were protesting his death showed the burns on their bodies and hands to the press. According to them, they were made to handle the hot nylon bags with their bare hands.
Other instances of death and physical abuse in Chinese-owned companies in Nigeria continue to occur, along with complaints of how the Nigerian government and authorities turn a blind eye to these incidences, and how these companies continue to violate employment policies.
The National Union of Civil Engineering Construction, Furniture and Wood Workers (NUCECFWW) gave a 14-day ultimatum in protest of Chinese construction firms in the country over allegedly unfair labour practices, in October 2014. In a union organised press conference Amechi Asugwuni, stated that the actions of the management of the Chinese [construction] companies amounts to a violation of the fundamental rights of the workers, Nigerian labour laws, and international conventions and standards.
As of 2014, Chinese investment in Nigeria was valued around $15 billion. Due to the economic and diplomatic relations that exist between the two countries, Chinese companies and expatriates are encouraged to establish their businesses in Nigeria, in order to promote economic growth. The companies provide employment for Nigerians, but a fair number of these employees end up being victims of what many have referred to as ‘modern slavery’.
Nigerian workers in Chinese companies suffer mistreatment in areas such as salary payment, health care, physical and emotional brutality, and unfavourable working conditions. Some of the consequences on the workers are life-threatening or permanent, or both, and the Hongxing incident, suggests that they are getting worse.
The Nigerian government, as well as individuals, need to take responsibility for the unethical activities of these Chinese companies. If they are to continue operating, the government needs to review the policies that concern expatriates doing business in the country. Working environments in the companies should regularly undergo inspection. In addition, Nigeria needs to find more diverse opportunities in employment for its citizens.
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