Workers Of Rebecca Fashion Ltd Protest Poor Working Conditions
Workers Of Rebecca Fashion Ltd Protest Poor Working Conditions
By Chinedu Bosah
Workers of Rebecca Fashion Limited, a Chinese company that produces Noble brand of weave-on (hair weave), went on an indefinite strike on Thursday, October 27, 2011 to press demand for better pay and improved working conditions as well as against casualisation. The strike was called off on the next day, Friday, October 28, after the hitherto recalcitrant management was forced to promise to address the demands of the workers.
The workers are members of the National Union of Chemical, Footwear, Rubber, Leather and Non-Metallic Employees (NUCFLANMPE). They are fighting for (1) Staffing of all Casuals with proper condition of service, (2) Payments of Leave Allowance and Arrears, (3) Cancellation of Per Pieces Rates, (4) Increment in Salary, (5) Provision of Canteen in the premises of the company, (6) Provision of a standard Clinic or sick bay, (7) Provision of Ventilation and proper toilet facilities, (8) Sick leaves, other allowances and benefits.
Rebecca Fashion Ltd, whose product is a popular brand, provides some terrifying features of a slave camp; hence, the urgent need for trade union and pro-labour organizations to intervene. The company has a workforce of about 800 but only 29 are regular staff; the rest are casuals! Many out of the 29 regular staff spent an upward of four to five years as casuals before they were staffed, contrary to relevant labour law that forbids casualisation after a worker has spent three months in employment.
Workers of the company, a majority of whom are young people out of which about 70% are girls, provided heartrending tales of their condition at the hands of Chinese foreign investors and their collaborators at the Ministry of Labour.
The factory is extremely poorly ventilated. According to the workers, there is a production section with an oven but no ventilation at all. Most of the workers are paid a miserly N500 per day which adds up to N5,000 in two weeks but a worker could lose at least a day pay for the slightest error in the course of production or just a few minutes lateness. Hence many casual workers receive less than this due to the numerous deductions the company makes. This struggle has raised the question on the implementation of new national minimum wage by the private companies which are mostly sweatshops with poor pays. Unfortunately, the Labour movement has only focused on the public sector in the minimum wage struggle.
Besides, while public holidays are observed the workers are not paid allowance for working on public holidays. Usually they lose a day’s pay for compulsory public holidays like Independence Day etcetera. Some of the workers are paid on the basis of what is called “Per Pieces Rates” which means being paid according to the percentage of job quota done. The company, which does not have functional toilet, potable water, canteen or safety measures, does not pay workers for the days they are out of work to treat themselves when they are sick. This is also the case even when workers have accidents in the course of work. The workers are not granted any form of leave. The exploitation of the workers has been recently taken to an outrageous level by the management which levies the poorly paid workers N1, 500 as compulsory contribution towards the company end of the year party.
Many of these workers were participating for the first time in an organized industrial action, hence their excitement at the impact they had on a very recalcitrant management. According to them, they had threatened previously to go on strike but the management had always threatened to sack all of them or recruit new casuals. Usually the management would promise to look into their demands but that would be the end of the matter.
On Thursday, the first day of the strike, the management had repeated its threat to sack them all and in fact threatened to employ new set of casual workers on Monday. However going on strike as they did few weeks before December, which is the peak festive season for sale of weave-ons and other beauty products, workers were able to hit the company where it mattered most.
Also seeing the steadfastness of the workers who barricaded the front gate of the company as well as the attention of the public they were beginning to draw as one press crew after the other came to cover the protest, the management had no choice but to listen to them. It was therefore not surprising when on Friday, October 28, the management held meetings with the union leaders after which protesting workers, who had again barricaded the front gate of the company, were called inside the company to be briefed about the outcome.
It was a pitiful sight seeing workers, whose daily pay is a beggarly N500, being admonished by the company manager who allegedly receives between N150,000 to N200,000 to always consider the finances of the company before demanding increased wages. On casualisation, the company manager passed it off as a natural practice which is not restricted to Rebecca Fashion Ltd alone. The bottom-line of his speech however was that the company would consider a salary review as well as try to meet all other demands, not immediately, but in a month’s time! Negotiation between the union and the company on the terms of the salary review is supposed to begin immediately.
The Campaign for Democratic and Workers Rights (CDWR), which intervened in the struggles in solidarity with the workers for the two days of the action, calls on them not to rest on their oars but remain steadfast. While this is a partial victory for workers, yet only the constant watch and preparedness of workers to resume strike is the only effective guarantee that these promises would be kept. Otherwise the company could continue to promise workers all in a bid to keep production going during the festive season only to break these promises once the peak sale period has passed.
Workers must constantly put pressure on their union leaders to report back to them every meeting they are having with the company on the implementation of the promises made. Union meetings must be held regularly at the shop floor to keep all workers informed of the stages of the negotiation.
As shown by the Rebbeca workers, Nigerian workers are ready to fight against the poor working conditions and the monster of casualisation that is prevalent in workplaces in the country if provided with coherent and determined leadership. We therefore call on the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) to resuscitate its abandoned struggle against casualisation. The formidable anti-casualisation committees should be set up by the NLC and all the industrial unions and be made active at the state and national levels. The NLC and industrial unions must always ensure that private companies comply to labour laws. It is however unfortunate that the hands of many trade union leaders are bound by the “gifts” they usually receive from private companies at the expense of the interest and welfare of ordinary workers.