Faced with death, starvation wages and loss of limbs, it is survival of the fittest for thousands of Nigerians trapped in factories run by Asians. Under-cover Saturday Sun reporter, EMMANUEL MAYAH, Posing as a casual worker in the last eight or so weeks, variously picked up employment in three typical Asian-run factories. He captures the struggles of poor Nigerians caught in an inextricable web of toil, despair, intimidation and slave labour all of which invoke the grim memories of Nazi concentration camps.

The road to hell is hardly narrow. Like any of the over 600 factories owned by Asians in Nigeria, the wide gate leading into Standard Industrial Development Company Limited (SIDCL) Lagos speaks for itself. Yet this path is well-worn by the feet of the over 400 Nigerian workers trapped in a dead-end job, on a misery wage of N20 an hour, of which they must earn every kobo in a gruelling 12-hour non-stop shift. That comes to about N240 per day.

In this establishment, located at Ogba, where zinc, iron rods and buckets are produced, not one Nigerian who passed through its gate has come out the same. When a few fingers are not chopped off by machines, then it is an entire limb, and when human life is not lost, then it is human dignity. Run by Chinese entrepreneurs, SIDCL is often counted as one of those factories where Nigerians are caught in the inextricable web of toil, despair, abuses and slave labour. And sometimes death.

Exactly two years ago in June, 20-year-old Niyi Ojelabi fell from a high roof to his death while toiling as a casual labourer in the SIDCL premises. The victim reportedly fell from a height of over 30 feet which one of the Chinese managers, Mr. Shoul, had forced him to climb, to effect some repairs. The young Nigerian’s complaints of dizziness and particularly that he was not a carpenter were ignored by his Chinese boss who it was said routinely saw nothing in putting his Nigerian workers at risk, especially if it would help cut cost. Niyi’s fellow labourers would later tell that the 7a.m – 7p.m and 7p.m – 7am shift system was not even interrupted as an ambulance rode in and took the remains of Ojelabi to the mortuary of the General Hospital, Ikeja.

Driven by such cases of fatalities, loss of limbs and sundry industrial accidents, rarely reported – on account of intimidation and threats of sack, Saturday Sun, determined to capture the sub-human bondage faced by Nigerians in the hands of their Asian masters, went to work in some of the most dreaded factories in Lagos. In an investigation spanning a little over eight weeks, this reporter posing as a casual worker, penetrated some of the labour camps run by Indians, Lebanese, Taiwanese, Chinese and Malaysians.

Beginning from Kayeem Industries Ltd, a plastic manufacturing company at Oshodi popularly known as Eskimo, Saturday Sun was hired under the name Timothy Uwadiegwu, by a supervisor called Tobi who must act with the consent of a surly Indian manager. This factory could be accessed from Cappa Bus Stop along the Old Agege Motor Road, but a quicker route for this reporter was to navigate through the premises of Armed Forces Resettlement Centre, Oshodi.

Located on a street called Blind Centre Street, Eskimo, despite its beautiful looks from the outside, is a sight out of hell. Job-seekers are welcomed by two towering almond trees in addition to a swaying coconut tree, yet nothing demonstrated better the worthlessness of the Nigerian workers than that names of the new intakes as indeed the old ones were all recorded in notebooks. But that was the least worry of the Nigerians seeking their daily bread in this environment that had a shocking appearance in the inside.

Eskimo, it was gathered, started out as Seydel Industries Ltd, a chemical plant set up to produce dyes and sundry chemicals for the textile sector. But with the closure of one textile company after another, the company thought it wise to undergo a mutation. Today they produce a wide range of plastic products, however food coolers remain their mainstay.

Passing through the security gate, this reporter and about 16 other newly hired hands were herded into the factory building. Substitute our everyday clothes with a prison uniform and the picture of a death row would not be out of place. What would pass as an orientation brief was given by a Nigerian supervisor to the newcomers some of who were genuinely hoping to find a future in this Asian establishment.

From three shifts to two shifts20naira-per-hour-2
The Asian structure is so fast-paced there are no rooms for laziness, hence the supervisor wasted no breath on that. Until a few years ago, Eskimo operated a three-shift marathon. In the past, Nigerians who complained about the absence of break were told that they were paid to work and not to rest. Today however, things appear to be looking up. The workers on day duty only are now entitled to a 30-minute break. In reality the Nigerians are worse off. The break concession is hugely to their detriment because the Indians have smartly collapsed the afternoon shift and in its place introduced a compulsory overtime. What this means is that instead of the old arrangement of 6am – 2pm, 2pm – 9pm and 9pm – 6.am non-stop shift, the Nigerians now work 8am – 8pm and 8pm – 8am two-shift system, with 30-minute break period. The catch here is that the hours put in after the break from 3p.m are considered overtime. What this further means is that during this compulsory overtime, you are paid less wages per hour than your normal wage during the morning period. The explanation here is that for overtime, be it compulsory or voluntarily, the worker is entitled to only his basic, not allowances like transportation, feeding and housing.

Allowances and basic put together, this reporter was employed on a salary of N1,800, to be paid every week subject to punctuality, team work, surcharges for damages and indeed the whims of the factory Manager, who has been known to order a slash of two-days wages over minor offences as sleeping.

Inside the production hall, even a deaf mute would need nobody to tell him that a tough business was going on. If he didn’t hear the crankings of the not-so-modern machines, the frenzy movement of the sweating and almost naked Nigerian workers was an authentic image of purgatory.
Across the chains of machines that made up the production line, they were essentially the injection machines, the moulds, cooling tanks, colour trough, a chain block for lifting heavy objects, air pipes, chillers and cutting machines.

Each of the machines was manned by an operator, supported by two assistants. A simple description of the production process is to say that raw rubber (latex) or imported polyethylene are fed into the machines which turns it into molten state. Colour is added and the mould shapes the plastic into cups, plates, spoons, buckets or coolers as the case may be. The mould is about the most essential component of the machines. There are different shapes and sizes of moulds for the different products. Depending on market demands, if plastic cups for instance are to be produced, the right mould with the right shape and size is selected and mounted on the machine with the help of the chain block which itself works with a hook and a system of pulleys. Once the colour of the plastic products has been determined, the colour trough, which is removable like the mould, is replaced with say green. Every product made in that batch will have a green colour. Also there are winding air pipes that supply cool air to the machines. These are in addition to water pipes supplying cold water from chillers mounted outside. The essence of all these is to cool and harden the plastic products as they roll out of the machines.

For cups, bowls and the likes, the next stages are labelling and shipment to the warehouse. It is a different ballgame altogether for coolers. For coolers, the outer body and the ‘inner’ are produced separately using the same process described above. They are then transferred to the coupling section. Here two chemicals are mixed and poured into the cooler. As a frothing reaction takes place the ‘inner’ is then introduced and both are held tightly together with the help of a vice. At the end of the reaction, the chemicals solidify to become foam which like an adhesive, not only holds the outer and inner part of the cooler firmly together but acts as an insulator, which neither gaining or losing heat helps to preserve foods and drinks.

Getting down to the most dangerous work
Though this reporter had leaned heavily on his background in electrical engineering to be deployed to this section, what awaited him was a complete nightmare. Working at a frenetic pace to correspond with the speed of fast-moving machines, Saturday Sun was first saddled with the task of fishing out defective products; those with imperfect shapes or similar symptoms of production error. When such detected bad products have made quite a heap at one corner, they are then expected to be crushed, bagged and recycled, to be used as raw materials in future productions.

Armed with cutlasses and mallets, this reporter and other employees proceeded to cut and break the hard plastic materials to pieces. The job appeared easy until the cutlasses started bouncing off the hard plastics. This manual task is said to have produced many accidents in the past with employees cutting their arms or fingers. It is said there are machines that could crush the waste plastics to pieces before they are ground and recycled but the Asians won’t invest in expensive machines, not after a number of employees have lost an eye to pieces of flying plastics.

Because coolers, unlike buckets and bowls, are not easily reduced to pieces with cutlasses, the Indians had installed a machine, which was itself improvised. It was actually a motor saw, the type used in timber mills to slice woods. The noise is nerve-racking, but it is to this monster that this reporter and his group must feed the bad coolers and must watch carefully as it cuts the plastics into halves and the halves further cut into quarters, etc. Even the supervisor agreed that this was one of the most dangerous aspects of the production.

According to the man who had worked in another plastic-producing company called Sasoplast, a similar machine chopped off the five fingers of an employee some years ago. He even joked that all the Asias paid to the victim in 1999 was N2,500, which translated to N500 per finger.

Some toilet
If that was the supervisor’s way of urging caution, the information unsettled not a few new employees, so much so that, caught between watching the monster machine and looking out for the Asian Factory manager who could boot you out on account of perceived sloppiness, this reporter in a moment of indecision chose to hit the toilet. But what confronted him was gut-wrenching. The toilets appeared like something designed for refugees, but as this reporter later found out to his utmost frustration, they were kept in that sorry state to discourage truancy. Indeed the Indians had everything figured out. No one goes in there and remained a minute longer than necessary. In fact no one goes in there without a good reason at all.

After ten days at Eskimo, Saturday Sun made a quiet exit from the factory. By this time, four of the boys that started out with this reporter had gone AWOL, unable to cope with the hard labour. A curious feature of this Indian company is the obvious preference to recruit very young workers; some as young as 16 and 17 years. At least, one in every four workers at Eskimo sustains injuries, especially at the crushing and recycling section and also at the raw material section where operators must use the hands to feed rubbers to ageing and dangerous machines. The company has no clinic and if there is a First-Aid box somewhere, this reporter never saw one.

From Eskimo to KRS Investment Ltd
If the value of a Nigerian worker at Eskimo is N1,800 a week, his counterpart at KRS Investment Limited along Oworoshoki/Oshodi Expressway is worth even smaller – N1,600 a week. But he also has to work long hours, putting in 12 hours everyday, from 6am – 6pm or from 6pm – 6am for night shift. In this Asian company that produces Cascade table water and a range of fruit juice like Ice Pomme, Ice Lemonande, Orange and Cream Soda, this reporter put in seven days working in this factory that showed an incredible obsession for cleanliness. The task here entailed working long hours in constant standing-stooping motion. Though this reporter’s duty was not about carrying a cutlass anymore, the atmosphere was no less frenzy.

In a production hall crowded with about 200 workers, the stench of body odour competed with the sweet smell of food sweeteners as this reporter struggled to keep the pace, scooping bottled beverages from a moving conveyor into cartons. This factory boasts of a squeaky-clean laboratory where the formula or concentrates for the different beverages are sorted out. There are various kinds of machines, including the mixing machines, the bottling machines, the corking machines and the labelling machines. All these are linked together by a network of conveyors. There are two operators to a machine and about 10 casual workers attached to each machine to do sundry tasks.

This reporter was posted to the conveyor just after the labelling machine. To work here, you need a good pair of eyes. The task is to monitor the bottled drinks as they travel the conveyor and very quickly spot and pick out those bottles not properly corked or are half-filled or with poor labelling. Similar tasks are also going on at the bottling sections where some other workers, stationed like forest guards, inspect the plastic bottles to ensure none is harbouring any debris.

On the days when Saturday Sun did not monitor the bottled drinks on their journey, the other task was to grab the bottled beverages, six at a time from the conveyor belt and stuff them into cartons. The idea is to grab 12 bottles per minute in a non-stop stooping-standing motion. As the cartons are filled, someone next in the chain drags them away and supplies empty ones. Yet some other workers grab the filled cartons, seal them and stack them on a palette which is then rolled off to the warehouse.

The division of labour is such that the production is broken into nine stages, each manned by physically drained Nigerians, driven to work like robots. To ensure this, the Indian factory manager and supervisors are always on patrol, and when they spot a weakness somewhere in the human chain, they begin to bray: “Work! Work! Work!…” The spectacle sometimes appears comical when some poor cleaners, employed to ensure NAFDAC’s standard of hygiene in a food processing environment, are seen dragging their mops and buckets in a zigzag motion as they follow the feet of the screaming Indians to wipe every trace of dirt left behind by their shoes on the factory floor.

In this company, sandwiched between a textile factory and a plastic manufacturing company, industrial accidents are relatively low. However, incidents of dizziness and workers collapsing from exhaustion are not strange. To forestall this perhaps, the Indians have seen wisdom to construct a bathroom fitted with four showers each for men and women. The dash for the bathroom, especially during the short break allowed by the Indians is mind-boggling. But it is only this period that the Nigerians have the opportunity to urinate, rush their food if there is any, go under the shower to regain strength or simply go AWOL, never to return.

A staff canteen, at last
Since the workers at Eskimo cannot possibly eat plastic, their counterparts at KRS appear a little better off. While Eskimo has no canteen, KRS has one but the food is not subsidised. On his first day at KRS, this reporter bought N60 food at the canteen. When that didn’t seem to go anywhere, he ordered another N40 food. Then thinking again that the task ahead demanded more energy, he requested for N20 extra eba. By this time, almost everyone in the canteen was starring. Not to blow his cover, this reporter painfully decided to be like the others, by making do with N40 food at work. Unlike Eskimo where workers have no alternative ways to counter hunger, KRS employees rely on what they produce, filling their stomachs with bottled juice, but must do so while crouching behind loaded pallettes.

No vacancy at Universal Steels
Though Saturday Sun was unable to find work at Universal Steels despite three attempts, the reputation of this Chinese metal scrap recycling plant preceded it. Except only for WAHUM, not very far from it, no factory in Lagos has produced as many amputees and deaths as Universal Steel. In this plant located at Ogba, workers don’t go on break and enjoy no protection against harmful chemical and unsafe machines. There are no safety precautions whatsoever and accident is the order of the day.
Condemned to a living hell are the workers in the welding department who are subjected to intense heat from the fire in the furnace. With temperature going over 300 degrees, workers face naked fire that has dreadful side-effects, especially damage to the eyes.

On the second day of trying to get work at Universal, a middle-aged man whom this reporter had turned to for assistance tried to discourage him with a snicker: “Na here you wan come?” He would later disclose that aside the furnace there were increasing cases of respiratory problems, arising from the excess sulphur and nitrogen dioxide inherent in steel recycling.

It was further learnt that despite the fact that workers in that section are gradually going blind on account of extensive exposure to the furnace, the management have long spelt out that treatment needing eye spectacles would not be the responsibility of Universal Steels. Worse still, the life of a Nigerian is worth N5,000; at least that is the amount specified in the workers handbook to be given to cover burial expenses in the event of the death of a worker in active service.

But when one Mr. Ekeh, popularly called Baba Ebere, died in a explosion at Universal, his family did not get as much as N500. According to his former colleague, the Nigerian who worked as a welder was led to an untimely death when two Chinese expatriates ordered him to plug a welding accessory to a particular socket. Ekeh’s observations that the socket, reserved for heavy-duty equipment was on high voltage, fell on deaf ears as the impatient Chinese who did not understand much of English barked at him to get on with the job. The resulting explosion killed two Nigerians instantly and disfigured a third. The Chinese who were badly harmed were flown abroad for treatment while commensurate medical assistance were never extended to the Nigerian victims.

Saturday Sun discovered that to ensure that their responsibilities to their Nigerian workers do not go beyond wages and First Aid, the Asians as a rule, sack all their Nigerian workers every three months and ask them to re-apply. They are then employed a second time only to be sacked again in another three months time. For some workers, the circle has continued like that for more than 10 years. That way, no worker is ever ripe for gratuity or pension because he is always three-months old in the company.

Because of this sinister regime and job insecurity, the Nigerians, both old and young, are made to crawl and beg for work. Some in a spate of three years have worked in fifteen different factories. Every morning they troop out outside the gates of Universal Steel, Eskimo, KRS, OK Foods, Deli Foods or Eureka Metals Limited. And afraid to go home on the days the Asians refuse to hire anybody, the Nigerians mill around, eating groundnut and bemoaning a wasted generation.

Eureka!! But he lost his manhood
Lurking in their midst outside Eureka Metals Ltd at Ikeja, one of them told the agonising story of an employee who lost his male organ to a machine at WAHUM, a household and utensils manufacturing concern, owned by Taiwanese. The company, located along Adeniyi Jones Avenue in Ikeja was said to have a notoriety that paralled WAHUM. The former employee said that in the last five years, no less than 130 Nigerians have lost one part of their body or another.
One of them was Friday Emuta. A slippery floor was all it took to change his life irrevocably. One afternoon, while working in the factory, he slipped and fell, smashing his penis and testicles against the sharp spindle of a machine. He was bleeding profusely and rushed to the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) where he spent one year and had three operations. At the end, he lost the battle to save his manhood and ended up without prospect of a wife.