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How tobacco factory workers can get justice

There was upheaval in September 2002 when tens of Nigerian factory workers died in a fire accident that swept through the factory wing of the West Africa Rubber Products Limited (WARP) in Ikorodu area of Lagos. The fire licked the factory and the neighboring Super Engineering Limited, both of which are owned by a Shanghai and Hong Kong conglomerate.

A tobacco factory worker

By the time the last smoke from the factory was put out, about 100 young Nigerians were burnt beyond recognition. That incident shocked the country when the details were made public.

The Panel of Inquiry set up by the Lagos State Government to investigate the incident learnt that, as a company policy, once the foreign nationals in the factory are inside, the doors are not locked. But once the foreigners step out, they lock the Nigerian workers inside and go away with the keys. On the day of the incident on September 16, 2002, it took police intervention to stop local residents from lynching the owners when they stormed the premises. The locals accused them of locking the staff in the factory and thus causing their deaths.

No doubt, Nigerians are not new to happenings like the one above. Across the length and breadth of the country, factory hands are made to face harrowing work conditions, abuses and deaths in some cases, from ruthless employers whose only interests lie in making profits even at the cost of human life.

More than a decade and half after, the situation has not changed. Ex-workers of a leading tobacco firm in Ibadan are now in the news with details of how they now carry in their bodies the indelible marks of the hazards they were exposed to while working for the tobacco firm. At a press conference last year in Lagos, they alleged poor working conditions and that they suffer debilitating illnesses even after they were laid off unceremoniously.

Some of them who say they worked for as long as 12 years and were employed in good health condition claim that, after few years of work, they now have ailments such as chronic sinusitis, chronic high blood pressure, and ingrown, among others.

They alleged working with obsolete machines and that they were made to use their nostrils to perceive tobacco leaves. Natural tobacco is known to have upwards of 40 known or probable carcinogens. Experts say tobacco leaves still have those heart-stopping qualities causing higher blood pressure, higher risk of artery clotting and stroke. The most damning allegation was that whenever they were ill and needed medicare the tobacco firm sent them to hospitals they patronised and continued to change hospitals to avoid the detection of the illnesses they were coming down with.

One of them who wrote the tobacco firm through his lawyer to compensate him on the basis of his ailment, said “They wrote back that I had a pre-existing sickness before I joined the company”, even when it is a known fact that the said company subjects its intending employees to rigorous medical tests before employing them. These allegations are weighty.

For the under-informed, the Nigerian Labour Laws says an employer is obligated to provide safe system of work for employees. Under the Factories Act, employers/owners or occupiers of a factory are “to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees within the factory. Thus, it is the duty of the employer to ensure that the provisions of the Factories Act relating to cleanliness, overcrowding, ventilation, lighting, drainage and sanitary conveniences are complied with. Furthermore, the Act makes it the duty of the employer to provide a safe means of access and safe place of employment. Sections 47 and 48 of the Act also make it mandatory for factory workers to be provided with protective clothing and appliances, where they are employed in any process involving excessive exposure to wet or to injurious or offensive substance.

In view of the above, the Ministry of Labour must step in to verify the claims of the workers and ensure they get justice. The fundamental question about the premium placed on human lives by the Nigerian government comes to the fore as it is government’s duty to ensure that maximum safety standards are complied with in the workplace. In the case at hand, if the company fingered in this abuse is found wanting it must face the full weight of the law. Hospitals that may also have colluded with the said company to doctor medical reports must also get the axe of the Nigerian Medical Council. Nigerians are known to face harsh work conditions owning to migration to supposed lands of yore. Such situations must not be allowed here. A stitch in time will save thousands of our factory workers.

By Ogunjimi Michael (Public affairs analyst; Abeokuta, Ogun State)

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