INVESTIGATION: COVID-19 Infractions and Working Condition Inside Flour Mills Nigeria’s Subsidiary

By NGIJ Team of Oluwasegun Abifarin and Olawale Abideen

As the rampaging Covid 19 pandemic continue to wreak havoc all over the world, fresh revelations have emerged on the alleged coronavirus safety infractions and life threatening working condition by workers of Sunti Golden Sugar Estates Limited, a subsidiary of Flour Mills Nigeria (FMN) Plc.

Located on the banks of River Niger, in Mokwa, Niger state, Sunti Golden Sugar Estates Limited features 17, 000 hectares of irrigable farmland and a Sugar mill that process 4,500 metric tons of sugarcane per day.

At full capacity, the estate is expected to produce 1 Million tons of Sugarcane which roughly translates into 100,000 metric tons of sugar yearly.

There has been accusations and counter-accusations between the company and the workers since the news broke in the media last week.

For instance, the workers alleged that the management had decided to lock down the workers inside the farm without paying their salary or an opportunity to inform their families. Those who defied the order to go and inform their family were said to have been sacked.

The company is also accused of providing hand washing facilities only to places that leads to the expatriates offices, homes or where the expatriates frequently visits, while abandoning the Nigerians to their fate.

Before now, the workers and the community, it is alleged, had been having a running battle with the company over series of workers/community rights infractions which have most times, been suppressed by brutal force employed by police and other security men allegedly at the behest of the company.

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Joseph Umolu, Flour Mills Nigeria’s Company Secretary/Legal Adviser in his response last week debunked the workers’ assertion and explained that the company introduced a strategic response plan for COVID-19.

The new allegation by the workers include the facts that the company had been fumigating premises where the expatriates live at the expense of their Nigerian counterparts.

They also alleged that the ATM machine provided inside the premises had been without money for than two weeks now thereby putting the workers in extreme difficulty. This is aside the fact the suppliers and customers vehicles had been going in out of the premises without Covid-19 precautions.

Meanwhile, Samuel Iboroma, Flour Mills Nigeria Corporate Communication Manager explained in a mail that “our employees who are on-site at Sunti have all voluntarily decided to stay on-site and continue to work to further the company’s objectives of providing healthy and safe food for Nigerian during these tough times.”

And to ensure their safety and reduce their exposure to the virus, he added, “several measures have been put in place, including adequate housing, prompt payment of salaries and proper healthcare including two qualified resident doctors.”

On the frosty relationship between the company and the host community, Iboroma maintained that Sugar Golden Sugar Estates has enjoyed very cordial relations with its host communities.

“Like several of our investments across the country, we believe in partnerships and shared values. We understand that the sustainability of our business depends to a great extent on the socio-economic development of the communities from where we operate. To that end, Flour Mills Nigeria has, over the years, invested heavily in this regard,” he said.

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He also sent a letter of appreciation sent by the Etsu Nupe, Alhaji Yahaya Abubakar acknowledging the receipt of four thousand cartons of chicken indomine donated to the community by Flour Mills Nigeria recently.

On the allegation of poor working condition, Iboroma argued that the “assertions all wrong,” insisting that “Sunti Golden Sugar Estate remains the first and only greenfield investment under the National Sugar Master Plan that is currently producing raw sugar.

“Like most of our investments in the food value chain, we are creating jobs and empowering our communities through active collaboration.”

But some of the workers who spoke to our correspondent in the estate last week countered Iboroma’s assertion and insisted that no workers actually volunteered to stay as the stay on the farm order was imposed.

“They were asked to leave if they so wish and that no one will be allowed back in, which practically signifies intimidation. Both staff and casual workers here live practically in fear of sack as people are summarily sacked verbally,” one of them said.

On accommodation, the workers alleged that “it was not until a day or two that they started providing accommodation to workers, putting them as many as 8 in a two bedroom flat or containers in this heat period without any provision of cooling system.”

As regards Covid-19 safety procedures, the workers put his poser: “Why are there no washing points at the road leading to the junior staff quarters and containers? Why are there no washing points at the Factory Estate gate as well as the Portal-Cabin where they have kept many of the villagers who are workers?”

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According to them, what obtained presently is that all the points where the workers can have contact with the whites have been barricaded and “when it becomes necessary for a Nigerian to access those points, he must have to wash and sanitize his hands to avoid infecting the foreigners who themselves barely use the washing points.”

Iboroma however insists that all safety measures were designed to ensure that we can continue to maintain a safe and healthy workplace, including protecting against the transmission of Coronavirus and other diseases.

“We perform health screenings regularly and encourage high safety and hygiene standards.

“All our employees are advised to wash their hands, use alcohol-based sanitizers and maintain social distancing always in line with advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO), Federal and State Health Agencies including the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).”

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