By NGIJ team of Oluwasegun Abifarin and Olawale Abideen
At a time the Flour Mill Nigeria Plc claimed it has contributed over N2 billion in support of the efforts of the government’s Covid 19 relief efforts across the country, workers of Sunti Golden Sugar Estates Limited, its subsidiary have sent a Save Our Soul message to the government to free them from the life threatening work condition of their company especially as it relates to the rampaging Covid 19 pandemic.
Located on the banks of River Niger, in Mokwa, Niger state, Sunti Golden Sugar Estates Limited features 17,000 hectares of irrigable farmland and a Sugar mill that processes 4,500 metric tons of sugarcane per day.
As a bulwark against the Covid 19 death train, Niger State governor, Abubakar Bello had earlier partially locked up the state before he announced a total lock down last Monday owning to what he described as the abuse of the relaxation of the previous lock down.
The announcement has however put the workers inside the Sunti Golden Sugar Estates in a quandary as the management has allegedly decided to lock down the workers inside the farm without paying their salary or an opportunity to inform their families.
The sugar estate features 17, 000 hectares of irrigable farmland and a Sugar mill that process 4,500 metric tons of sugarcane per day. At full capacity, the estate is expected to produce 1 Million tons of Sugarcane which roughly translates into 100,000 metric tons of sugar yearly.
Enclosed within a 35-kilometer dyke, the production facility area is 15,100 hectares, with a cane area that features a maximum output of 10, 000 hectares. The dyke provides flood protection from the River Niger. Over N1 billion was invested in the state-of-the-art irrigation system that will ensure the efficient cultivation of sugar cane, with infrastructure that includes drain pumps, pump stations, and a power grid.
Our team gathered that the company ordered that no staff should be allowed to leave the company premises and those staying in close by towns and villages as well, were to provide accommodation for themselves within the company premises at their own cost.
A distressed worker in the farm explained that some workers who went home because they could not get a place to stay and had prior to departing their houses, did not inform families and relatives they won’t return home that day, were sacked by the South African born General Manager of Sunti, Mr. Andries Lauren Du Pisani
The company is also accused of providing hand washing facilities only to places that leads to the expatriates offices, homes or where the expatriates frequently visits, while abandoning the Nigerians to their fate.
Before now, the workers and the community had been having a running battle with the company over series of workers/community rights infractions which have most times, been suppressed by brutal force employed by police and other security men allegedly at the behest of the company.
According to one of the workers, the grievances had centered majorly around poor wages, and provision of amenities to the workers and the host community. According to him, just recently, the community had planned another peaceful protest to show their displeasure against the false claim by the management during the visit of the Honourable Minister of Industry, Chief Niyi Adebayo, on the issue of paying minimum wage, provision of electricity and water to the host communities.
Meanwhile, Joseph Umolu, FMN’s Company Secretary/Legal Adviser in his response debunked the workers’ assertion and explained that the company introduced a strategic response plan for COVID-19 to ensure that staff can continue to safely produce food for the millions of Nigerian families that depend on it for nourishment.
He added that the safety measures were designed to ensure that “we can continue to maintain a safe and healthy workplace, including protecting against the transmission of Coronavirus and other diseases.”
For Sunti Sugar Estates specifically, Umolu explained that in order to guarantee the continuous production of sugar which is raw material for so many other products and also ensure the safety of workers, the company decided to “reduce the risk of exposing the said employees since we do not have the competence nor capacity to treat the disease, all the said staff as much as possible are to remain within the premises.”
He maintained that the staff were allowed to leave if they so choose but for the same reason of exposure of other staff, they won’t be able to return until the requisite authorities advise accordingly, and the lockdown is relaxed.
According to him, there were also provision for adequate medical facilities with two qualified resident doctors and promptly pay salaries together with the availability of two ATM machines within the premises to cater for the financial needs of the said staff.
“We want to emphasise that our staff who are on-site at Sunti have all voluntarily decided to stay on-site and continue to work to further the company’s objectives of providing healthy and safe food for Nigerian during these tough times, Umolu said.