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Op-ed: Startimes, Chinese and Racism Charges

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By Emmanuel Onwubiko 

Nigeria and China in terms of diplomacy have come a long way.

Economically, China and Nigeria have a robust trade balance. 

Last year, the charge d’affairs of Chinese Embassy in Nigeria, Qin Jain revealed that the bilateral trade volume between China and Nigeria from January to June of last year stood at $6.46 Billion. 

This represented 7.6 percent between China and Africa and 36.4 percent of total trade volume between China and ECOWAS.

China is also a Country of interest for lots of Nigerian students interested in learning the Chinese language. 

But there is a major problem that has lingered in the way Chinese investors in Nigeria have carried on with their operations.

Specifically,  as it relates to the treatment they give to local staff in Nigeria, there have been series of reports bothering on lack of respect for Labour rights. Besides, there are protests over the poor state of workers security even as Nigerians working in the Chinese firms don’t enjoy life insurance policies should they suffer fatalities or industrial accidents.

For years, Nigerian workers in many of the Chinese firms operating in Nigeria have complained of racism and poor standards of welfare in their places of work.

In June this year, a worker with Bedmate Furniture Company, Magboro, Ogun State, William Ekanem, was in pain after his spinal bone was allegedly damaged by his Chinese boss, identified as Master Wan.

 It was learnt that Master Wan, who is skilled in kung fu, had demanded to see a bag of rice which Ekanem bought from a foodstuffs’ seller, identified as Iya Melo, on the premises of the company.

The 27-year-old had reportedly challenged the Chinese for poking his nose into his personal business.

After forcefully checking the content, Ekanem said he was leaving when Master Wan allegedly gave him a kick in the back, which sent him sprawling on the ground.

The suspect was said to have stamped his foot on the victim before he was rescued by some other workers on the premises.

It was gathered that since the incident, Ekanem had not been able to walk well or stand straight.

The victim said although the case was reported at the Ibafo Police Station, the Divisional Crime Officer allegedly took a N50,000 bribe from the Chinese company.

He was said to have backed the company against the Uyo, Akwa Ibom State indigene, who was accused of exaggerating the assault.

Ekanem recalled his gruesome experience thus: “I joined the company on January 7, 2007 and rose to become a foreman, overseeing black workers in a department of the company. Despite working for long, my salary is only N34,000. I don’t have an identity card and I am not a member of staff just like the rest of the over 300 workers at the company.”

The matter was taken up by a human rights advocacy group which reportedly won a paltry N3 million settlements for the injured Nigerian worker.

In another firm dominated by Chinese called STARTIMES -a cable television conglomerate that partners with the Nigeria television Authority, allegations of racism have also arisen in not too distant time this year.

Some specific media reports have celebrated the story of the persistent allegations of racism in this firm which since it began operations has won the hearts and minds of Nigerian subscribers because of the rich variety of contents and programmes aired on their network at give away fees compared to the expensive services rendered by the South African owned Multichoice. 

StarTimes, as earlier affirmed, came under weighty allegations of systemic racism and anti-Labour practices by its Nigerian employees and ex-staff.

News report has it that five Nigerian senior management staff and  junior executives recently resigned from the company also known as NTA-Star TV Network following  alleged widespread discontent between the Chinese handlers who occupy the topmost seats and many Nigerian senior staff.

The ex-staff reportedly made various accusations against the management, mainly Chinese nationals bordering on what they described as deep-seated racial discrimination, management highhandedness and widespread discontent.

Henry Eyo, director of Human Resources at the Company described the allegations as “very untrue and quite unfortunate”. 

Another senior Nigerian director who spent years in China on training exchange from NTA however defended the company.

However, investigations by the media confirmed that five Nigerian management staff recently left the company in 2017.

Two of these staff spoke with this writer during my research prior to articulating this piece but gave nothing away. It looks like these ones left with a gentleman’s agreement not to upstage the apple carte or what is seen as been settled to keep quiet.

A reporter in one of the mainstream media quoted a middle aged female employee in the Dealer Sales Department who craved anonymity lamented thus: “Since I joined StarTimes in 2002 as a graduate, racism has remained an endemic problem here”. 

“Only a few Nigerians who can spy on others are promoted. Please check the records, 80 per cent of Nigerians have received no significant promotions or pay raise for the last 5 years in the company’s 7 years’ operations in Nigeria.”

“It is an issue we have been battling for years and even the Nigeria Labour Congress has once picketed StarTimes Lagos office over anti-Labour practices. Nigerians are really treated poorly here compared to their Chinese counterparts. There are terribly sharp differences in salaries, working conditions, and benefits such as insurance policy and promotion; arbitrary demotion of Nigerians is also a common practice and no corporate governance.”

“But most importantly, the Chinese are like mafias here. No Nigerian employee dare argue or make comments when they talk. They are like the typical Chinese imperialists in traditional Chinese movies. You can tell from the air of arrogance they carry around here. They see and treat Nigerians like second fiddle no matter the office.  Strangely, the Chinese bosses have lesser qualifications and experience compared to Nigerians, but as soon as they spend a few months they are appointed director over many senior Nigerians.”

“It is pathetic but because of the economic hardship, people cannot help the situation. Those of us who are junior are suffering in silence but they have been having running battles with the senior Nigerian employees most of whom were employed few years ago. That explains why many senior enlightened bright minds are leaving in anger. In fact, the Chinese often boast about Nigeria’s worsening unemployment rate which they consider an advantage”.

A former employee of StarTimes, Charles Imomo reportedly expressed dismay over what he described as the “growing catalogue of atrocities of Chinese companies in Nigeria.”

“Racism is so rife and pathetic that Nigerian senior managers merely carry big portfolios without requisite powers as only Chinese staffs call the shots. For instance, every February, the Chinese bosses usually travel to China for their New Year festivity. Before the Chinese bosses travel, they would announce a junior Chinese staffer who takes charge of the company in spite of having Nigerian directors.

“The practice at StarTimes is that while Chinese staffers are treated like royalty most senior Nigerian staff are contract staff, even directors. The trick is to offer employment to Nigerians with a clause that the contract is renewable per annum. This makes it easy to ease out stubborn Nigerians. They simply refuse to renew your contract when you argue with any Chinese. Nigerians no matter how highly placed are fired at will or frustrated to resign. Government should deploy undercover intelligence to unravel the underhand deals in StarTimes. On the average, no fewer than 10 Nigerians resign from StarTimes monthly.

There’s definitely an impending implosion if nothing is done, the disaffected staff murmured. 

“NTA is aware and has tried hard to wade into this matter but with no results. That Nigerians are enslaved on their own land is absurd,” said another ex-staff.

This reporter called on the management of the company to speak out on these damaging allegations but the company officially responded in writing from the public relations department.

Curiously, the STARTIMES response came in an unsigned letter printed in its letter headed paper which seems to have been written in a mad haste.

According to the unsigned letter, the unknown author stated thus: “The attention of the Management of NTA-STAR TV NETWORK LIMITED has been drawn to news of alleged racism within the company in some publications.”

“The Management of StarTimes Nigeria would like to state that at no time has there been racism or tension among members of staff in the organization.”

 “The mentioned persons in the publication voluntarily resigned their positions having followed the exit procedures as encapsulated in their contractual engagement letter of employments with one month notice thereto.”

 “It is therefore clear that the allegations as adduced in the publications are ill stated and does not represent the true facts in our company’s daily operation.”

“We would like to reaffirm that, as responsible corporate citizens, we remain committed to growing and developing our people in line with our core values while delivering impeccable entertainment at unmatchable rates to our customers.”

One major problem is that the Nigerian ministry of Labour and Employment is not sufficiently proactive in defending the Labour rights of Nigerian workers in Chinese and indeed other foreign controlled firms operating in Nigeria. Indians are also accused of treating Nigerian local workforce with the short end of the stick and the Federal Ministry of Labour looks the other way without tackling these issues. 

This lack of concern shown by the officials of the Labour ministry is a very bad signal. 

The question which we will be seeking answers in the following days, will include the need to seek to unravel why there is no such effective mechanisms in place in Nigeria for adequately investigating such weighty allegations of racism.

Another area of interest is to critically observe the STARTIMES for like a few days to ascertain what extent of culpability or otherwise that there is to these allegations. 

Certainly, Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria is looking into these extensively damaging claims of racism and will seek to know how the Presidency would respond.

Onwubiko is Head of HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION of Nigeria (HURIWA) and blogs@ www.emmanuelonwubiko.com; www.huriwa@blogspot.com.

 


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