Foreign firms, govt officials implicated in miners’ deaths

This year, the “failure” of the Mines Inspectorate Department of the Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel Development (MMSD) to effectively oversee quarries in the FCT has led to loss of three lives in three different quarries operated by foreign investors. 35-year-old father of two, Mr. Istifanus Yunana is the latest victim in the string of avoidable tragedies. He worked at CNC Quarry, Gos near Lugbe in the FCT. The worker’s union officials accuse government officials of lost focus of its responsibility, even as CNC and some foreign quarry operators boastfully engage in flagrant lawlessness. FRANCIS ADINOYI KADIRI reports

The quest for efficient inspection of quarries and mines sites in the FCT was again brought to focus following the third death in 55 days. On Monday February 24th 2O14, 35 year old mine-site worker, Istifanus Yunana died of electrocution in CNC Quarry, operated by a Chinese national, Mr Jack in Gosa district of the FCT.

Chairman of the North Central Zone of the Nigerian Union of Mines Workers (NUMW), Comrade Chinedu Nwozor said Yunana’s death was a result of the failure of the appropriate department of the ministry of mines and steel development to effectively perform oversight functions over quarries and mines sites in the FCT, stating that he got tired of over alerting officers of the department as they continued to be inactive.

Nwozor, who also oversees the affairs of mines workers in six states of north central Nigeria including the FCT disclosed that the death of Istifanus is the third death of a mines worker recorded within the FCT this year stating that government is at best “consistent in failing” to rise up to the responsibility of protecting citizens from hazards emanating from recklessness of foreign investors.

According to the Unionist, “Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), should not be at the expense of the life of the Nigerian citizen no matter the magnitude of foreign investment in the mining sector,” he said, adding that the NUMW was not particularly against FDI, but rather against the reckless abandon of the operators and the ineffectiveness of the Mines Inspectorate Department, a department he said has the mandate to check the excesses of operators.

“We are not against FDI, but the regulatory authorities should rise up to the task of ensuring that both local and foreign investors comply with the laws and regulations,” Nwozor said, adding that effective checks will end the trend of deaths caused by weak enforcement.

While describing the death of Istifanus as an irreparable loss which made widow of his wife and made fatherless of his two children, Nwozor tasked government to compare the worth of foreign investment to the value of human life. “No investment is worth the life of a Nigerian,” he said.

While saying that quarries should be located from places of human habitation, as stipulated by law, he reminded government that the law further stipulates that quarry operators should provide such facilities as clinic and a standby nurse.
According to the NUMW chieftain, “From its inception, the management of CNC Quarry has refused to provide various facilities and the ministry of mines and steel development has pretended to be unaware of it,” he said, adding that any ministry or department that cannot fulfill the purpose for its establishment should be checked.

“Between January and February 26th, we lost three different lives in three diff quarries,” he said.
According to Nwozor, the issue of enforcement should not just be about visits alone, it should be about effective checks, and then enforcement.

“When government officials continue to visit lawless quarry operators in their own yard without changes in the behavior of the quarry operator, it leaves us very surprised, because it means the visit is useless,” he said, stating that NUMW will be careful not to accuse government or operator of bribery, but that it is very reasonable to be surprised under the circumstance.
Lamenting the ordeal of Nigerian labourers, Nwozor said they have been denigrated by Chinese quarry operators. Contrary to the provision of the law and the terms and conditions of operating a quarry, “Indigenous labourers change their clothes under the sun.

What I mean is that there is no provision of restroom for them as he law stipulates; no conveniences, no lavatories,” he said.
According to Nwozor, CNC hates to give milk to labourers thereby reducing their lifespan. “The union only succeeds when we close their gates and demand for milk as a precondition for dialogue.”

“A quarry environment is not a place that gives rise to good health because the labourers inhale dust from stones not the ordinary dust you know, so it became mandatory that operators give a tin of milk to quarry labourers daily, but CNC does not do this, and government is  aware of it, yet pretends not to know,” he said.

“Our workers are suffering and treated like slaves in their workplace. The MMSD is the supervising agency responsible for enforcement of safety rules in the solid minerals sector but it shocks us that they are failing do woefully.”
While he commended the Ministry of Labour and the State Security Service for performing their statutory duties associated with foreign investment in the quarrying sector, he lamented that the MMSD which “licensed the operators have failed to manage the licenses issued to them by exercising effective oversight functions.”

According to him, “one of the reasons responsible for the failure of the MMSD is that there is too much friendship between top officials and foreign investors,” a situation he said makes nonsense of inspection.  As a matter of fact, it is citizen-workers who know the actual level of compliance, not the occasionally visiting inspectors.

While Nwozor agreed that the Minister of Mines and Steel Development, Arc. Musa Sada ordered immediate closure of a number of quarries during his tour last year, he lamented that it was unprecedented stating that such happened only because the minster was personally involved in the inspection.
Blueprint’s independent investigation revealed that Mr Jack is highly dreaded by the workers as he scared off a handful of staff who exhibited unionist tendencies.

Currently, the workers in CNC cannot unionise because Jack has banned it, a situation Nwozor said was in order to perpetuate CNC’s lawlessness unabated. “In CNC, Jack sacked all union executives because they challenged him too frequently as a result of his excesses. He believes in the might of police officers and immigration officials when the union goes on rampage.
A worker of the Quarry who spoke to our correspondent on condition of anonymity said: “They don’t give us gloves and we are not even encouraged to wear overall, but we wear them when government inspectors are coming and they always tell us the days so that we will prepare and wait for them to come,” said.

For fear of their employer, some laborers said, “I don’t know how the man carry die.”
Another worker of CNC said, “they give us one tin of milk on Mondays; they give us 4 tins monthly instead of 26 tins.” “If all the safety gadgets are in place, there would have been no death,” Nwozor said.

Zonal Organizing Secretary of the Nigerian Union of Mines Workers, Comrade Mustapha Yahaya said NUMW has been doing its best but the regulatory authorities who have the statutory responsibility of ensuring compliance is not complementing the efforts of the union. The government is not cooperating with the union. Chinese quarries here in the FCT are giving us a lot of difficulties but we are doing our best to match them. There are regulations but there is no effective enforcement,” the secretary said.

“No overall, no helmet, no protective boots in CNC quarry,” a worker disclosed secretly.
Kaura Ayuba, who spoke with Blueprint on behalf of the family of the diseased, said government should assist the family to get the due compensation due to the family as the diseased is a father of two children. “The owners of CNC quarry should foot the bill of the children’s education from primary school to university,” he said, adding that it is the best they can do to lessen the effect of their father’s death,” Ayuba said.

Another worker who also pleaded anonymity told our correspondent that “less than an hour after Istifanus died, Jack asked his workers to continue their work. According to him, I personally advised jack to stop work as a show of respect for the dead but he refused until he noticed that workers left the quarry.
“Chinese investors are only after their money, they have no sympathy for the dead even though he died as a result of their negligence, and while serving them,” he said.

Blueprint’s interaction with Jack was brief: “I am here to see you concerning the death of a worker here in your Quarry,” the reporter said while jack replied “I don’t have the time to see you,” and drove away in a Mercedes Benz jeep.
Barrister Ovansa Noel Anate told Blueprint that foreign investors in the technical sector such as mining ought to facilitate a transfer of technology in their investment process, but lamented that there is no such thing as Nigerian nationals are employed only as labourers.

“The Chinese even import their drivers from their country; all in an effort to ensure that they return to China as much profit as possible. For such reasons, Chinese companies exceed the expatriate quota even in the face of regulatory authorities” he said.
Deputy General Secretary of the Nigerian Union of Mines Workers (NUMW), Comrade Alhaji A. A. Suleiman further commented on the failure of government to address hazards associated with labouring in Nigerian mines.

The veteran unionist who was Secretary of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) under Adams Oshiompole after serving as First Vice President of NLC lamented that the failure of authority to effectively inspect the mines has led to untold deaths of labouers. “The Mines Inspectorate Officers across the country failed in their duties, as a result, several workers became invalids as they either lost their limbs, or hands, or both in avoidable mines/factory accidents,” he said.

“Unfortunately, those who are authorised to supervise the mining companies have not done so satisfactorily. For example, the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development has Mines Inspectorate Officers who are on salary roll and who should ensure compliance to safety rules. The union is at the grassroots and we know what is happening. So we were unhappy, and we wrote several letters to the ministry complaining about the problems. We wrote the ministry because we recognise it as an organ of government saddled with the responsibility of checkmating the things we complained about, but unfortunately they didn’t even reply,” Suleiman said.

“Though sometimes, they acknowledge that they received some of the letters and that they would do something about it, but up till now, nothing has been done about it. As union leaders, we made attempts to have audience with the Hon. Minister and even some of the Permanent Secretaries that served in the MMSD, but up till now that I am talking to you, they have not responded positively and we are not happy about it. We feel that if they are there for the benefit of Nigerians, they should not listen to foreigners only, they should also listen to those of us at the grassroots. As leaders at the grassroots, we have adequate information on the true situation of practices in the sector,” Suleiman said.

Federal Mines Officer of the FCT, Mr Sunny Okoya, who spoke with Blueprint on the issue said Nwozor sent him a text on the issue. According to the FMO, the NUMW should write formally to the appropriate office in the ministry and action will be taken.
“I am not a magician and cannot know all the things happening all over FCT,” he said, adding that he is reputed as a no nonsense man.

The FMO who further accused the NUMW of “overstretching its bounds,” stated that the NUMW is “supposed to be subsumed by the Miners Association of Nigeria.” According to Sunny, we are working with the Miners Association of Nigeria. So the National Union of Mines Workers should not be causing problems where there is none.

Responding to the death of Istifanus, the FMO said, “The fact that somebody died in a quarry along airport road does not mean that I should start running there. If he wants to champion the cause of the masses, he should write to the ministry.”
“If he has reported to the police, the police have not yet called me on the issue” the FMO added.