Chinese companies are implementing huge infrastructure projects in Nigeria. But like the colonialists before them, they are engaged in serious labour violations apparently with impunity. How does this ‘south-south cooperation’ benefit the Nigerian worker?
By Theophilus Abbah, published on 2014-04-10 by Pambazuka News, Issue 673
Mallam Danjuma Suleiman, 26, works for the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) AK Railway Project in Jere, Kaduna South. The project, worth an estimated $874 million, is financed under the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Programme.
In addition to $500 million grant, it also facilitated the creation of 4000 jobs for Nigerians. Indeed, companies like the CCECC are helping to fulfill Nigeria’s longstanding need for infrastructure such as roads and railways.
When we meet Suleiman, an earthworks labourer, he was drenched in dust, moving the earth from one location to another for railway beds. By this time, officials jubilantly informed us that the initiative was 97 percent complete, while 18 out of 24 railway bridges had been completed. China, it seemed, was indeed a ‘weapon of mass construction’.
But Suleiman’s reward was minimal. “I joined the company about two years ago but I am still casual staff. I can be sacked at any time.”
Labourers in the earthworks section (and other manual labourers) earn between $2.50 and $3.75 per day, we were told, while those who drive heavy duty vehicles receive maximum of $5 per day. “We work under the strict supervision of Chinese men,” said one labourer. Documents obtained from the company, including the standard pay schedule of the company authenticated Suleiman’s claims.
We spent time with other workers, trying to get a sense of the dynamics between the labourers and the company. All round, there was apprehension. “Even those employed for excavation and blasting of rocks are paid this meagre amount as salaries,” said driver Mallam Isyaku Abubakr. Employed on August 1, he would be fired four weeks later for requesting permission to leave, at 4pm, to consult his doctor. “The company responded by sacking him,” said Solomon Audu, a driver.
Workers informed us that the wages were so limited that it covered little more than the transportation from homes to constructions, let alone general upkeep, encouraging workers to camp on the site for as many days as possible.
The payslips of workers obtained at Jere site corroborated the complaints. Payment was made daily. Payment schedules listed days to work, days worked, daily rates, and entry times. There was also an entry for ordinary rates, hours worked on Saturday, overtime, allowance, bonus, and net. But the payslips were in Chinese, which none of the employees could read, save for employees name and ID numbers, alongside payment, written in English. At the end of the month, some employees went home with just over $30. Others, who considered themselves very fortunate, received $71.50.
Yet at the time of filing this report, none of the employees had proper payslips. The payment schedule would be typed on a sheet of paper, and employees collecting monies are made to sign in order to receive salaries and vouchers at the company’s accounts department. Labourers informed us that monies were often missing. Other complaints included no annual leave, housing allowance, insurance, health facilities or transport allowances. Workers were given an option to travel heavy duty vehicles with limited ventilation. The ban on unionism meant that these issues could not be addressed in one collective voice.
In November 2012, an umbrella organization of construction workers entered into an agreement with the management of CCECC to raise payment. The agreement, reached on November 29 2012, and signed by Jerry Li, the Commercial Unit Manager at Jere, and Alhaji M.H. Galadima, the Chief Personnel Manager, negotiated with two Nigerian union representatives from the National Union of Civil Engineering, Construction, Furniture and Wook Workers. The agreement called for improved working conditions, including:
• Transport allowance should be paid in addition to the provision of vehicles to convey employees to and from work site.
• Provision of clinics at all sites before the end of November 2012.
• Issuance of Identification Cards to the employees
• Provision of safety wears at all sites
• The total number of casual workers whose service is longer than four (4) months should be decreased by 20 percent by the end of 2012. That means that 80% of the workers should be given permanent employment.
• Staff appointments should be confirmed according to the Nigerian Labour law, among other requests.
But while the deal was signed, it was never implemented, leading to employees taking their cause to the National Assembly, in a petition dated June 17 2013, under the aegis of the Concerned Citizen of Kaduna South, where Jere is located.
Sent to the lawmakers through their Kadune South representative, Senator Nenadi Usman, the employees complained that while expatriates (Chinese) workers were given full employment with all benefits, Nigerian employees, among them professionals, were employed as casual staff.
CCECC did not respond to multiple interview requests by the author over a period of several months, speaking to specific allegations by labourers, overall working conditions as well the breached agreement. The official authorities in Jere provided no response, referring me back to the Chinese company. Galadima’s Abuja-based office informed me on arrival that an appointment would need to be scheduled in advance.
When I sought to book an appointment, I was asked to visit the Public Relation’s office at the CCECC headquarters. The PR officer informed me neither she nor other PR staff could speak with journaists. Only the Chinese PR could do so. The staff member then refused to give the name of the Chinese PR officer, his contact details nor provide an appointment for when a meeting could take place. I left a business card with the staff member, requesting an appointment. There would be no call.
One month later, I made another visit, after seeking to follow up via email and phone. Another PR staff member promised to identify the Chinese official’s number for interview purposes. The staff member was subsequently informed not to speak to journalists and the number was never provided. The spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour and Productivity, Samuel Olowookere, could not be reached for an interview, after months of requests.
Investigations at the Corporate Affairs Commission in Nigeria revealed that three Nigerians were listed as CCECC Directors, rendering it a company potentially influenced by Nigerians too. The Nigerian directors could not be reached for comment.
Union representative Babatunde claimed that the wages and casualisation was a common but ‘unholy practice’.
Liadi said: “That is what we have been struggling against – that no employer of labour should encourage casualising workers. Some of these companies may take jobs in remote areas that are not accessible…There we are not even aware of and be paying slave wages.”
Liadi claimed it was a general ‘problem with the Chinese’. “They have not been adequately practicing labour standards. We also task our leaders on putting in place mechanisms that protect workers and not concentrate only on looking for money only.”
Attempts by the Union were made to organize a dialogue at a higher level, betwee the Chinese Ambassador in Nigeria, Chinese companies and Unions, to discuss implementation of a national minimum wage. Liadi claimed it was not simply a situation of Chinese exploiting Nigerian labour but that the Chinese imported their citizens, who are serving prison sentences, to serve their time as construction workers.
“We have realized that the Chinese are here to stay,” he said. “That means we need to sit down and negotiate.”
The incident is not isolated. All across the country, Chinese companies appeared to be synonymous with rapid and much-needed development tied to harsh labour practices. Asia Plastic Company Limited’s former employee, Rabiu Auwulu, lost both his hands while operating a machine, seven years ago. He claimed that he was not provided with adequate medical treatment and that compensation (he disclosed the small sum to us) was poor in contract to his permanent disability.
“Seven months later, they provided me with plastic hands,” he told us. “But the hands were too heavy for me to manipulate… They later promised to replace other hands with battery-powered ones, but which are still yet to be provided…”
These days, Auwulu maintains a position as a security guard for the company. Mallam Ibrahim Yunus, the chairman of the company’s union, told us that efforts to receive compensation for Auwulu fell on deaf ears.
“We tried our best to secure the right of this man,” said Yunus, frustrated. “We protested to the management that the compensation money because his hands were lost and he can’t do any job to survive. But their response was that the matter doesn’t concern us and it wasn’t our business to decide on the compensation.”
Yunus stated that the minor monthly salary Auwulu was exploitative, and that he should be relieved of having to work as a security guard. Management proceeded to “sack us because of our effort, pressing to secure his rights.”
Officials from the Asia Plastic Company in Kano claimed they would not respond to journalists on the company’s internal matters.
They were defended by the former Secretary-General of the Nigeria Labour Congress, John Odah. “The Chinese have made positive contributions to the infrastructure and economy of Nigeria and Africa in general,” Odah said, noting that poor wages and conditions were not limited to the Chinese.
“Nigerian companies are not much more labour-friendly than the Chinese companies. Our experience with European and American companies has been tough. Though some have been unionised, it was not on the platter of gold. Even companies from South Africa, like MTN and Shoprite, who come from a country where labour unions are very powerful, are creating obstacles to unionisation in those work places.”
Nor was Nigerian law on labour and unionism very clear, he told us, allowing some companies the right to ban unions. He cited the former agreement between the International Trade Union Confederation and the All China Federation of Trade Unions, “to ensure that Chinese companies, who are expanding to Africa, respect African labour laws.”
But little was achieved, as one source informed us, due to a lack of political will. “There is no reason to put the Chinese on a cross and crucify them,” he said.
* This story was supported by the Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR) and WITS China-Africa project.