Lagos’ cheese balls manufacturing company where slavery goes on…

1

Chinwe Agbeze, Retail and Consumer Business Correspondent, recently took up a job as a casual worker at a cheese balls manufacturing factory in Lagos owned by Sunlight Resources Limited. She narrates her experience in this report.

 

As I stood at the bus-stop waiting for a cab one Sunday afternoon, I overheard a conversation between two young ladies.

“Wetin happen? You no dey work for that company again?” one asked the other in Pidgin English.

“The stress there too much and the money is not worth it,” her friend responded in a mix of English and Pidgin.

As their discussion progressed, I heard the friend talk about the sanitary condition of that food-producing factory, emphasising that if one were to visit the place where the cheese balls were produced, one would never eat that fun snack again. She also talked about how workers there were made to labour for long hours for meagre salary.

Armed with this sketchy information, I decided to find out more and probably get a first-hand experience of what happens in that factory. My inquiries showed that the factory is a walking distance from NAFDAC complex, just off Apapa-Oshodi Expressway in Lagos.

On Monday, February 6, 2017, I arrived at the factory gate at 6.25am. It was still dark but I could see some people milling around in front of the gate and I joined them. They were obviously jobseekers like me.

After a few minutes of waiting, the gate flung open and we all rushed in. A fair-complexioned young man of about 35 years old sat on a white plastic chair. He was called Mr Paul. He had in his hands a pile of green cards each of which had the inscription: “Attendance/Time card. The Salt Lake (Nig) Ltd. P. O. Box 36485, Agodi, Ibadan”. He indicated to us that he would finish with the old workers first before attending to us.

He called the old workers one after the other and handed them their cards. Each worker took his/her card, signed on and wrote the date, and returned the cards to Mr Paul saying, “Sign card”.

When he was done attending to the old workers and was about to attend to new applicants, some old workers sauntered in. He flared up.

“Why you dey come now? This na 6.30am? Abi you no know the time you suppose come work again?” he asked one of the old workers.

“Abeg make you no vex, na the traffic cause am. I for reach here since,” a woman in her late 40s begged.

Mr Paul shook his head and said, “Mama, na every day traffic dey hold you for road? This kain tin no fit you. No dey do like this in front of these your children.”

He turned to another lady and asked why she wasn’t at work on Saturday. The lady replied that she had never worked on Saturday, but he refuted her claim, saying it was because of people like her that he received a bashing from the manager on that very Saturday.

“This na new year o! I no go take this nonsense from you this year,” he said, raising his voice a little louder so everyone could hear. “Anyone wey come after 6.30am when I don call the card finish, I no go attend to am. If you like, make you try me. I go just sack all of you, employ new workers.”

Pointing in the direction where other new applicants and I stood waiting to be attended to, he beckoned on us to draw nearer, brought out a long hard-cover notebook and told us to put down our names. While this was going on, the old workers changed into their work clothes and proceeded into the factory to commence work for the day. I checked my time, it was 7.01am. Three of us had put down our names when two ladies started struggling with the notebook, each wanting to write before the other. Mr Paul took the book from them and hinted, threateningly, that not every one of us would be employed.

To make things easy for himself, he separated those who had worked in a factory before and those who hadn’t. He interrogated those who claimed to have factory experience and those he was satisfied with their answers, he told them to put down their names. Then he inquired from them whether they had brought along their trousers and boots. A lady who said she hadn’t was sent home.

Mr Paul was about leaving when I pleaded with him to consider me.

“Where you work last?” he asked.

“I been work where dem dey do cake,” I responded.

“Which company be that?” he queried.

“Royal Bakery Limited,” I lied.

“You work night duty?” he asked and I nodded. “Okay. Write your name here and follow them,” he said, pointing at those he had just recruited.

Getting set for work

Having emerged successful in that brief interview, we were told to go and change into our work clothes after which Mr Paul gave each of us a white hairnet. Some were given dirty ones with the promise to change it later, but that never happened. We were then handed over to a young man who should be in his 20s to brief us on the company rules and lead us into the factory.

“Welcome to Cheese Balls Company, my name is Mr John,” he began, looking from one person to another. “Our GMP, which stands for Good Manufacturing Practices, is as follows: We don’t allow phones, earrings, bangles, necklace or even wristwatch here. No makeup, no long fingers and no fighting. If you fight, we will send you away without pay.

“When you go inside the factory, you’ll see supervisors who are younger than you; they will treat you anyhow but you have no choice than to respect them. You must be here 6.30am if you’re on morning duty to close at 7pm, and for night duty you must be here at 5.30pm to close at 5.30am.

“The lockers in the female and male changing rooms are not enough so I will advise you to keep your belongings carefully, else ‘they’ will do you welcome here by stealing them. We pay N900 per day. Any questions?”

We shook our heads. He led us through a narrow passage where two security officials, a male and female, searched us thoroughly from head to toe as if they wanted to strip us naked. Close by, on the right hand side, was a white sink indicating “Hand-washing point”; on the left wall near it was inscribed: “The hand protection/foot protection must be worn in this area”.

We moved straight inside to see another white sink labelled: “Drinking water point”. I saw people drinking water from that point.

Right ahead of us were bags of cheese balls travelling on a moving plane and a man monitoring the bags. We turned right to the packaging section of the factory where we were posted to. Mr John asked us to wait as we entered the section.

I saw young girls and women on the floor beside the packaging machine. They were aged between 17 and 55 years. The floor obviously hadn’t been cleaned in a long while and it left huge, thick dirt on the feet of those that chose to walk barefooted. They all had to place a piece of carton on the floor to prevent their clothes from being soiled, but those who had little piece of carton to sit on had part of their clothes soiled.

All of the packaging workers, called ‘parkers’, sat with their legs wide apart and a transparent nylon bag containing packets of cheese balls balanced between their legs. They had their white hairnets on. They sweated profusely as they packed packets of cheese balls inside the bag trying to match the speed of the machine to prevent a pile-up.

I saw some women sitting on seats made with cheese balls wrappers, while others just stood. Each of them wore an orange T-shirt and a blue head cover just like that worn in white garment churches. Both the head cover and T-shirt had ‘Fun Snax’ branded on them.

I counted 26 machines, each with two dispensing outlets. On top of the machines were men and women pouring in bags of cheese they received from men who emerged from the room opposite the packaging section. I noticed that the second machine in the middle row and four other machines dispensed 20g packet of cheese balls while the others dispensed the 10g packet.

A white notice board at the entrance of the room had the names of 12 supervisors and 12 trainee supervisors. Also written on the board were the Good Manufacturing Practices that Mr John told us about earlier.

Meeting Aunty Paay

While we stood waiting, a woman in the neighbourhood of 40s walked towards our direction. She wore a blue head cover and an orange T-shirt as well.

“Good morning. My name is Pat but they call me Auntie Paay. I’m one of supervisors here. If we watch you for three days and you no dey very fast, we will throw you out,” she announced.

“For the small bag, we pack 50 packets of 10g cheese ball plus an extra 20g packet of cheese balls because we are still doing our Xmas promo. For the big bags, we pack 100 packets of cheese balls and three extra 20g packets of cheese balls,” she said.

She brought out an A4 paper that had 36 tiny boxes and the number “01-7624872” written under each box for further contact. Pointing at one of the boxes she said, “NM is the name of your supervisor, DT is the date you packed the cheese balls, and PN is where you write your own name. We call this paper ‘white label’.”

She informed us that we must put this paper and a copy of the promo inside every bag of cheese balls that we pack.

“After packing each bag, you go over there and weigh it to make sure it’s within this range,” she said, pointing at a piece of paper gummed on the machines.

 

The piece of paper had a table showing the packaging style as well as the minimum and maximum gross weight. Some of the details read as follows:

C.B 50pkts (10gm) + 1pkt (20g) small bag, Minimum gross weight is 476 and 578 is the maximum.

C.B 100pkts (10gm) +3pkts (20g) big bag, 966 is the minimum gross weight is 966 and 1172, the maximum.

C.B Jumbo 50pkts (55gm), 38 is the minimum and 42, the maximum gross weight.

We were then assigned to different supervisors and work began.

First day as a factory worker

The first day I concentrated on learning the job to avoid being thrown out. I asked questions but not so much to arouse suspicion. Each machine had two dispensing outlets and two people packed from one outlet, making it four to a machine. Each pair were called ‘partner’.

My partner, Bose, told me to look around for a piece of carton to sit on. I found one under one of the machines and settled beside her. She gave me a copy of the white label and a pack of pink promo paper. I filled the white label, cut them in small boxes as I saw others do. I watched my partner pack one bag of cheese balls after which I began packing mine.

I noticed an Indian man in black trousers, striped shirt and a white fez cap pacing up and down, dissatisfaction written all over his face.

“Who is that man?” I asked my partner.

“Na the engineer wey dey repair the machine anytime e spoil,” she said.

The room was filled with the noise from the packaging machines, hand sealing machines and once in a while, a siren-like sound.

“Wetin dey make that noise?” I asked my partner.

She looked at me for a while and said, “Na one of the machines dey make the noise.”

Someone passed beside our machine, looked at my partner and I and said, “Aswani oh. Pack your market.”

Again, I asked what that meant and Bose told me they usually said that whenever someone had piles of cheese balls packets in front of them. Aswani refers to a market in Lagos where piles of clothes are kept on the ground waiting for buyers to come and pick from the ground.

My supervisor, apparently pissed by my talkativeness, asked to know my name.

“Dorothy,” I responded.

“You no see as everyone keep quiet dey pack. If you like open mouth dey talk, na when you no count each bag correct na when you go know wetin go happen,” she said, and as she turned to leave, added, “Move close to the machine. You no see as others siddon? Put your hand inside there, pack the ‘market’ (referring to the packets of cheese balls) wey dey under there commot.”

I looked at the machine, two A4 papers were pasted on it. One contained the packaging style and the other said, “Do not put hand in the machine.” I ignored her and continued packing into the nylon bags we were given.

Curious, I asked Bose how many nylon bags we were supposed to pack in a day and she said, “250 for the small bag but the big bag, we no dey count am. After we pack this 250 nylon finish, we go continue dey pack big nylon until e nack 7pm.”

I packed the bags of cheese balls which had piled up to weigh them. While I was weighing, I noticed some people were not weighing theirs. They marched straight and dropped the bags with those who sealed them, who were mostly young men. The ‘sealers’ sealed the small bags and used tapes on the big bags after which they dropped them on a moving plane just beside them.

I asked one of those who had just dropped hers without weighing and she told me it was difficult to pack the cheese balls without stopping the machine, then weigh it and move to drop it with the sealers.

“We have to rush back go siddon make our ‘market’ no full everywhere. If we see those people wey wear white (referring to those in the quality control department), we go weigh am, but if dem no dey, we go just carry am go drop am like that. But you go look well because if they catch you and weigh am see say e don pass, na wahala be dat,” she advised.

Quality control

At intervals, some people from the quality control department would go round collecting packets of cheese balls from each dispensing outlet. They disappeared with them and remerged after a while to distribute them.

While I was weighing the bags, I asked one of them what they did with those cheese balls they collected from us.

“I weigh them every two hours to make sure the weight is what the company wants. 10g packet of cheese balls should weigh between 9 and 10kg, anything more is high,” he responded.

“Na the only thing you dey do be that? Your work easy o!” I said trying to make him say more.

He merely smiled and said, “I check the thickness of the nylon to make sure it can carry the weight of the packets of cheese balls, I also check the water used in mixing the cheese balls and other things.”

Casual workers constitute 90 percent of workforce

I went back to packing the cheese balls and while I was at it, I watched the casual workers who constituted at least 90 percent of the workforce in this factory. Apart from the 24 supervisors, everyone else, including those who had spent five years in the company, is still causal staff and they all receive the same N900/day salary.

From time to time, some of the workers stretched and made faces to signify that they were in pain. There was no stopping or resting and it was a taboo to switch off the packaging machine. The workers were expected to be as fast as the machine, if not faster.

Just close to my machine before mine, an exhausted lady switched off her machine. The packets of cheese balls had piled up and were almost reaching the mouth of the machine when she turned it off.

Noticing that the red light signifying that the machine was off, her supervisor barked at her to turn it on immediately. Patience, a trainee supervisor, raised her voice and warned that nobody should switch off their machine unless they wanted her trouble.

As she walked away, a lady who was recruited with me muttered, “This is just plain wickedness. How I go pack fast pass machine when I be human being? I go still go weigh am and drop am for where dem go seal am.”

Her partner explained that the Indian who own the company don’t like it when people put off their machine; they would tell you to go home if you don’t want to work and that they are not begging you.

“Because of N900 una wan kill person. If Deli Foods gimme work on Friday, una no for see me here today,” hissed an obviously tired middle-aged woman.

My supervisor treated me harshly initially, but when she realised that all she did never got to me, she began to take it easy.

Break time

As we packed and sweated on the ground, the supervisors suddenly announced that it was break time. Bose told me to go for break and that she would go for hers when I returned.

“One person suppose dey around. Na so we dey do am,” she said and continued packing fast with sweat all over her body.

The mandatory lunch break was in two batches of 30 minutes each – 1-1:30pm and 1:30-2pm. No one was allowed to go outside the gate during lunch. Those that had money to spend made their way into the canteen while those that didn’t either brought their food or used that period to rest.

For as low as N50, one could buy a plate of rice in this canteen. I was dehydrated, so I requested for a bottle of water. The shop-keeper told me she sold only pure water (sachet water) because the last time she brought bottled water, she drank it all alone.

I looked inside the big deep freezer and saw only bags of sachet water, bottled soft drinks and few in PET bottles. I took a sachet of water.

When the break was over, we had to pass through the security point and were searched again. We went back to working and sweating until 7pm, our closing time. I tried to get up but my entire body hurt badly. It was as if 100kg bag of rice was balanced on my shoulders.

The following morning, I found it difficult to lift myself from bed because the body pains had tripled. When I narrated my experience to some of my new colleagues during the break period, they had words of encouragement for me.

One advised me to take pain-relieving tablets every day until my body got accustomed to the work, adding, however, that even though she had worked in the place for eight months, she still took tablets sometimes.

“Anytime I reach house, I go just fall for bed and sleep. I no fit do anything, to chop sometimes sef na work,” chipped in a lady in her 20s.

Another lady said even though she felt the pain, she was often encouraged by the old woman they called “Maale”, who should be close to 60 years but still works in the factory.

I worked this hard resuming at 6.30am and closing at 7pm for the first week. The second week I was on night duty, resuming at 5.30pm and closing around 6:00am the following day.

Restricted zones

I noticed that there were areas people were not allowed to go to into. One of such areas was the production section. Another was where the bags of cheese and cartons of cheese balls were counted.

I asked one of my new friends, Mojisola Abiodun, a mother of two who had been working there for three years, why those areas were restricted and she told me that anyone who was caught in those areas would be sacked.

“They no wan make person sabi how to make the cheese balls and they no wan make we know how much dem dey make. Indian people fit do anything, they fit kill you make am look like say na accident,” she said.

I decided that the following week, which was when those on my shift would be on night duty, was the safest time to have a peep of those areas.

Daring the devil

The following week, we resumed night duty around 5.30pm. As was the daily routine, Mr Paul called the attendance card and after signing our cards, we changed into our work clothes. We were thoroughly searched after which we marched into the factory.

At about 7pm, I told my ‘partner’ that I wanted to use the restroom. I sneaked into the section where the bags of cheese balls were counted and greeted the man there. I watched as the bags and cartons of cheese balls the ‘sealers’ had dropped on the moving plane landed where this man stood. He pushed the slow bags and cartons with his hand and they kept travelling on that plane surface until they were out of sight. I asked him where the bags ended up and he told me it was at the warehouse.

Looking up, I saw that the bags were electronically counted. A Jumbo display recorded the number.

The man explained to me that some years back they counted the bags manually, then wrote the number on paper, which created room for too many mistakes and made the job tedious.

I looked at the Jumbo display and saw the number “16,512” and asked him how many the machine counts in a day.

“We dey count up to 40,000 bags in a day,” he said.

“How much dem dey sell one bag?” I asked again.

“Small bag na around N500, big bags and carton na around N1,000,” he said.

I asked how long he had worked in the factory and he went on to talk about how hard the job had been. The first two days he worked here, he went home with the decision not to come back, but after searching for jobs for weeks without any success and with mouths to feed, he made his way back into the factory. Now he has worked for three years, hoping to get a better job someday and move on with his life.

Back to work

I went back to work. From time to time we had lots of men carrying bags of hot cheese balls from the production section into the packaging section which they passed to the people standing on top of the machines who in turn poured the contents inside the machine. On the bags were written “Semonila Azteca milling turkey. Made in turkey. Corn grits. Net-50kg”.

 

Around 5am, it was time to clean the machine. Bose climbed on top of the machine with not-so-clean dress like every other person and started wiping the top of the machine while I swept the floor. I asked if we needed to clean the floor and she answered in the negative.

“The floor be like wetin dem dey clean? See as e dey dirty person leg sef,” one of the workers who overheard our conversation chipped in.

We had lots of poorly-sealed packets of cheese balls lying around the floor and some inside a sack. I saw others emptying the packets of cheese balls inside a dirty carton. Bose said I should do the same for ours. I emptied them all inside an empty carton and asked Bose whether I should throw them away.

“Throway wetin?” my supervisor snapped. “Take am inside that room (pointing to the production section which is just opposite). No enter inside, just stand for the door. They go see you come collect am from you.”

Inside the production room

I got to the door but rather than collect the carton from me, those inside told me to drop it at a corner of the room, so I entered inside. The floor of the room was filthy just like ours. Apart from that, everything else seemed okay.

One of the workers appeared friendly. I asked him about the production process.

“We go pour the corn inside the machine, mix the ingredients before we go put am inside another machine. The second machine go bring the shape out. Some of the things we dey use do am na salt, groundnut oil, colouring, lecithin,” he said.

Pay day

On Friday, February 10, every worker was full of smiles. It was pay day, a day we all looked forward to. Salaries were paid every two weeks – after each 12 working days (excluding Sundays). The payment was done by the company’s recruiting agency, Salt Lake Nig. Ltd.

We queued up in front of a small office beside the female changing room and were attended to one after the other.

Most people that came out were full of complaints. One lady said they deducted N200 from her money “because of that common dirty hairnet” which she assumed should be free of charge. They also deducted N150 for passport fee even when she had told them that she was quitting.

Her friend tried to convince her to change her mind about leaving by telling her that jobs were in short supply in the country, but she was insistent.

“I dey go learn hair-dressing work. I no fit come die for this place. I almost fainted inside the factory on Wednesday na why I no come work yesterday,” she said.

She was not the only one leaving. Many other people called it quits that same day but the recruitment agency was not perturbed. Recruitment is a daily affair here. Hundreds have gone but more still come looking for job on a daily basis.

Labour reacts

Chris Onyeka, acting general secretary, United Labour Congress, said that any employer that makes its staff work beyond eight hours per day is actually in breach of the laws of Nigeria and should be brought to book.

“Workers are to work 40 hours per week which is eight hours daily. Any employer that makes the employees work beyond this as required by the law without further negotiation is actually breaking the law and the worker that works more than eight hours is due for overtime. If he is not paid for overtime, it’s slavery and criminal,” Onyeka said.

“The Ministry of Labour is supposed to intervene when someone breaks the law, but they are not doing that and because of that inspection gap, employers are at liberty to do whatever they like with the workers, making them work for unholy hours,” he said.

No word from NAFDAC

All attempts to get a comment from National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) proved abortive as Christiana Obiazikwor, its chief public relations officer, failed to respond to calls and messages. As at the time of filing in this report, she had yet to respond.

Sunlight Resources Limited

When the company was contacted for comments, Mr Yadav and Mr Nayada, two top staff of the company, initially did not take their respective calls, but Mr Narayana answered his call after repeated efforts but gave his phone to another person who introduced himself as a Nigerian working for the same company.

The Nigerian got angry when the questions were put to him and shouted, “This is not the right number for you to call. Call the management. You cannot be calling this number for this kind of issue.”

When asked to provide the telephone number of someone in the public affairs department who is mandated to speak to the press, he asked, “How did you get this number? You can ask the person who gave you this number to give you the number you are asking for, or go to our site and get numbers.” He ended the conversation in fury.

But Mr Yadav, who did not answer his call earlier, later called back after reading a two-paragraph text message sent to both lines on the subject asking for clarification. He had heavy Indian accent.

“But who gave you this number? Somebody from the right department will call you soon. We are making arrangement for someone to respond to you,” he said after he was told of the inquiry. As at the time of filing in this report, the said official had yet to call.

Also, the telephone numbers on the company’s website, having one Miss Esther as its owner, got negative responses of “This line is not allocated” and “Your call is being forwarded to another number” when attempts were made at calling them.

Culled from http://businessdayonline.com

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.