Last November, thousands of Lagosians including hundreds of UBA Bank employees attended what was billed as the ‘party of the year’ at the Lekki Special Events Centre on Admiralty Way.
The UBA RedTV Rave had everyone from Wizkid to Olamide to Jidenna to Burna Boy thrilling the festive crowd as UBA chairman Tony Elumelu and CEO Kennedy Uzoka mingled with the artists and guests.
On the surface, this was the best of times, as a bank that was clearly in rude health celebrated a successful year with thousands of employees, friends and family. The bank had also recently concluded a recruitment exercise that would add nearly 4,000 new employees to its staff strength, so the year ahead looked to be a promising one for most employees present.
Unknown to them, while senior executives danced with Wizkid in the VIP area, one of the most brutal staff layoffs in Nigerian banking history was just around the corner. They partied well into the night and then showed up for work the following week as usual. A week went by. Two weeks. Four weeks. Then right at the start of the new year – a shocker.
Closed at 5.30PM, Terminated at 10.30PM
Ifunanya (name has been changed) was asked to wait behind at work on Friday January 3. As a 12-year UBA veteran including a long stint in her role as a Branch Operations Manager at a branch in Ojodu, Lagos, this was not an unusual request to receive. She was even used to working weekends so that the ATMs could remain functional and she could troubleshoot other onsite customer-facing issues. This time however, was different.
Along with other staff members at the branch, she was asked to wait for a board meeting. By 10.30PM, the assembled staff were informed that their services were no longer required. They were then told verbally to write out their resignation letters on the spot and leave voluntarily or be forced out. At this point, her security pass was taken, and along with the other affected staff, her profile was unceremoniously deactivated from the bank’s internal system. She was reminded to drop her work ID on the way out, and thus ended a 12-year association with the bank.
When a relative of hers reached out to tell the story, he was keen to make the point that she was not an agency employee, but a full UBA employee on a monthly salary of N153,000. He could not understand why the bank would treat her that way. I heard similar stories from two other sources who insisted that they were coerced into resigning after being told that their services were no longer required right at the start of the new year.
Shocking and callous as these stories may have sounded, one of the first things you are taught in any professional journalism program is to always balance the story. So I sought an alternate account of what transpired, with the goal of putting the picture together to tell a complete story. There were conflicting accounts of the events of January 3 flying around, with some accounts describing a recruitment and promotion exercise without mentioning any firings, while others reported a purported “restructuring” at UBA, which is a well-known euphemism for “mass sack.”
I managed to establish contact with a current senior employee at UBA who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorised to speak about such matters. This was his account of what happened at UBA bank at the start of this year:
“Usually when anyone joins UBA with a Bachelor’s degree, they are put on a GT1 level (N80,000). After one year, they are promoted to GT2 (N100,000), then after another year ET1 (N140,000) which is where a lot of people get stuck on. If you are lucky, you get to ET2 (N165,000). So what UBA did was to meld those 4 levels into one (ET) so any one who was on GT1 and GT2 gets automatically promoted to ET2. Those that were on ET1 and ET2 got promoted to SET (Senior Executive Trainee).
So it was a promotion of sorts, but honestly it was long overdue because compared to other banks, N80,000 for entry level staff is quite low. About the layoffs: I only know 4 people personally who got affected. The people affected were on manager grades and worked at the head office, they all reportedly got 6 months arrears.”
According to this source, he was not personally aware of the fate of any branch staff or what he termed ‘OND staff.’ He did however say that in his opinion, the bank handled the situation poorly and that Nigeria does need stronger labour laws to protect young graduates fresh out of school from exploitation for cheap labor at the hands of corporates like UBA. He also mentioned that he knows current UBA staff have not had a salary increase in ten years – a remarkable situation for workers in a country whose currency has declined 195 percent over the same period.
As it later emerged, more than 2,000 staff were affected by the shocking late-night cull at UBA. It also became increasingly clear that the firings had nothing to do with a harsh operating environment or decreased profitability. The bank which had brought together Nigeria’s most expensive music stars to perform at its end of year shindig was anything but struggling – it actually hired more people than if fired. What the sackings did though, was clear out a number of people in roles that the bank considered obsolete, particularly within branch operations.
It can definitely be argued that such restructuring is inevitable in the face of rapidly changing technology, which is hardly a terrible thing. What is also true however, is that the bank that paid huge sums of money to bring Burna Boy and Jidenna to an annual vanity event that adds nothing to its bottom line could also afford to retrain its redundant staff to fit into new roles – instead of just sacking them and instantly bringing in thousands of readymade replacements.
Yet again, the actions of a Nigerian corporate made the point that Nigerian labour law, in addition to be being poorly enforced is also woefully inadequate and unfit for purpose. If after 12 years of useful service to a bank, Ifunanya could be dumped out onto the street without even a few hours of notice – and no regulatory action was forthcoming – then clearly, Nigerian employees working for Nigerian companies have a problem on their hands.
As much as the UBA situation made that point, nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to unearth about another Nigerian corporate behemoth.
Diarrhea in India, Death in Ibeju-Lekki: The Unbelievable Story of Dangote Refinery
While senior executives at UBA House were going over the finer points of their plan to log 2,000 employees out of their work systems and force them to resign on the spot, a different level of labour exploitation was entering its fourth year about 73KM east of the Marina. There, at the site of the Dangote Refinery at the Free Trade Zone in Ibeju-Lekki, Lagos, the refinery was taking delivery of the world’s largest crude oil refining tower.
While this was predictably being celebrated across local and foreign media as the start of a glorious new chapter in Nigeria’s industrial history, I was speaking to a whistleblower with close and detailed knowledge of the project. What he had to say about the refinery project, the Indian project managers, the company’s internal culture and its much-publicised trainee program left me absolutely floored. Naturally I reached out to Dangote Group for a comment, but at press time I have received no response or acknowledgment.
My source, whom I shall call “Mukhtar” worked in and around the refinery project between 2016 and 2018, and what I found most distressing amidst everything he said was the revelation that deaths due to onsite accidents are not just known to happen at the refinery site, but are effectively covered up by Dangote. This he said, is because the people who die are mostly site labourers who are hired through staffing agencies instead of directly. When they die, it becomes the staffing company’s problem and the Dangote brand distances itself from it – even though the site owner is legally responsible for all safety-related incidents onsite.
Something else that struck me was that he implied that – contrary to all its public posturing – the company actually has no intention of using Nigerian engineers to run the refinery anytime soon. The trainee program that sent dozens of Engineering graduates for a one-year training program in India? “Strictly PR,” he said.
For full effect, I have decided to reproduce the full and unredacted transcript of our conversation instead of using quotes and reported speech. Here is the conversation below:
ME: When we started this conversation, you mentioned that Dangote Refinery is exempt from Nigerian labour laws. What were you referencing?
Mukhtar: Because the refinery is in the FTZ, it is not subject to certain laws like local content laws. As such, even mundane jobs are given to non-Nigerian companies. Even the refinery’s fence wall was handled by a Chinese company. This didn’t stop long stretches of the fence from collapsing sometime in 2017. The FTZ affects Labour laws too. The company is not really under any obligation to employ Nigerians. They do so mostly for PR. All key decision makers are Indians (say 98%).
ME: There have been several horror stories about Indian-run businesses in Nigeria. Was this one of them?
Mukhtar: Yes, the Indians are quite racist. Some even demand to be referred to as “master”. To be fair, when this is reported, the HR unit makes a show of cautioning them. But I dont think anyone has ever been dismissed for it or seriously punished. Most of workers who meet their death on site are labourers. So their names might be known to many staff. I’ll see what I can get. It happens. It’s kept under wraps but it happens.
ME: Now you mentioned onsite deaths earlier. I want to know all about this. Why haven’t we heard anything about this?
Mukhtar: The refinery site is not really the best place to work. Mortality rate on site is quite high. People falling from heights or getting crushed by heavy vehicles/machines is quite common. These numbers are not reported because most staff are contract staff (or outsourced) so the company gets to wash its hands off such cases. But safety on site is the ultimate responsibility of the owner of the project. The construction site has a board that is supposed to display the safety statistics but it is never displays the truth. According to that board, there has never been a fatality on site. But in reality, I think 2018 had about 5 fatalities between January and March. If I were to guess, I’d say there have been over 25 fatalities since construction started in 2016/17.
ME: Now you said earlier that the trainee program was a washout and a disappointment. Fill me in on that.
Mukhtar: I was one of the first batch of engineers sent to India for training in 2016. In my opinion, the whole scheme was either poorly thought out or the company was somehow compelled to do it, and did so for PR. Our salaries were being paid into our accounts in Nigeria, so we were using our debit cards to access our Nigerian accounts for expenses over there) Around July 2016 when the naira went from around 160 per dollar to nearly double that number, our spending power was effectively halved.
ME: I also remember that there was a forex shortage crisis in 2016 and Nigerian bank cards stopped working outside the country.
Mukhtar: So when the banks eventually stopped all cards from functioning abroad, we were stranded. The company resorted to selling us dollars or rupees at the black market rate.They deducted the money from our salaries. We had accommodation (two adults per room) and feeding (Indian food which many of us did not like). Some of had to buy intercontinental dishes regularly, because Indian food is really not nice if you’re not into many smelly spices. It was crazy. Meanwhile we were told categorically that we would have Nigerian food and Nigerian cooks. It was a blatant lie by the Indian HR director.
Also, no arrangement was made for our medical care. Those who fell ill had to treat themselves from their pockets. During the currency crisis, those who fell ill had to rely on the rest of us to put together our spare change to pay for their treatment. The company promised to refund medical expenses, but this shouldn’t have been the situation in the first place.
ME: Tell me about the training program. What was the course content and the experience like? Was it what you were expecting?
Mukhtar: The training itself was a mess too. We were supposed to be trained to operate the refinery (at the time, it was said that it will be completed by mid 2017), but we were sent to a design company. These (designing a refinery and operating it) are two very, very different things. The trainers did not want us there in the first place. It was not a part of their initial contract with Dangote. Plus, they didn’t know what to teach us because designers are not operators. They were confused, several times, they asked us what we wanted to learn. But we could not know what we wanted to learn cos we knew nothing about the entire business. In the end, they reluctantly settled for teaching us design (skills we were/are unlikely to use cos the refinery was already 90% designed).
ME: If you say that the refinery was “already 90% designed,” and you were learning design in India, that sounds like your presence was superfluous. Was the company really serious about sending you to learn skills to run a refinery?
Mukhtar: Indians will run the refinery. It will take many many many years before that refinery will be populated by just Nigerians. It was strictly PR. Anyways, the training with that design company was suddenly terminated on December 31st. Apparently, Dangote had not paid them a dime for all the months were were being taught design. They didn’t want to send us back to Nigeria so they moved us to the Dangote office in India. The office housed the Indian engineers (around 150 – 200 in number) who were supervising the design work being done by the design company. Now, it is interesting that these guys were working and earning as expatriates within their own country.
But realising that the “training” was a blunder, the company sent back some engineers to train in an actual refinery. So what was supposed to be a 1 year training became 2 years.
ME: Since returning to Nigeria, is there anything else you have noticed about the project that worries or disturbs you?
Mukhtar: Yes. So we have only the refinery at the FTZ, but the company gets to import things meant for other branches of the company duty-free. As a matter of fact, with the Dangote jetty in place and a customs office right there, the company no longer needs to clear stuff at Apapa. Dangote empire effectively has its own customs and port, because we cannot assume that the custom officers stationed at Dangote’s jetty/FTZ are extremely meticulous in checking what comes in and goes out. Personally, I find this disturbing. No non-military entity should be able to import stuff that easily into any country. This is bigger than just skipping custom duty payment.
Between bank staff being fired at 10.30PM and refinery site labourers being killed by workplace accidents without accountability, the sheer grimness of the picture facing Nigerian workers comes into stark relief. It is afterall, an employer’s market, with several thousand qualified people jostling for every job opening, which creates the possibility and incentive to treat staff like battery animals.
Whether the Labour Ministry is willing or able to do anything about such blatant labour exploitation is anybody’s guess. Nigeria’s government is increasingly weak and unable to impose its will on the country even territorially. In the event that the government did take interest, there is a valid fear that it would go to the other extreme and adopt a lazy anti-business Hugo Chavez approach, as it so often does. The real solution if there is to be one, must come from Nigerian labour having a stronger bargaining position through an improved economy. Anything else as it stands, is little more than a sticking plaster.
As Mukhtar mentioned, even inside the ridiculous situation of being financially stranded in a foreign country at the behest of an irresponsible and insincere Nigerian corporate, the vast majority of the group chose to suffer in silence. They did so because spending a year abroad learning useless information, suffering deprivation and experiencing diarrhea after being forced to eat unfamiliar food was still preferable to whatever alternative was at home.
Ultimately, that is the biggest problem facing Nigerian labour.