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The debt could spark a diplomatic row: Inside Indian workers’ 4-Year battle for their entitlements with Globacom

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For decades, there has been a mutually beneficial relationship between India and Nigeria in terms of providing highly skilled manpower to build businesses at a significantly reduced cost, relative to what it would take to bring a European or an American to Nigeria. Nigerian FMCGs, building contractors, telecom firms and professional consultancies have long looked eastward to the world’s largest democracy for skilled personnel who are relatively affordable and can absorb the inconveniences of living in a developing country.

There is also an old, extensive and powerful Indian business community in Nigeria dating back to the post-independence era, with some Indian-Nigerian families tracing back their time in the country up to 3 generations. Typically, when a story about Indians and Nigerian labour issues comes up, it tends to go somewhat along the lines of “rich foreigners mistreat Nigerians in their own country,” which generally turns out to be true as often as it doesn’t. It would hardly occur to anyone that such mistreatment could also go in the opposite direction.

When an Indian national reached out to me last month with a story about 40 Indian ex-Globacom personnel allegedly stiffed of their wages and entitlements, and a subsequent half-decade of international shenanigans and intrigues to avoid paying them including dodging the Nigerian court system and being effectively deported from India on at least one occasion, it seemed like something out of a movie. On the Nollywood side, here is an uber-rich Aka Gum and his willing henchmen doing everything from making false written promises to skipping court appearances to get out of paying their debts. 

On the Bollywood side, here is a small group of brave underdogs trying to fight injustice meted out by a wealthy man using nothing more than correspondence with the Indian civil service and belief in the ethics of a foreign journalist they have never met. This unlikely story somehow brings together elements of courtroom drama, political drama and police chase thriller. How could anyone not be intrigued?

Act 1: Billionaire vs Exploited Indian Workers

With a personal fortune estimated at $7.7bn by Forbes in February 2020, Globacom CEO Michael Adenuga Jr. (GCON) is very unlikely to be hurting for cash. His empire includes a majority stake in Globacom, a 20 percent stake in Julius Berger, a 5 percent stake in Sterling Bank, a majority stake in Conoil and real estate holdings worth billions of Naira among many other assets and holdings. Backing from this kind of wealth makes it near-impossible to hold his businesses to account if they act in bad faith, but that is exactly what 40 Indian nationals who used to be employed as expatriate staff at Globacom are trying to do.

Led by Alex James Murikan, an entrepreneur in Chennai, India, who worked as a General Manager at Globacom between 2010 and 2015, this group of employees is doing everything they can to draw attention to what they say is Adenuga’s refusal to authorise payment of their wages and accumulated paid leave entitlements before they were laid off on October 23, 2015. Having worked at Glo typically for 5 to 8 years, their contracts were not renewed in 2015, and they returned to India having received letters stating that they would be paid all that they were due.

Five years later, those entitlements are still being owed despite several parleys between the ex-staff and the company. On at least one occasion as far back as 2016, after the ex-employees got the Indian High Commission, Abuja involved in the matter, official communication from Globacom’s Head of HR came in, promising that payment was being processed and they would receive their entitlements shortly. 

Four years after this email was sent, it would seem that either the company was lying or Globacom must have the slowest processing speed in the world, no pun intended. Here is Alex telling his story in his own words:

“As per Company policy, we are entitled to 28 days paid leave every year. Many of us have unutilized leave balance which also needs to be paid. The Full final settlement includes notice pay & accumulated leave balance. Many letters, emails, phone calls have been made to remind Globacom of settling our dues pending for more than 16  months. recently, reminders have also gone to top  officials.

These include Mr. Adewale Sangowawa (Executive Director, HR),  Mrs. Gladys Talabi (ED, Legal), Mr. Bisi Kolesho (ED), Mr. Mike Jituboh (ED), Mr. Bjas Murthy (Commercial Officer), Mr. Sanjib Roy (Technical Officer), and Charles Jenarious (Communications Manager), however we have not received any favorable response yet from them. After we requested an intervention from the Indian High Commission, Abuja we then received acknowledgement from HR head, Mr. Femi Kolawole. However no payment has been received as of yet.”

Something that kept on recurring through my several conversations with Alex and his colleagues was the inference that not every senior person at Glo necessarily agreed with their treatment, but their hands were tied without authorisation from the very top. As long as the Chairman (Mr. Adenuga) refused to sign off on such outgoings, they would simply be left unpaid and there was nothing anybody could do about it.

Glo, essentially could well be the world’s biggest one-man business operation.

Act 2: Flashback Cutaway Scene

Researching Mike Adenuga’s business dealings over the years, a clear and unmistakable pattern of similar behaviour emerges. In 2016, it emerged that Conoil and another business he owns called Belbop were being pursued by several creditors including Baker Hughes, Total and British oil firm Vitol over debts totalling $140.5 million. Baker Hughes eventually lodged a winding up petition against Belbop at the Federal High Court in Ikoyi, Lagos, and an interim injunction on Belbop’s company accounts was placed pending resolution of the suit.

Just as Glo’s Indian ex-staff were promised their entitlements after a parley with senior figures at the company only for it to go back on its word without explanation, Total also found itself on the wrong end of this behaviour in 2015. Premium Times reported in 2016 that a meeting between Conoil and Total resulted in an agreement for Conoil to pay its $28.5 million debt to the French oil major which was developing the OML 136 gas field on its behalf. Instead, Conoil inexplicably refused to pay up  and work stopped on the development, leading to lost jobs and lost potential investment.

In May 2016, Globacom’s Lagos headquarters was sealed by the FIRS over alleged unpaid VAT totalling N24.3 billion. Going back to 2010, a N2.4 billion loan taken from Wema Bank by Adenuga’s Covenant Apartment Complex Limited turned into a bad loan after the company did not service it, and the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) was forced to buy the bad debt in line with its goal of maintaining stability in the Nigerian financial system.

Going further back to 2009, Adenuga’s Continental Oil and Gas and Conoil both found themselves embroiled in a tax dispute with the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), which claimed that they owed the government a total of $610 million in unremitted taxes. EFCC documents leaked in September 2016 also revealed that Conoil had failed to remit the sum of N1.03 billion to the government after being allocated petroleum products for distribution by the Pipelines and Products Marketing Company (PPMC).

There are several more stories like this about business entities linked to Adenuga, some confirmed and others little more than rumours. What is evident is that at every point in the story of Adenuga’s business dealings over the past decade, there has been what is beginning to look like a pattern of bad faith indebtedness on the part of an individual who could at any point write a cheque worth the total value of his debts if he so wished.

Final Act: Mumbai Police, Polite Deportation and Dodging Courts

Driven to the wall and seemingly out of options due to Adenuga’s famous intransigence, Alex and his colleagues decided to hit the nuclear button and write to Indian political, diplomatic and law enforcement authorities to see what could be done. In December 2016, the office of Indian Prime Minister Nanendra Modi officially acknowledged receipt of their complaint

They also reported Glo to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, which felt strongly enough about it to send a distinctly passive-aggressive official letter to Glo, requesting the company to settle its obligations to its ex-staff and threatening it with police action against visiting Glo officials if it did not do so.

Not even a chillingly worded letter from a nuclear armed government was enough to convince Glo to pay up however, and as Alex and several sources confirmed, Glo continued to plan its twice-yearly recruitment visit to India by senior HR officials. According to documents I sighted, one Mr. Tony Ighalo and another Glo employee simply identified as Mr. Donnie arrived in Delhi, India on December 17, 2016, which our little band of outlaws got wind of. They immediately notified the Indian Ministry of Internal Affairs, which promptly dispatched a letter to Delhi police instructing them to arrest the Globacom officials on charges of Cheating and Violating immigration rules by recruiting Indians without a valid license.

Incredibly, the two Glo personnel somehow managed to slip through the Delhi police net and on December 24, 2016, they arrived in Mumbai to carry out their recruitment assignment. Again, the MEA was notified and it promptly issued a letter to the Mumbai police ordering their arrest.

This time, they were successfully nabbed, and upon detailed interrogation, the police discovered that they had traveled to India on visiting visas instead of business visas, which violates India’s Emigration Act. For whatever reason, the police decided to let them off on the condition that all interviews for expatriate recruitment would be suspended. They were also told that they would only be allowed to recruit in India again if they produced the proper documentation and proof that the dues and settlements of the 40 workers in question had been paid.

Describing what happened next, Alex says,

“A group of ex Glo employees reached out to Tony & Donnie with the objective of reaching an amicable solution, however they were not in a position to commit anything as directives come from the chairman in Lagos. They also mentioned that they intended to continue with the recruitment process notwithstanding the communications from Indian police & Mumbai MEA. On 30th December, 2016 they left for Bangalore and based on our complaint the Bangalore police reached the venue at Taj, Vivanta, and instructed the duo to desist from recruiting/Interviewing. They left Bangalore on 3rd  January,2017 & reached Delhi & were met by the police in their Hotel at The Royal plaza CP. They eventually left the country on 5th January 2017.”

Or to put it bluntly, they were politely asked to leave the country.

Since then, the group of Indian ex-Glo employees has taken several alternate measures to get justice. At least two cases have been filed at the National Industrial Court in Ikoyi, Lagos, and in both cases the judgment was in favour of the complainants. Globacom however, failed to appear in court both times and has appealed the judgments.

Giving his view on the issue, Nigerian commercial lawyer Ovie Oddiri remarked,
“Employment contracts are sacrosanct and provide a foundation for a positive working relationship between an employee and an employer. Once an employee has carried out his duties according to the contract in a satisfactory and timely manner, he/she is entitled to their wages and it behoves on an employer to fulfill that part of the contract. This is covered by numerous case laws and statue in Nigeria.

An employee should not have to pursue their employer for payment of wages through the court systems or other non-official channels.

These allegations leveled against Globacom, the second largest telecommunications company in Nigeria, are serious and must be addressed in a proper and timely manner. We cannot to hope to attract the best skilled men and women and foreign investment and have such a stigma attached to our names.”

Post-Credit Sequence

I have spoken to numerous sources who claim that mistreatment of Indian expatriate workers at Glo is a common, ongoing occurrence dating back to the noughties.

Indian PM Narendra Modi is pursuing an ‘India First’ policy doctrine that seeks to project Indian power internationally and consolidate Indian wealth and pride at home. Mistreatment of Indians outside the country is a highly emotive and politically charged topic in India.

There are currently more than 135 Indian-owned companies operating in Nigeria, some of which include systemically important businesses in fields like pharmaceuticals, Power and Transmission, Retail, FMCG, Automotive, Heavy Industry and Aviation.

India is now the largest buyer of Nigerian crude oil, effectively making it a systemically important foreign partner with vast influence over the economy, as Nigeria’s government remains the largest source of liquidity in the economy.

Nigeria and India share a bilateral trading relationship worth $12 billion annually. A single negative change in its Nigeria policy by Narendra Modi’s inward-focused current administration could significantly imperil Nigeria’s economy by decimating already anaemic government revenues from crude oil sales, halting inward investment, destroying jobs and dramatically accelerating capital flight.

I reached out to Globacom to get their comment on this story, but at press time I had received no response. 

1 Comment

1 Comment

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