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Working in the shadow of death

Workers can be victims of the work they do. This is the case of seven staff of the British American Tobacco Nigeria (BATN) who at the time of their  employment many years back were certified medically fit. But  have suddenly developed different terminal ailments after several years in the company’s employment. Omolara Akintoye reports on their horrifying stories

Mr. Folarin Shamsideen was employed in 2003 by BATN in the manufacturing department where tobacco leaf is processed and packaged into cigarette packs. His job at the Pneumatic Control Unit put him in the line of danger when it was discovered that most of the machines imported by the company were scrap, which have been phased out in other countries.

According to him, “Before the cigarette is packaged we have to examine it and in the process smell and feel it to ensure that it is well certified. In the process, some of us in the department became allergic to the tobacco substance and majority of us developed skin diseases. Also, whenever there is a breakdown, we climb the silo to fix it. Sometime in 2007. I started feeling some movement in my ears, I decided to go for test and have my ears examined and to my greatest surprise, a tobacco ball came out of my ear. If such can come out of my ear I wonder the quantity of tobacco that will be in my system. “Asked if the matter was reported to the management at any time, Shamsideen said.

“Most times when such matters are reported to the management, they are less concerned.”  Apart from this, Shamsideen revealed that most times they are subjected to manually push 200 kilogrammes of tobacco in the manufacturing department. In the course of doing this for five years, he discovered that he had suddenly developed back/leg pains.

Whenever we are expecting visitors in the company, management compel our department to stop work for 12 hours so as to have less dust and steam in the premises. All these he said went on for six years and in 2008” I was diagnosed as having chronic respiratory disorder. I started undergoing treatment at UCH, Ibadan. At a stage, BATN stopped their relationship with UCH in order to cut costs. Apart from this, because we have to put on boots for long hours in a hot environment, I developed wound on my big toes.

When I was going for treatment the healing process will start but once I get back to the factory, the pain will start again. I was also diagnosed of having high blood pressure which I’ve been managing for the past four years. I got to the office one day only to be given a sack letter. It was given to me after having worked with the company for 12 years without any compensation.”

Shamsideen was not alone, his colleague, Mr. Alabi Taofeek Adekunle, joined BATN in April 2004 as an electrical technician after having been certified medically fit. But due to the harsh and strenuous working conditions, after nine years of working, he has developed a problem on the waist and now moves around with a lumber corset. “When I initially developed the sickness, BATN thought I was pretending, until the company doctor testified to it that truly I had the disease. But when BATN could not pay for the treatment again, the medical report from the hospital was tampered with and suddenly my medical report from BATN Clinic read that I was medically fit which was not true. When I confronted the company’s medical adviser about it, he said he had to do it to save his job, I was surprised. Then, last year January I was invited for a medical evaluation, and the report said I can no longer work in the production department and that I should be posted to another department he said. “The company decided I cannot work in another department and even my salary was stopped without giving me a disengagement letter.”

After waiting without any help Alabi had to write a letter to the parent company in the United Kingdom. The head office agreed that he should not be rendered useless and that the Nigeria office should take care of him. This was not done. Rather than get a succour on a shoulder to lean on, he was disengaged without any compensation. Today his health is fast failing him.

Birds of a feather

For his part, Mr. Awe Ayodele, a machine operator, started his career with the company in 2003. When he joined, he was also certified medically fit and was working in the section where tobacco is being packaged. Four years later he discovered he was always falling ill. He went to the hospital and was diagnosed of asthma. The sickness according to medical report from his doctor was as a result of the heat and the dusty environment in which he worked triggered the ailment. “My department was later changed to Quality Inspection Unit but even that did not help matters. But the issue is in my course of working with the company for 12 years! We were not given any safety kits to work with and this no doubt worsened my health.”

According to him, he has been diagnosed of lung related disease and for him to survive he now carries a canister/inhaler with so many drugs, “Now I’m being rendered useless thanks to BATN after terminating my appointment without any compensation.” On the other hand, Mr. Ayodeji Da-Silver’s fate can be likened to that of someone who was used, and abandoned. Mere looking at him, he cuts a pitiable picture of a man in great distress. He moves around with the aid of a knee support. “I can’t walk for 10 minutes without my knees giving way,” he cried. In 2007 when he was employed, he was pronounced medically fit. However, three years after, he developed problem with his ligament. “Doctor said my leg might be amputated and rather than BATN coming to my aid, I was given a disengagement letter without any compensation. I was given two disengagement letters. In the first one there were severance packages, but before I was given that one, I got another letter where those packages were not included, so no compensation was given to me,” he lamented.

His case is bit worse because among all his colleagues who were “disengaged, he is the only bachelor and may remain so for life due to his health challenges. He revealed that the ailment which had affected his backbone made his doctor to be frank with him. The doctor said. “I’m too young to suffer the disease but it is a pity so many of us working in BATN are suffering from one ailment or the other and some are already dead.” He considers himself luckier than “the likes of Dele Shittu, Phillip and Arogundade, among others, who have lost their lives as a result of working with the company BATN.”

Others who have suffered similar fate in the hands of the company are Mr. Olushina Makinde’s who slumped on the factory floor a few years ago after working for the company for eight years, same with Mr. Winston Ofulue and Jokonla David whose appointments were also terminated after over 10 years without any compensation.

Between the tummy and harsh working conditions

While fielding questions from journalists on why they were still working with BATN after having discovered their state of health, they  said the company gave them assurance that adequate care would was be given to them in their course of work. “But it later dawned on us that it was all a lie that they actually wanted to use us and dump us after rendering us useless. Also, the fear of the unknown kept us there, as long as the work is still putting food on the table for us. We couldn’t look for job in another company because we are no more medically fit. Moreover, majority of us are family men with our wives and kids with responsibilities. We’ve tried to lodge complaints with them about the harsh and dangerous working conditions which we were all subjected to, but it all fell on deaf ears”, said Alabi. Speaking about the content of employees’ code of conduct, he said the company has three different types of the book, “no hazard was indicated in the first two which you will be given before you are employed. But once you are employed, another one will be given to you which you may not have time to read.” Therein lies the hazards, he said. He lamented that almost all of them are living on families and friends and they need to be compensated. “The fight is not for us alone, there are still over hundreds of people working under inhuman conditions.”

Most of them noticed that the company was using wrong and inferior nose masks which are not powerful enough to prevent the inhaling of tobacco flakes, they are appealing on government and the ministry of labour and environment to take a deep look into the activities of the company in Nigeria and compare whether they operate under the same international best practices that their headquarters do in the United Kingdom.

In an interview with the Deputy Executive Director, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), a platform on which the aggrieved staff converged to cry out, Mr. Akinbode Oluwafemi, called attention to the anti-labour practices of British American Tobacco Nigeria. He is of the opinion that these young men who gave their best working lives to a company they believed would lift them out of poverty have become victims of an industry that not only markets lethal products, but also ensures that people it engages for work do not leave its company in good health or better. He said, “Every employer of labour is obliged under the law to protect its workers from all forms of hazards and protect them. This is a clear negation of what the company claims to be doing.” He added that the goals of occupational safety and health programmes of a good organisation must be to foster a safe and healthy work environment.

Also speaking on laws that guide workplace concerning employer/employee relationship, Mr. Yinka Kotoyi, a human rights lawye,r said, “In common-law jurisdictions, employers have a duty to take reasonable care of the safety of their employees. Also referred to as labour law, these rules are primarily designed to keep workers safe and make sure they are treated fairly, although laws are in place to protect employers’ interests as well but this should not be to the detriment of the employees.”

Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, Kotoyi defined occupational safety as a condition that results from exposure in a workplace to a physical, chemical or biological agent to the extent that the normal physiological mechanisms are affected and the health of the worker is impaired, this he said is the case of these men. “And when such things happen BATN is expected to compensate them adequately. For example, employers cannot fire workers for discriminatory reasons. Likewise, they cannot fire an employee in retaliation for filing a worker’s compensation claim, among others. A minority of states also prohibit employers from terminating employees in bad faith, such as firing a worker to avoid paying a bonus or other benefit.” Said Kotoyi.

Dr. Eniola Kadmus, who works with the University College Hospital, Ibadan, explained that workers are not expected to suffer as a result of earning a livelihood. “BATN is expected to provide adequate welfare for their staff, it is pathetic that such things still happen in this country.”She therefore called for strict laws and its implementation by government so as to guard against such in future.

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