Host communities accuse Wilmar PZ of high-handedness, slave labour

Firm Describes Allegations As Spurious

Host communities of Wilmar PZ, owners of Calaro Oil Palm Estate in Akamkpa and Biase local councils of Cross River State, have risen against the activities of the multinational firm.

They are alleging exploitation of workers, slave labour and death of pregnant women and other workers.

Meanwhile, Wilmar, a subsidiary of PZ, has so far developed about 26, 500 hectares of palm estates, following a successful privatisation exercise during the tenure of then Governor Liyel Imoke, in 2012.

This led to the replanting of new palms in the old South Eastern Oil Palm Estates of Calaro, Ibiaye, Kwa Falls, and Obasanjo Farms, in its host communities of Mbarakom, Ekong-Anaku, Mfamosing, Betem, Ibiaye, Ibogo and others in the two council areas.

Not pleased with the activities of Wilmar, which has just started production in its new 45-tonne per hour mill, aggrieved serving and former workers from Mbarakom in Akamkpa Local Council and Betem in Biase Local Council, and others, last October stormed the State House of Assembly, during an interactive session with the House Joint Committee on Lands, Housing/New Cities Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources, with members of the host communities of Mbarakom, Mfamosin, Ibogo, Ayukaba, Ibiaye on one side, and Wilmar, Real Oil, Pamol, Enghurt, JV Farms on the other, to state their grievances.

Workers’ grouse include slave labour, no maternity leave for women, conveying of pregnant women and other workers in an open tractor in dusty plantation roads, no Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), and destruction of farmlands among others.

Accordingly, the House Committee on Agriculture and Lands Resources, led by Mr. Charles Ekpe, of Akamkpa State Constituency recently embarked on a fact-finding tour of the host communities in Betem and Mbarakom.

At Betem, some of the affected persons, including Mr. William Ojobe of Ibogo and others, accused Wilmar of destroying their farmlands without paying compensation.

They equally alleged that boreholes provided by Wilmar did not supply potable water.

But in a swift reaction, the Chairman of the Ibiaye Youth Forum countered Ojobe and his group, saying all issues raised against Wilmar were resolved amicably, and they had no problem with the company.

However, at the Model Mbarakom Secondary school in Akamkpa built by Wilmar, it was a different story. The traditional rulers in Mbarakom, led by Ntufam (Alhaji) Ibrahim Ita, who represented the Paramount Chief of Mbarakom, Ntufam Sylvester Etim Eta Agbor, the sacked women and other workers of Wilmar, accused the multinational firm of slave labour, extreme exploitation of workers, no MoU, no maternity leave for pregnant women, harassment of its workers, poor pay, non-staffing of over 3, 000 casual workers and many others.

The traditional rulers said: “Members of the CRSHA heard our worries with our investors and they came to hear from us. We have opened up to them because we are peace-loving people. We cannot destroy anything given to us by the government. We have grievances with our investors and therefore invited the lawmakers to come and see things for themselves and probably rescue us. The bone of contention between us and Wilmar is the MoU. Almost 10 years since Wilmar came into our community, we’ve not been able to see the MoU.

Secondly, our women are not given maternity leave, this is not acceptable.”

During the meeting, at Mbarakom Secondary School, where the lawmakers were in attendance, some protesting women and former workers carried several placards with different inscriptions.

Some of the placards read: “Is it a crime for a pregnant woman to demand maternity leave?” “Stop harassing us with the army and police, implement our working rights.” And “Enough of exploitation by a man in Calaro Oil Estate;” “Commissioner of Police, Cross River State House of Assembly, save our souls;” “Your investing in Nigeria was for development and not to use our blood to maximise profit.”

“I have been a worker with Wilmar since 2012. There is nothing like maternity leave and women go with tractors to work in massive plantations. Many of them lost their lives because of stress,” leader of the women, Patience Edet Etim alleged.

“There is neither maternity leave nor leave allowance. There’s no workers’ union in Wilmar. The only one that existed merged both the field workers and managerial staff. As such, when the field workers have problems, there is no one to speak for them or solve their problems. Some workers that decided to speak out have been sacked. I was served a sack letter because I went to the House of Assembly to complain about the company’s ill-treatment of women.

“No fewer than 50 women have died in this company because of hard jobs since 2012.”

Leader of the casual workers in the estate, Ifejom Felix Bassey, said: “We have about 3, 000 workers in Wilmar plantation, Mbarakom. During my stay, I heard what they called Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), which no worker has read or study. Here in the estate, we’ve lost many persons to accidents. The other day, a truck capsized into the river and many people died, including a pregnant woman. Wilmar only paid N50, 000 as compensation to the bereaved family.

“We are faced with many challenges and the workers don’t have a say. We work as slaves in our community. During the era of N18, 000 minimum wage, we were paid N444 per day, minus public holidays. The management said we were ad-hoc workers and could be sacked anytime.”

At Wilmar’s office in the estate, where the lawmakers had a closed-door meeting with the management, journalists and protesting workers were asked to stay out. After the meeting, Wilmar’s management refused to speak.

Its Safety Manager, Mr. Asen Ako, said they were not permitted to talk to the press.

During their earlier meeting with the House Committee in Calabar, Wilmar’s Controller, Sustainability for Africa, Mr. Isaac Mensah denied allegation of workers’ exploitation, saying; “As our Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), we have our community development initiatives, which we have done much in education, provision of potable water and other projects. The company has had a good working relationship with its staff. All our workers go on leave, as it is in our condition of service. The issue of poor treatment of staff is completely false…Some individuals were dismissed due to violent conduct.

“On education, we have rehabilitated schools in Mbarakom and Aningeje, where we built well-equipped staff quarters, provided water and other facilities. We intend to replicate this in all our host communities. So, our investment in schools stands at $1.5m and we have provided 180 scholarships. Wilmar also provided boreholes in 19 out of its 20 communities as well as medical assistance. We also constructed 130 km of roads.”

He further said the company had implemented 100 per cent of the MoU it signed with the government, except that the other parties have not done theirs, like the provision of electricity. “We generate our power,” he said.

The Chairman House Committee on Agriculture and Land resources, who is also a member representing Akamkpa State Constituency, Mr. Charles Ekpe, after the closed-door meeting, said: “We have come for this oversight function because we got complaints about Willmar and its host community. We’ve met with Wilmar managerial team and we were assured that all the issues raised would be addressed accordingly.

On the issue of maternity leave, he said: “Wilmar disclosed to us that staff refused to go for leave because of money. Now that we have got the basic facts from different groups, we will fix a day to meet and have a round-table discussion with the landlords, dismissed workers and Wilmar management. Also, Willmar has promised to start paying the new minimum wage in compliance with the Federal Government’s policy.”

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