Pandemic prison – The Nation

  • Nigeria must halt the practice of factory imprisonment

Revelations that some 300 workers had been imprisoned in a rice-processing factory in Kano State since March and forced to work in intolerable conditions demonstrate the urgent need for Nigeria to ensure that it properly enforces its labour laws.

When the state government imposed a lockdown in response to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers at the Indian-run company in the Challawa Industrial Estate in Kano were initially kept in the factory for five days and promised an additional N5,000 a month. Those who refused were threatened with the sack. Five days became a fortnight and eventually turned into three months of involuntary detention.

The workers were kept away from friends and relations who came to the factory gates to ask of them. No provision was made for adequate feeding and accommodation; those who fell sick did not have access to proper treatment. All the while, they were kept working full-time. Their predicament came to light when a complaint was made to a human-rights organisation which reported the matter to the police.

As shocking as it is, this practice is quite commonplace in the country. In September 2002, about 45 workers were killed in a fire in a plastics factory in Ogun State. Most of the victims were unable to escape because they had been locked in by one of the managers who had gone off with the key. Last April, workers in a ceramics firm in the Ogun Guangdong Free Trade Zone, Igbesa, protested at being held in the factory for two weeks without pay.

It is tragic that this is a regular occurrence in a country with laid-down labour laws and extensive occupational health and safety regulations. Section 49 of the Factory Act of 2004 empowers the Minister of Labour and Employment to make regulations to ensure the safety, health and welfare of Nigerian workers in all workplaces. The country’s National Policy on Safety and Health comprehensively outlines the responsibilities and functions of the relevant regulatory bodies concerned with worker safety.

The inability of the country’s authorities to enforce the occupational health and safety laws is due to regulatory laxity, especially poor monitoring, inadequate reporting procedures, and corruption. It should not have been possible for a rice-processing factory with up to 600 workers to operate for three months during a lockdown without being checked once.

The workers had apparently been employed without viable employment contracts, or they would have been aware of their rights under the nation’s employment laws. The company’s foreign managers clearly believed that they could get away with what they did because they felt that they would not be held to account for their actions.

Nigeria must step up its monitoring of workplaces, especially manufacturing concerns where the possibility of abuse is relatively high. All business establishments must be made to conform to all occupational health and safety guidelines before they are approved, and should be regularly monitored to ensure that they maintain set standards.

A comprehensive programme of worker education must be set up to ensure that workers are aware of their rights and obligations under the country’s labour laws. The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) should take up this matter with all seriousness.

Where breaches of health and safety regulations are discovered, as in this case, they must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Employers and managements whose greed and carelessness result in worker deaths or injuries should face criminal prosecution. Staff of regulatory bodies who are found to be culpable should be disciplined in line with statutory provisions of their organisations. The Nigeria Police and other security agencies should ensure that factories and manufacturing establishments are included in their patrols.

Nigerian workers should not be forced to choose between life and livelihood in their places of work.

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