Jos — Private companies in Nigeria tend to take advantage of the country's high unemployment rate to remunerate their employees very poorly. Because employers know too well there are thousands more desperate young professionals queueing up outside their doors.
So as soon as the workforce protests against working conditions, sacking seems to be the first resort. The latest case dates back to only a few weeks when 1,700 young men and women who used to work for the outsourcing company, Communications Network Support Service Limited (CNSSL) found themselves overnight without a job.
"Our experience with CNSSL is modern day slavery," says Paul Afolabi, the union chairman of the sacked workers. "Our counterparts in other States are paid thrice what we are paid."
This is what was found out in 2010, only a few months after CNSSL opened a call centre for Africa's telecommunication giant MTN in the city of Jos in the Plateau State. The employees immediately drew the attention of CNSSL management to their finding, hoping their situation would improve. But after a year of being ignored, some of the employees started to get agitated. Not happy about this, CNSSL decided to sack 18 of them. The company's harsh measure calmed down the other workers but not until earlier this year, when the situation became unbearable.
On 14 March, individuals believed to be officials of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), an umbrella organisation for trade unions in Nigeria, picketed and stormed into the office of CNSSL. Their demand was clear. How come the employees of the call centre in Jos were paid only 37, 400 Naira (180 Euros) per month while their colleagues in Lagos, Kano and Kaduna earned 96, 300 Naira (475 Euros).
Following the protest, both CNSSL and NLC managed to come to an agreement. There would be a review of the salaries upward by 22.5 per cent. But instead of honouring the agreement, CNSSL violated the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding signed in March and in April they closed down the MTN call centre, leaving all its employees on the street.
This immediately stirred new protests. Under a blazing sun in front of the MTN/CNSSL office complex in Rayfield in Jos, over a thousand people, including employees, shouted their lungs out in protest against their unfair dismissal. They also complained about what they consider to be some unfinished business.
"This is injustice," shouted Gideon Pam, one of the sacked employees. "We have worked extra hours without extra pay under terrible conditions hoping CNSSL will increase our salaries as it promised us. It is wicked of them to turn around and sack us."
Termination of employment
But, although the closing down of the call centre happened in April, the formal termination of employment for the 1,700 people started only on 12 July. On that day, text messages were sent notifying them that the call centre in Jos was winding up its operations.
And it was only on 27 July that the employees received an email, dated by the way 16 July, telling them officially that they were no longer employees of CNSSL.
"It is very unfortunate that MTN is making monstrous profits in Nigeria, yet it has done nothing in terms of corporate social responsibilities for the communities from which it has been taking so much," says Dr Dan Meshak, an activist and convener of Plateau Intelligentsia, a group of young people working for the interest of Plateau State and the country at large.
The Nigerian government is also a major culprit in short-changing employees. Workers are perpetually striking because of the failure of some state governments to implement the minimum wage of 18,000 Naira (90 Euros) introduced by President Goodluck Jonathan. And although Nigerian authorities estimate the country's unemployment rate at slightly over 20 per cent, many experts describe the figure as a rather modest representation of the true picture.
A couple of weeks ago, MTN/CNSSL said in a national newspaper that the reason behind the closure of the call centre was insecurity. Many, including the Plateau State government, think this is a blatant lie. Because, besides the fact that the call centre is located in the safest part of Jos metropolis, near the Nigerian Air Force Base, it did operate and compelled its staff to report to work even in more volatile security situations in the past.
MTN is one of the largest GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) service providers in Nigeria. It contracted CNSSL to manage its call centre in Jos and other parts of the country. The protesters think MTN's intervention could help the situation. But it seems pretty clear where the telecommunication giant's interests are.
Obtaining a reaction or comment from MTN/CNSSL on the matter has proven to be, to this day, impossible.
Afolabi feels cheated. "We want our jobs back and the same remunerations with our colleagues in other parts of the country. Life is difficult without a job but justice is also important" he concludes.