Following the uproar that trailed a recent online report by an undercover journalist alleging ill treatment and enslavement of its Nigerian staff by the management of a Chinese company, Inner Galaxy Group, in Ukwa West Local Government Area of Abia State, a public hearing was held on Tuesday at the Aguiyi Ironsi Conference Centre in Umuahia, Abia State by the members of the investigative panel set up by the State Governor, Dr Okezie Ikpeazu.
The public hearing which was intended to have the affected staff, particularly those in the lower cadre and other stakeholders to testify before the panel only saw some senior staff of the company denying any form of maltreatment of staff in the company before the panel.
Speaking at the hearing, the Chairman of the panel and Commissioner for Industry, Chief Uwaoma Olewangwa, said the intention of the panel was not to take punitive measures against the company but to find out the true position of things concerning the allegations and provide a corrective modality to ensure that the raised issues never resurfaces.
Olewangwa said the state and country needed the foreign investors and thus, had no intention to drive away investors but has the responsibility to ensure that her citizens were not subjected to ill treatments by the said investors.
Earlier in his submission, lawyer to the company, Mr Nnamdi Ahaaiwe dismissed the online report as unfounded and a piece which could have emanated from anyone. He however informed the panel that some of the issues highlighted in the said report were already being fixed by his clients.
Inner Galaxy Group presented some senior members of the staff who stated that the company has done its best in carrying out its responsibility towards the employees.
Speaking, the Head of the Medical team of the company, Dr Reginald Oparaocha said that since his employment in 2017, that the company has maintained a very high standard in taking care of the employees without any charges.
‘The Inner Galaxy Group employed me through an application I made on the internet. There was no discrimination whatsoever. Our discussion started from there. When you go to the hospital, which is for the staff, you will find out that it’s well equipped. And they treat their employees free of charge. Which other company does that in Nigeria?‘ He questioned.
Also speaking, the head of logistics and factory workers, Mr Ferdinand Okeke disclosed that there has been no known discrimination in the company. He stated that what caused an uproar as was reported by the whistleblower was as a result of fake news which transpired between the staff in the company and the issue escalated when they started agitating for increments in their salary without hearing from their employers first ‘Somebody I attended a staff meeting with told other employees that there will be increments in salary on the next payday which wasn’t what was said. This was never discussed until the agitation started over an increment of salary. It was later discovered that it was fake news spread by the workers.’
But Mrs Olewengwa made it known to the officials from the Inner Galaxy Group that the panel wasn’t comfortable speaking with the heads of departments but proposed to speak with the factory workers.
‘We will speak to the factory workers. Those people who do the real jobs and put themselves at risk but we will not let you know who we will speak with. We will have your nominal roll of workers in the company and select who to speak with. We have done our fact-finding and will continue until we resolve this issue.‘ She said.
Speaking with journalist afterwards, she reiterated that the public hearing wasn’t a probe but to ascertain what happens at the company and correct them on what they were not doing right.
When asked when the investigation will be over, Chief Uwaoma said, ‘In the next 10 days, we will be able to corroborate their claim and report on what happened. We have sat once, questions were asked and we also did our findings.
This is not a probe but a fact-finding mission to find out what is really happening and correct them properly and how they operate‘.
The journalist also spoke with Inner Galaxy Group’s lawyer, Nnamdi Ahaaiwe and inquired why the company embarked on a facelift immediately after the whistleblower exposed the activities of the company, he said, ‘What has changed is not on the basis of all that happened. What has changed was all that has been planned. It is just a coincidence that it is in this period. The complaints made were on the accommodation of staff and we have been very clear that when COVID-19 started, we did not have any accommodation for staff so we made an arrangement to accommodate staff. No company has the arrangement to accommodate all staff. We had a little guest house where people can stay during an emergency. About forty per cent of the Inner Galaxy Staff stay in River State and when the River State government announced that it was going to lock down the State which means that these would have to be accommodated.’
‘Even within the State, there was a curfew for the people since they run two shifts. Being a Chinese company and also owing to the fact that these virus started in China, they put in place strict guidelines for COVID-19 within the company. The fear within the company was that, the person is safe in the company but once you go out, one might contract the covid-19 virus and bring it back there which might put the company at risk. Arrangements were made for this pandemic period and it was decided that those who can afford to live in the company premises can stay but those who cannot afford to stay were paid N15,000 monthly which no other company does. In fact, most companies laid-off workers who were owed up to four months without paying them anything.
Those who stayed at the company earned their salaries, allowances and were also given a bonus of N10,000 for the first one month and N20,000, N30,000 subsequently because they did not know how long it will last. This is on top of their salaries.
There was no place to accommodate them so they were given temporary containers which were modified by putting windows, fans and all that. These things were done overnight. They also started building permanent lodges for the staff having in mind that this thing might happen again.
So what has changed is that those modern lodges have now been completed and the workers have moved in.’
When asked if the images of bodily inflicted injuries circulated on social media by the whistleblower happened in the company, Barrister Ahaaiwe said, ‘There were several pictures I saw on Twitter. The image of the person burnt was from an industrial accident which can also happen at other companies. The mischief the whistleblower made was not telling Nigerians that Inner Galaxy Group spent N6.9 million treating the person so he just posted a picture of a person burnt and claimed that the person was abandoned. The claim that the person was sacked with no compensation is lies. Industrial accidents happen not only in Nigeria but in other parts of the world. I don’t know how many people have been killed by Dangote’s truck but the important question to ask is ‘what does the company do?
The company has a fully furnished hospital on-site manned by qualified doctors and nurses so depending on the nature of the injury, if it is something that cannot be managed in the hospital, they take you to another of its hospital in Port Harcourt which is one of the five best hospitals in Port Harcourt. The documents are there which is to be submitted to the panel, the people affected have fully been compensated and there is a written agreement on compensation signed in February so these were the half-truths that made people enraged. The company spent N1.9 million on the person whose legs were crushed in a hospital in Port Harcourt. These were not revealed to the public. The other pictures of somebody flogged, we do not know who he is as it is a photoshopped picture. There is no name on the one on sexual harassment, both the person harassed and the person who perpetrated the act. There was no name on it and we cannot respond to fake allegations.’
On the claim that people were held hostage, Barrister Ahaaiwe responded saying, ‘How will the person be held hostage? That place is like a mini-city where over 40 to 50 trucks and trailers come in and go out. The restrictions have been lifted about a month ago but the workers will even refuse to go home if you tell them to, they all want to stay there because they are earning extra N30,000 to their salary. They are also getting free food, health care. So there is no way anybody can be held there as there are about 1000 workers with only about 20 Chinese so how will they hold them?’
On the issue of Inner Galaxy taxes not accrued to the government, Barrister Ahaaiwe responded that the Federal Government taxes the companies, and most of their Capital gain taxes are remitted to the Federal inland services.
He stated that the only tax that the company pays to the state government is the payee which is the ‘pay as you earn tax’ which is for the permanent staff. ‘Those documents have been submitted to the panel for inquiry’ he said.
Barrister Ahaaiwe was further asked if he thought the whistleblower was trying to malign the company since he has refuted all claim of an enslavement camp in the company, he responded saying, ‘I did not say nothing happened but rather they were half-truth. We provided the name of the person burnt as the whistleblower did not know the name of the person. We admit that it was an industrial accident. The person that his toes were amputated was also an industrial accident which I think people did not quarrel with it as accidents happen but what people had an issue with was the impression that the people were abandoned to their fate and sacked without compensation which was what enraged Nigerians. Anybody can visit there and ask them questions. The people who deliver resources to the company are there so they can be talked to and they will know if anything is happening there.’
Meanwhile, required documents from the company were submitted to the panel which said it would be submitting its reports in the next 10days.