To investigate the working conditions of Nigerians employed at Chinese-run quarries in the Obafemi-Owode area of Ogun state, SODIQ OJUROUNGBE disguised as an agent to get into the premises, where he uncovered anomalies, ill-treatment and flagrant disregard for labour laws.
Jacob Adeoti, who has worked at Ding Xing Quarry since 2016, once had a finger chopped off by a machine. In spite of his condition, he couldn’t leave the job due to the uncertainty of getting another one. He has since accepted his fate even though he does not earn up to the N30, 000 minimum wage. Adeoti, a bricklayer and father of two, was paid N600 daily at the quarry between 2016 and 2020, after which his pay was increased by N100. Although his remuneration is significantly low, 30-year-old Adeoti cannot return to his hometown in Ilara in the Yewa area of Ogun because making meagre daily money is better than sitting idly at home for weeks without getting a bricklaying job.Like Adeoti, several casual workers employed at Chinese quarries in the state are subjected to inhumane conditions, with some getting disabled as a result of accidents that happen while on duty — and they are ultimately left to their fate.
‘Working in hell’
Workers at Ding Xing, Xiyuan Quarry and A & B Quarry grapple with issues of poor welfare, poor remuneration, and lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). Eight out of 10 workers interviewed at the quarries say they are not provided with the necessary safety kits to protect them from possible accidents during working hours. A worker at Ding Xing Quarry, who identified himself as Solomon, said efforts have been made to implore the company to provide PPEs for them but the request is always ignored. “I have been working in the quarry for two years. We are not being treated well at all. We are treated like slaves,” he said. “We work under dangerous circumstances; there are no provisions of personal protective equipment such as helmets, face masks, boots, and reflective jackets. We have many people that have lost their limbs, legs in the process of working at the company. There are no PPEs to protect us from danger.” Solomon lamented that the employers “don’t have regard for us and they don’t care if we die or not”.
Death, accidents at the quarries
A worker identified as Femi was said to have died after an accident took place at Xiyuan quarry in Kobape on October 3, 2020. Femi, riding a motorcycle, was returning from the residential area of the quarry where he had gone to drop off one of the Chinese operators. Unable to see clearly due to the haze of dust, he collided with an oncoming truck.A worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Femi sustained an injury on his head and gave up the ghost before getting to the hospital. “Femi will still be alive if only there were PPEs here, he hit his head on the ground and that would not have happened if he was putting on a helmet,” he said. Olamide Babatunde, a former worker at Ding Xing, lost a leg and “his manhood” while handling one of the machines at the quarry in July 2020. For five months, he was bedridden, and although the company paid his medical bills, no form of assistance has been provided for Babatunde since he left the hospital, despite working with the company for about five years. “I was in the hospital for almost five months and they visited me just once. Apart from the hospital bills they settled, I have not heard from them again. Whenever we go there, they keep posting that they will settle me soon. I have lost everything as I cannot impregnate any lady because I lost my manhood to the accident, according to the doctors,” he said.
Sleeping like a ‘rat’
Although many of the quarry companies provide accommodation for workers, the rooms were found to be overcrowded and in bad shape. At Ding Xing, some workers sleep on the floor while others construct makeshift beds out of cartons placed on a wooden base. The experience at Xiyuan Quarry is reportedly worse, with some workers disclosing that they kill snakes inside their rooms almost every week. One of the workers said due to the open ceiling and bad doors of the rooms, snakes easily gain access. “The rooms here are the worst, I am not sure a dead man can sleep here peacefully without complaining,” he said. “About two days ago, I killed a snake inside my room. We sleep on a bare floor, no ceiling, no good doors. The state of the rooms here are the worst and it is just unfortunate that we have no choice.”Many workers who spoke with this reporter were employed on casual contracts, which implies that they are not entitled to any other benefit apart from their wages which range between N600 and N900. Despite working in harsh conditions, the workers said the Chinese operators do not give a second chance to any Nigerian worker who errs on the job. Workers who may also want to protest or those seen as “activists” are immediately fired. A worker explained that anybody who tries to agitate for better working conditions is immediately sacked. “They don’t tolerate any act of disobedience, if they know I am giving you information about this place, they will sack me immediately,” the worker said on the condition of anonymity. “No matter what you do for them, no matter how many years you have spent with them, they will never give you a second chance, if you go against the rules, they will fire you.”
Lawyer quit due to ‘injustice’
Section 12 of the labour act (2004) demands that an employer takes responsibility for personal injuries sustained by its workers while on the job. Apart from the fact that the conditions of workers at the quarries are in violation of the labour laws, it was also discovered that hazard allowances are not paid to them.Habeeb Whyte said he had to step down as a lawyer to some of the Chinese companies as his “mind could not take being on the side of injustice”. After several futile attempts by Whyte to ensure the Chinese operators improve the welfare of workers, the lawyer said he quit. “I was a counsel for them. I really consulted for them. It is like somebody asking me questions like how do we do it, and any other thing. I told them the way and manner to follow and what to do,” he said. “But because they know that people like me will not bend to their illegality, so these companies went to obtain some license through the backdoor because they know that in Nigeria, anything can happen.” After dumping the Chinese operators, the legal practitioner switched to the other side; he became an advocate of some workers seeking to get justice in their fight for better conditions. “When I saw the letter of appointment of a client I intended to handle, I was even the one that advised him not to take legal action against them,” he said. “The condition is just too stringent and so many of those workers don’t look at it before they sign it. They don’t read the terms and conditions of the work very well before signing. “Imagine in a letter of agreement, the employer said he can send a worker away at any time without prior notice and you as a worker agree to that.”
Efforts of labour unions
The Ogun state chapter of the Nigeria Union of Mine Workers (NUMW) has, more than once, engaged quarry companies to provide PPEs and good conditions for workers, but their engagements were only met with empty promises. Tunde Shoneye, spokesperson of NUMW, alleged that the Chinese operators have Nigerian collaborators who advise them not to do things the right way. “We have been on the issues of PPE provision for these workers for more than two years,” he said. “We have been negotiating with the quarry management, that they should provide PPE for the workers… but they are not ready to do it.“In any decent work, safety is foremost and if anybody would want to do anything at all without considering safety, such a person is writing to death.” On remuneration, the NUMW spokesperson said the union had signed a memorandum of understanding with the companies in a bid to obtain better welfare packages for the workers. Emmanuel Bankole, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) chairman in the state, spoke of the efforts made to get the Chinese operators to do the needful. “Because of the way Nigerians are treated, we have had cause to take about two to three of them up at certain times. I think about two or three lives have been lost through negligence because there was no PPE,” he said. “It is a pity we have not been receiving cooperation from the mine officers at the federal ministry of mines in the state. We have to take them to the commissioner for trade and investment in the state and the woman really berated and condemned their attitude and warned them seriously. So, we are not folding our arms, but you know, we act on information, when we get one, we pick it up.” Efforts to get Kikelomo Alonge, the commissioner for trade and investment, to speak on the development proved futile while Waheed Odusile, commissioner for information, said he did not have the right answers to the questions. “I have not been able to get the right answers to your questions, you will need to hold on,” he said. Twice, the reporter visited the Ogun state office of the federal ministry of mines but was told that “the official to speak on the matter was not around”.