The Dangote Industries Limited, promoter of the multi-billion dollars refinery project in Lagos, has said the federal government exempted its fertiliser plant from the movement restrictions and the ban placed on mass assembly across the country.
President Buhari had, on March 29, declared lockdowns in Lagos, Ogun and Abuja, the federal capital territory. The declaration was part of the government's efforts aimed at defeating the coronavirus disease pandemic.
But, PREMIUM TIMES' investigation published on May 26 revealed that workers in their thousands assembled daily in their continued operations on the refinery site, which is located in Ibeju Lekki area of Lagos.
The report, which is titled; "Investigation: Officials Indifferent as Dangote Refinery violates lockdown rules," exposed the non-adherence to lockdown and social distancing rules by the workers on the site, with its attendant consequences of coronavirus disease outbreak among workers and deaths caused by the disease.
But, in its response to the report, the management of Dangote Industries Limited shared a letter from the federal ministry of Industry, trade and investment, exempting its fertiliser plant from the lockdown rules.
The letter, which was dated April 6, 2020, and signed by the ministry's permanent secretary, Nasir Sani-Gwarzo, was in response to the April 2 letter of request for exemption from the lockdown rules by the Dangote Industries Limited.
According to the letter, the exemption was granted towards ensuring the "expedited commissioning of the fertiliser plant as soon as possible."
The exemption letter, however, advised the company to ensure adherence to the national and international preventive guidelines in the fight against coronavirus disease.
It reads in part; "As you are aware, it is the express wish and desire of Mr. President that the production and delivery of essential commodities should continue to run uninterruptedly during the Covid-19 pandemic, and that fertiliser falls under essential commodities that will serve farmers nationwide."
Workers' unions kick
Both national and international unions identifying with workers in the company have criticised the Dangote Group for what they described as the inhuman treatment of workers on the site, insisting that their independent findings revealed that workers were exposed to risks of contracting the virus without protection.
In separate statements issued by their leaderships, the groups - including the India-based New Socialist Alternative (NSA), Campaign for Workers and Democratic Rights (CWDR) and Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN), said they had launched a global online petition against the Dangote Group.
The general secretary of the New Socialist Alternative, Jagadish Chandra, said the exemption letter being flaunted by the group cannot justify the "inhuman" treatment his countrymen working on the site have been exposed to.
The statement reads; "New Socialist Alternative, which is affiliated to Committee for a Workers International (CWI) wishes to emphatically condemn this anti-labour attitude of the Dangote Group. Having a letter of exemption from the government is no excuse; all the countries are warned and they are bound by international laws to follow directives of WHO, which the current system of capitalism has itself agreed upon.
"This stand of Dangote Group is utterly reactionary to say the least. We, along with Democratic Socialist Movement /Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN) were the first to internationalise the plight of the workers of Indian origin at Dangote Group. We have initiated an International public petition not only to draw the attention of trade unions and labour activists around the world, but also seek intervention from the Indian government on this issue," it said.
The group accused the Nigerian company of "pushing the Indian workers deliberately to get afflicted with the virus," saying such action exposes the brutal nature of capitalism in general and Dangote establishment in particular.
"Dangote has not only violated international laws regarding workers' safety and welfare, but it has also shown utter contempt towards the labour laws of Nigeria which is supposed to govern all workers on the land of Nigeria, be they Nigerians or foreigners," the statement added.
On its part, the SPN said a video released by the Indian workers on the site seeking public help is enough evidence for "a responsible government to act."
The statement was signed on behalf of SPN by its national secretary, Chinedu Bosah.
"Efforts by our party to get across to some of the traumatised workers were frustrated by the company by denying us access. The company is a slave driver just like other capitalist employers in Nigeria. But they can be defeated. The only thing is for workers to have the confidence and organisation to fight back. Unity is also vital. Whether Nigerian, Indian, Chinese, South African or Togolese. A worker is a worker. All are similarly exploited regardless of the colour of their skin. Workers must reject the "divide and rule" strategy being used to divide them and unite to collectively fight back.
"We will not relent until the workers in Dangote refinery are free. We shall continue to campaign for protection of the rights of the workers as enshrined in the labour laws; no to casualisation, improved pay and working conditions as well as a safe work environment. We will also continue to call on the labour movement to take action by moving into the refinery to organise the workers, both Nigerians and expatriates, to demand their rights."
Also, the national chairperson of CDWR, Rufus Olusesan, said his organisation is committed to righting the wrongs on the site of Dangote Refinery and every other institution where workers are exploited.
Mr Olusesan wrote; "Granting Dangote Fertilizer exemption does not extend to Dangote Refinery since the waiver was given on the premise of making fertilizer available for farmers. It also does not give the company the right to violate the Lagos State Government social distancing rule which says that companies should run at not more than 60 per cent workforce capacity in order to limit COVID-19 spread.
"The exemption letter advised the company to obey safety rules which were outrightly ignored. So the exemption does not empower the company to circumvent decent work and place its workers in an inhuman environment as Dangote refinery workers are subjected to. Above all, the fact of the matter is that Dangote refinery and petrochemical did not merit categorization as providers of essential services under the quarantine act.
"From what we know, the refinery is still under construction. It is not producing any fuel products or fertilizer yet so there is no essential product it wants to supply. So, the exemption is not only fraudulent, it can only have been obtained through fraudulent means. Dangote got the exemption in order not to miss the deadline for the completion of the construction project so as not to disappoint its shareholders and banks.
"Ultimately, the unmerited exemption, fraudulent and reckless as it is, is actually meant to protect the profit of Dangote while exposing its workers to infection. That the exemption was granted all the same shows the double standard of the Nigerian capitalist state and how the capitalist class always cheats the system. It is one law for the rich, another for the workers and poor."