Friday, August 5, 2016

The anger in their voices was palpable. Four Nigerians, who worked, until recently, with an Indian company – Stallion Motors Limited – in Calabar, Cross River State, are furious. They are angry over an alleged injustice that they claim the company meted out to them.

The aggrieved workers, Oluropo Peter Salabiu, Christopher Idris, Idowu Obafemi and Friday Aniete, were on April 29, 2016, relieved of their duties by the management of the company where they had worked for many years.

Their only offence, as clearly stated in their disengagement letters, was that Nigeria’s economy was in recession.

According to the workers, they were not only sacked, they were also harassed and humiliated. They alleged that they were treated like common criminals even though they only demanded to know why their services were abruptly and unjustly terminated.

The letter, dated April 28, 2016 and signed by the Human Resource/Administration Manager, read in part: "In view of the continued prevailing economic constraints in the country, which is affecting our group’s businesses, we have no alternative than to reduce our workforce, in order to meet up with the current economic situation.

"Consequently, your appointment with the company is hereby terminated with effect from April 30, 2016.

"In accordance with this, you are requested to handover all the company’s property in your possession to the HR/Admin Department before the settlement of your final payment, if any, into your bank account."

Salabiu told the reporter that when he was handed the cruel letter, he almost collapsed. It was like a bitter pill that was so difficult for him to swallow, he lamented.

"There was no warning, notice, explanations or whatsoever about my sack. It came at a time none of us expected it. When we asked why we were sacked, they instructed the security men to push us out of the company’s premises," he said.

He expressed disbelief that a company he served for eight years could send him packing in such a humiliating manner without any offence.

Recalling what transpired on that fateful day, Salabiu alleged that immediately his colleagues and he received the termination letters, and after surrendering the company's property in their possession, the administration officer and a certain Indian man told the company’s security men to deny them access to the premises.

His words: "They knew that their action was wicked, and they thought we were going to make trouble with them. Immediately, the security men walked us out of the company. While we were still roaming around the company, one of the top management staff told us to take legal action if we were not satisfied at the end of the day."

Before they were laid off, he claimed that that they were heads in their various departments. While Salabiu headed the spray painting section, Idris was head of the panel beating department. Aniete, it was gathered, headed the mechanical section and Obafemi was in charge of air conditioning section.

As the four battled for their entitlements from the company, they said they got another shocker. Idris, who worked with the company for close to 11 years, said he received a bank alert of about N450, 000 from the company, as his pay-off for his decade of labour. Salabiu’s was worse. He told the reporter that got a little above N300, 000.

Annoyed by the amount given to them, as their total benefits, they said they went out of their way to find out the exact money they were entitled to. Idris said someone that should know told them that he was entitled to N2.6 million while Salabiu’s entitlements should have been N2.7 million.

Armed with the information, they went back to the company and requested that their exact benefits be paid. But all their explanations were countered by the company’s management, which insisted that they had been paid all that they were entitled to.

Salabiu said: "It is this work that brought me from Lagos to Calabar since 2008. My family members came with me when the company transferred me here. We confronted them, but they insisted that the money paid was all they owed us."

He said while the argument went on for days, he got a call from a top management staff at the Lagos head office. He said the senior manager advised him to accept his fate and should not take any legal action, which would amount to sheer waste of scarce resources at the end of the day.

Said he: "The person said Stallion has money to pay its lawyers, but that we have no money to hire lawyers to defend us. I told her we had already decided to get justice no matter what it might cost us. Then, the administration manager in Calabar branch told us that we had already failed. He said we would waste the small money the company paid us. They mocked us, saying that the money that was not enough for us to eat was what we were going to waste in the hands of lawyers. He said nothing would happen at the end of the day."

Also lamenting, Idris said he felt bad and was confused as to how he was going to eke out a living, having been dismissed by his former employer.

"I have five children plus their mother to look after. I pay N300, 000 annual rent for my house. The money they paid me can’t solve any of my problems. How can the seven of us survive? We are not slaves and shouldn’t be treated like one," he stated.

Idris said in his ten years and four months of serving the company, he gave all his heart to the company and never expected to be pushed out like that without a cause.

He said the company should pay the full entitlements of the sacked workers since they had decided to lay them off.

He spoke further: "When I came to Calabar branch, the company didn’t make any preparation for us. For three months, we lived like prisoners. They asked us to lodge in a hotel and that they would reimburse us, but till today, they have not paid the money. They also refused to pay the transportation money to relocate from my former branch.

"At a point, when they felt that we were complaining too much then, they threatened to sack us. That was why many of us kept quiet. The handbook where our rights are contained was hidden from us until we embarked on a strike. They had always told us that we should bear whatever we see, that there were many Nigerians out there searching for jobs."

Representing Salabiu and his three colleagues, who are now united by fate and frustration, their lawyer, Prof. Tony Ukam, described the company’s action as totally unacceptable.

In a chat with Daily Sun, he said the manner at which his clients were relieved of their services called for concern. He said Stallion defaulted for not duly adhering to the conditions of service while laying off its clients.

"This is the same company some of them had spent over 10 years. They were actually the backbones in their various departments. They didn’t get a query or notice before the sack," he said.

Ukam told the reporter that it was dehumanising for the sacked workers to be pushed out of the company's premises. He alleged that Stallion so much exploited his clients that they could not just let go. He said it became more insulting when a foreign company was the one subjecting Nigerians to such punishment in their own country.

According to him: "You may suffer all these injustice in their country, but certainly not in your own country. Employers must follow the rules of employment while sacking their employees."

He said his clients were entitled to so many unpaid benefits. He revealed how the company sometime ago, "craftily" used his clients to train some unskilled new employees with a hidden intention that the new employees would take over from the trainers. He was annoyed that no special allowance was given them for the extra service.

"The person you are using to train another ought to know the purpose he was rendering the service," Ukam said.

He vowed to take up the case in court and assured that justice would prevail in due course.

But the company has debunked the claims of the workers. A letter written by the company's solicitors, Bonajo Badejo and Co., dated May 25, 2016 and addressed to Ukam, stated that the company had paid all entitlements that were due to the aggrieved workers in accordance with the terms and conditions of their contract of agreement, describing their claims as strange. The solicitors added that the allegations were false and baseless.

The letter partly reads: "Our client denies the allegation that your clients (Salabiu, Idris, Aniete and Obafemi) were humiliated and harassed out of its premises by security men upon its instructions. Our client merely exercised its right to terminate the contract of employment in accordance with the terms and conditions of the said contract.

"It is important at this stage to correct the erroneous impression, which features prominently in your letter to us that your clients were senior staff as at the time their employments were terminated. Our client maintains that your clients were within the cadre of grade 0004 to 0006 and none of them was a senior staff within the cadre of 6007 to 0009 as alleged.

"Consequently, your clients were not entitled to the benefits accruable to senior staff. They were only covered by the provisions, relating to staff within the cadre of grade 0004 to 0006, according to which their entitlements were duly paid."