Dumping The Indigenuous Staff As The Baby With The Golden Tripod Factory As The Bath Water
By Ubong Sampson
It was in the news about a forthnight ago that representatives of Akwa Ibom State Government in a joint team of executive and legislative members, visited a factory in Uyo, particularly located along the Ikot Ekpene road axis of the state capital, owned and run by a company– Golden Tripod International Limited. The said visit, an inspection, brought about a sad outcome for the company which was subsequently ordered to shut down operations indefinitely. As law abiding citizens who have respect for constituted authorities, the management of the said company which specializes in the manufacturing of shoebrakes for motor bikes through the melting and refining of alumunium separated from mostly condemned motor engines, were forced to put operations on hold, risking whatever financial and industrial damage awaits the company as a result.
Triggered by the initial report that hit the media space to dig deeper in seeking more information about the company, I had, together with some colleagues, made for the company’s factory site a couple of days later. Gladly, we were able to get the security guard who was about the only staff in the premises, to link us with a management staff who accepted to come with his team to respond to the inquiries in our minds.
The reason for the government order, as we learnt, bothers on poor welfare and protective measures for the factory workers, as well as environmental hazard caused by the company through the heat blast and carbon released into the airspace from the alumunium melting process, as well as poor waste management measures. That is fair enough and a commendable effort on the part of government which duty it is to enforce environmental protection policies in ensuring strict compliance to same. However, the part of the story discovered not to be true is the angle that the company is Chinese owned, and subjecting citizens to slavery, as we were shown valid proofs that the company is owned by an Akwa Ibom son, Prince Ibanga Ekpe who clearly explained to us that he had only hired some Chinese experts because the nature of the company’s production requires the expertise that the Chinese have due to their vast knowledge and experience. Also, the company has under its employ, full blown adults who themselves confessed to the fact that they are being well and timely paid on a monthly basis for their role deliveries.
In a chat with the visiting journalists, some of the workers debunked the allegations that they were treated as slaves in the company. They confirmed that the management of the company prioritizes their safety and welfare and that their salaries are always paid timely. For instance, one of the staff who gave his name as Anietie Douglas, and an indigene of Oruk Anam local government, pleaded with the state government to reconsider its decision and reopen the company so they can resume work. “I started working in this company since 2017, and by the grace of God, I was able to get married and settle down. For me to work in the company for over five years without looking elsewhere, it means the company is doing well. When I came newly, the workers were given meal only in the afternoon, but before we knew it, they upgraded it to three square meal everyday. We started small but as the company is growing, the workers are equally growing,” he said.
Well, as it already common knowledge, the issue of environmental degradation and disregard to policies meant to protect the environment of host communities from manufacturing firms, has been on the front burner of discussions in the last few decades. This is not a situation perculiar to Nigeria alone, only that the developed world seem to have firmer policies and stricter enforcement measures in this regard. The Niger Delta region especially, has had the most terrible of this experience from the insensitivity of oil exploring firms. Communities in this region with natural sources of drinking water, as well as the ones which have their major commercial trade sources dependent on these sources, have several times been left to their fates upon the pollution of water by oil spillage either from the activities of the exploring firms or the illegal activities of pirates commonly known as oil bunkerers.
In these situations, there is always the option of ordering the firms to shut down operations, just as the communities also do have the option of stoping the firms from further operations through protest or frustrating them out of business completely. But then, these option will always weigh below on the scale when placed in juxtaposition with the greater economic disadvantages such as closing off a revenue source for government, and returning the employees to the labour market, consequently increasing the already alarming unemployment rate, and by extension, creating more idle minds with higher risk and vulnerability to criminal thoughts.
This is where and why the government of Akwa Ibom state, in the case of the company in context, needs to reconsider their decision. For a company that employs over 300 citizens consisting of ninety percent Akwa Ibomites, that is so much of a valuable baby to be wasted along with the bath water. While the government and the state will gain nothing in chasing the company out of the state, there is much to gain in guiding it through a standards review and improvement process, and letting them continue operations just to keep that crowd of staff employed and rewardingly so. As a suggestion, the government through the environment ministry and the environmental/waste management agency can set standards of hazard control and waste management for the company in its operations, while mandating its management under supervision and time frame to seek ways to improve its facilities towards boosting hazard control and preventing environmental pollution from waste disposal, as well as improve existent packages or model for staff welfare or subject the one at status quo to industrial relations experts who will then determine whether or not it should be maintained or boosted. In the end, this will be a win-win situation for goverment which would have succeeded in staying up to part of its responsibities to citizens, and at the same time, leave no damage on the affected citizens.
Good as it is, the management, while addressing and showing us around the facility, made no attempt at faulting the governmemt for trying to live up to its responsibility. The company’s director, Prince Ekpe while admitting that the company had erred in its operations by violating some environmental regulations, expressed readiness on the part of management to make improvements in every aspect they were faulted.
“We have already written to the Ministry of Environment apologising for the areas we did not do well, like in the area of environmental pollution. We promise that we are going to improve on the environmental standards. Another issue was about staff health and safety. We have also promised to improve on that. We will ensure that all our staff are always properly kitted. We have also promised to improve on our waste management.
“We are discussing with the Akwa Ibom State Environmental Protection and Waste Management Agency to see the best way we can handle the issue of waste management. We are talking about the air pollution, the solid waste and of course, the liquid waste. For the air, we will try as much as we can to reduce the effect. For the solid waste, we have not done so bad but we will improve. Then for the liquid waste, we will need to sit on roundtable and discuss the way forward because the government frowned at us evacuating the liquid waste into the drainage. But the problem is if we must evacuate it using sewage truck, we will be spending between three to four million naira every month,” he said.
Responding to why a secluded area was not considered in the choice of location, Ekpe said the rationale for the location of the company is power supply. According to him, the area links to the Afaha Ubeh power station and consequently enjoys between 18 to 19 hours of power supply everyday which reduces the cost of operations on the company. In addition, the company is also strategically located in a safe environment so apart from the safety of their equipment, the area gives the Chinese expertriates working in the company the confidence to go about their business. The location also gives the company easy access in and out of the state because of the frequent transportation of raw materials as well as the finished products.
Reacting shortly after conducting an on-the-spot assessment of the factory, the member representing Uyo State Constituency in Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, Hon Anietie Eka noted that having seen everything on ground, he would compare with the report from the relevant government agencies and ensure that the matter is resolved in the best way possible. Hon Eka reaffirmed that, in its final decision, the government will consider the interest of the over 300 youths working in the company to ensure that they are not thrown to the streets. “In a country where unemployment rate is very high and everything is considered poor, we cannot afford to lose about 1,000 jobs and especially going into and election year,” he said.