With many African countries taking steps into becoming self-sufficient economically viable entities, governments all over the continent have taken steps to ensure attractive, investor-friendly policies, which is sometimes, to the detriment of the indigenous workers.
In 2012 alone, there has been a spike in news reports around the continent about the workplace violations, like physical abuse, committed by foreign employers in African countries. Although many of these stories tend to focus on the transgressions committed by Chinese firms – due in large part to increased Chinese economic activity in Africa, which according to some estimates is expected to be worth at least $50 billion by 2015 – allegations against other foreign investors from countries like Lebanon, India, and Germany mistreating their African employees have also been documented around the continent.
For example, in Nigeria, following the numerous reports of abuses committed by foreign firms operating in the country in 2011, Peter Esele, the President of the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) called on foreign investors to respect the dignity of their Nigerian employees, and to adhere to Nigeria’s labour laws. However, earlier this year, a state branch of the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO) in Nigeria, filed a report against the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) which stated that: “nationals of some of the foreign firms [doing business in Nigeria] have been involved in the dehumanization of [the] Nigerians in their employ.” This report was accompanied by pictures that circulated the web, of a construction driver who was allegedly abducted and badly beaten by Nigerian soldiers at the order of the Chinese expatriate they were assigned to.
Other reports show that Nigerian workers in foreign firms are usually employed on a ‘casual’ basis, which essentially means that such workers are considered ‘temporary’ employees, who work for their employers without employment security or any job-related benefits.
A September 9th, 2012 article in Nigeria’s Sunday Tribune entitled “Nigerian Workers: Shrinking Under ‘Foreign Investors,’” sheds some light on the plight of Nigerian employees in foreign manufacturing companies. In the article, Segun, a “middle-aged” supervisor with a wife and three children, works for an “Asian-owned” firm for about 10.5hrs a day, six times a week, and is paid a salary of N30,000 or $160 per month. The article goes on to mention that Segun has worked for his current employer for over three years in a non-permanent capacity, and is still ineligible for any of the companies’ entitlement programs.
Other news reports suggest that that there have also been incidents where workers operating in temporary capacities in foreign firms based in Nigeria, who were close to approaching the stage where they would be eligible for “significant benefits,” were “unceremoniously laid off.”
According to an August 17th, 2012 editorial in Blueprint Newspapers, the temporary status of Nigerian workers in foreign firms is due in large part to the government’s inability to regulate the adherence of the so-called ‘expatriate quotas’ granted to foreign firms. The editorial further asserts that many foreign firms illegally keep their “foreign workers for as long as the worker in question desires at the detriment of the Nigerian worker,” even though the accepted practice by Nigeria’s labour ministry specifies that such foreigners should only be employed on a temporary basis, until a Nigerian with the requisite credentials and skills is available for the job.
In a country like Nigeria, where youth unemployment hovers somewhere around 40 percent, employees working under such mercurial conditions for foreign employers cannot simply pick-up and leave, and based on the provisional status of their employment, unionization to protest the work conditions becomes increasingly difficult. Irrespective of this, as highlighted by the Sunday Tribune story, for every worker unhappy with his or her present working conditions, there are always many more potential labourers waiting at the gates of these foreign firms begging for employment.
In this regard, although foreign investment contributes heavily to economic development, governments all over Africa must work to ensure that their workers are not subject to practices that for all intents and purposes border on modern day slave-like conditions. Furthermore, governments must begin to effectively regulate the expatriate quotas in countries like Nigeria, and companies found to be in violation of the existing laws, should be penalized heavily. Such regulations and safeguards will directly result in more employment opportunities for indigenous workers, and when instituted on a large scale, foreign investors will be forced to work within the parameters and policies of African countries with free and fair labour practices for indigenous workers.