An Abia State-based steel manufacturer, Inner Galaxy Steel Company Limited, has described as “despicable social media hubris” allegations that it is running a “modern day slave camp” in its facility at Umuahala, Obuzor Asa, Ukwa West LGA, Abia State.
In a statement issued on behalf of the company, its Chief counsel, Nnamdi Nwokocha-Ahaaiwe said that contrary to claims in a tweet from an unidentified twitter handle @truthfully83, the Chinese manufacturer of steel, iron and allied products actually conducts its business in a healthy environment where its mostly Nigerian workers are safe, well treated and happy working.
In the statement made available to AbeyaNews, Ahaaiwe said the allegation that Inner Galaxy Steel had kept its workers’ hostage in the last three months in prison-like camps was not only malicious but also “deliberate fabrication, mischaracterisation and misinformation concocted by the operator of the said Twitter handle at the instance of those who engaged him for the hatchet job,” insisting that the company has, since it began operation in 2012, conducted its business in accordance with the laws regulating employment and conditions of service in Nigeria and with due attention to the well-being of its workers.
“It is instructive that the faceless operator behind the Twitter handle, @Truthfully83 stated clearly in his reference post that it is “IN THE LAST 3 MONTHS AND COUNTING” that the alleged hostage imprisonment of workers arose. There is no allegation that any such situation has existed in the previous years of the existence and operations of the company,” the statement by Ahaaiwe further read.
“The critical question which any unbiased, open minded, truth-seeking person should ask therefore is: what happened in this LAST THREE MONTHS AND COUNTING from the 12th day of August 2020, that led to the alleged “hostage imprisonment of workers”?”
An unverified twitter handle @truthfully83 had, on August 12, tweeted that he had embedded himself in Inner Galaxy Steel for 16 days during which he discovered, according to him, that the company: a) runs a ‘modern day slave camp’ where employees are imprisoned against their will; b) the Nigerian employees of the company work under the ‘most dehumanising conditions known to mankind’; c) that the company is working in collusion with Abia State government which is aware of the company’s “atrocities” and d) that an employee was injured during production with his toes cut but that the company has not compensated him, among others.
But in his statement, Inner Galaxy’s Chief counsel denied the allegations, insisting they were all fabrications.
(The truth of the matter is that) “with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic worldwide, individuals and companies were confronted with a situation of unprecedented crises the likes of which had not been witnessed by most people alive today and which no one predicted or planned for,” Ahaaiwe stated, noting that “companies were confronted with so many issues for which difficult decisions had to be made.”
“With respect to the specific matter in issue, our clients had to determine what to do in respect of about 40% of their workforce who live and come to work from Obigbo and environs in Rivers State, which is about 10-minutes drive from the company’s premises.
“This was because the Rivers State Government had announced that it was going to completely lock and seal its boundaries with its neighbouring States, of which Abia State is one. This meant that those employees of our clients who live and come to work from Obigbo and environs would be unable to come to work for a period which was difficult to determine as no one knew when the pandemic would be over.
“At the same time, most States in the country, including Abia State, announced lockdowns and curfews such that even intra-state movement became cumbersome,” Ahaaiwe explained.
According to the statement, “it also became clear that for a long period, which would be difficult to determine, our clients will be unable to operate at full capacity, rendering many workers redundant. This is because the main input of production of our clients is scrap iron and the suppliers send trucks/trailers of the materials from all corners of the federation, ranging from far-flung locations like Sokoto, Maiduguri, Lagos, etc.”
“All intra-State boundaries were to be closed and only vehicles bearing food, medicines and other essential items were authorized to operate; scrap irons and other raw materials of our clients were not one of the items excluded from the ban on inter-state movement. Even distributors would find it difficult to come and evacuate their goods. The entire production process and business of the company was to be severely impacted negatively, one way or the other,” the Inner Galaxy’s legal counsel further stated,adding that at the time the Covid-19 pandemic began, “many factories/plants in Europe and the Americas were being completely shut down because they had become ‘super-spreaders’ and hotspots of Covid-19.”
“The environment and conditions prevalent in big factories and plants such as those operated by our clients are such that if very strict safety protocols are not implemented, it takes only for one employee to bring the Covid-19 virus to the plant from home and it will quickly spread among workers in the factory/plant until it becomes uncontrollable.”
“In one Company in Sagamu, Ogun State, (which was widely reported), about 107 employees contracted the Covid-19 virus within the factory premises, within a forty-eight (48) hour period and the company was shut down by the Authorities,” he stressed, noting that to avoid spread of coronavirus in the company, “Inner Galaxy immediately instituted very strict and rigorous Covid-19 protocols, providing one mask every day for each worker and making provisions for over 55 hand-washing/sanitizing stations all over the premises.”
The problem, however, was that there was no way of controlling and guaranteeing that the workers would be able to strictly observe the safety protocols put in place by the company to contain the spread of Covid-19 among its workers within the factory complex when they returned to their homes, prompting the Inner Galaxy Steel’s management to look for safer ways to keep and engage its workforce even amidst the raging pandemic.
It was in the light of the foregoing, Barrister Ahaaiwe further stated, that the management of the company called a meeting of all the workers and made it clear that, no thanks to the raging pandemic, those of them who wished to continue working during the indeterminate period of the pandemic, would have to be housed within the company premises as they might not be able to get to work from their homes “once the full lockdown, curfews and other measures came into full implementation.”
“The issue of the company’s management being unable to ensure compliance with full Covid-19 safety protocols while workers were in their individual homes was also highlighted,” the legal counsel further stated. “The company made an offer: those who agreed to stay within the company premises until the pandemic was over and restrictions in movement relaxed would be housed in a temporarily, hastily erected accommodation as such did not exist prior to this time. Those who could not stay, either because they had families they could not abandon in the middle of a pandemic, particularly when no one could predict how long it would last, or for other reasons, would be furloughed to be reabsorbed once the crisis was over or abated and things returned to normal.”
The company said that part of the agreement was that those who elected to be furloughed would be paid N15,000 per month until they resumed work while those who agreed to be housed within the factory complex and work, would be paid their full salaries and bonuses calculated according to their grade levels and ranging between N20,000 and N30,000 monthly.
“These can be verified by anyone,” Ahaaiwe challenged, disclosing that Inner Galaxy Steel has about 1,500 workers at full capacity with very few Chinese in its employ. “There is no way this huge number of workers can be muzzled and, happily, when…federal and state delegations paid surprise visits without prior information to the management of the company, they were able to interact with all the workers on the premises, interrogate them and make their own findings of the fact of the matter.”
“It is important to stress that at no time was anyone forced to stay within the premises against their will,” Ahaaiwe reiterated, noting that the stay-within-the-premises-while-Covid-19-lasts arrangement was optional and those workers who felt comfortable with the arrangement stayed and were handsomely rewarded while those who didn’t want to stay were furloughed but were also paid compensation.
Ahaaiwe revealed that the Chinese owners of the company admitted that because they hurriedly built accommodations within the factory premises in the light of the urgency of the situation brought about by Covid-19, the quality of the structures was not exactly up to standard but noted that the company had heeded the federal and state governments’ delegations’ advice on improving the standard of the structures, which they would inspect and approve or disapprove at their next visit, assuring that the company had commenced building permanent structures in case of future emergencies or need.
“All over the world, workers, travellers and other persons are being quarantined and placed in isolation when necessary but because of the now popular Nigerian bashing of Chinese nationals and vilifying them as criminals and unethical businessmen, the Covid-19 safety protocols put in place by our clients with the consent of their employees have been mischaracterized and vilified as enslaving and putting workers in prison camps against their will,” the Inner Galaxy Steel legal counsel agonised.
Referring to the case of an employee who lost the toes of his left leg, Ahaaiwe averred that he was a victim of a purely regrettable accident, disclosing that the victim of the accident, Mr. Elohor Edehor Eshie was well taken care of by the company as could be verified from the Rehoboth hospital, Port harcourt, where he was treated.
According to Barr. Ahaaiwe, when the accident happened, “our clients immediately rushed Mr. Elohor to Rehoboth Hospital located at at N0 2 Winners’ Way, off Afam Street, D/Line, P.O box 12640, Port harcourt, Rivers State (Tel: 09026778791, 08037075632,80833395897 firstname.lastname@example.org) where he was treated.”
“The full hospital bill in the sum of N1,,040,660 was fully borne and offset by our clients without a kobo contributed by Mr. Elohor,” the counsel declared.
Stating that no female worker of the company had ever made any complaint or allegation of sexual harassment, nor was any worker of the company “treated like a slave or less than a human being” as alleged in the controversial tweet, Barrister Ahaaiwe further noted that “the picture of the back of a person with laceration allegedly from flogging, whose face was not disclosed, had no nexus or bearing with our clients (as) no such incident has ever occurred within the premises of our clients; no single worker has been molested by security agents attached to the company.”
“The company is located in the middle of a forest in the Niger Delta with threats of adverse actions by militants and or kidnappers againsts our clients and or their employees a constant issue. Security operatives were therefore duly and legally employed. They have no interface with employees/customers/suppliers/visitors and the regular excoriation and denigration of our heroes in uniform keeping us safe should be discouraged by all well-meaning Nigerians,” the Inner Galaxy Steel legal lamented.
Appealing to Nigerians’ sense of decency and good conscience, Ahaaiwe pointed out that “the virulent hatred currently being exhibited by some Nigerians against law-abiding Chinese nationals engaged in genuine business and other activities, to the extent that they are ready to believe the very worst of allegations without seeking or obtaining evidence or clarification, should be deprecated and condemned by all-well meaning Nigerians.”
“Just as not all Nigerians are 419ners, yahoo yahoo practitioners or drug pushers, not all Chinese citizens should be labelled as criminals and viewd with suspicion,” Barr. Ahaaiwe warned, disclosing that the federal and State authorities “who have visited the premises of the company and interviewed the management, workers and or employees have outlined the areas where they have determined that there should be improvements and the mangement of the company is cooperating fully with them.”
- “Our clients are ready to take corrections where it is determined that they have erred but Nigerians can be assured that whatever lapses that have occurred in the operations of our clients (if any), they are nowhere near the ridiculous and outrageous picture painted by the rogue, compromised, hired-gun whose mandate is clearly to destroy our clients’ business for no good reason,” the Chief counsel surmised.