CONTINUED FROM LAST WEEK
Despite efforts to revive it and restart production of steel for local and export purposes, the multibillion naira Delta Steel Company (DSC) has remained comatose, writes YEKEEN AKINWALE, who visited the firm situated at Owvian, Aladja town, Delta State, in this concluding part
“When that place was flourishing, they said it was federal character; northerners were there, southerners were there, but when it was run aground, people accused us of folding our arms and being naive. We say no, before people accuse us again.” The case is still ongoing.
The communities want the court to issue an order restraining Premium Steel from continuing to take over the assets of Delta Steel without a valid sale and/or transfer of the company. Short-changed by AMCON and Premium Steel and mines management Former workers who worked at the plant between 2005 and 2012 when Global Infrastructure Company unsuccessfully managed it are demanding the payment of their entitlements.
The new investors will know no peace, they have vowed, until their debts are defrayed. At the time the new investors took over from AMCON in April 2015, the company had a backlog of seven-year unpaid salaries, which the workers say was calculated to be N3.2 billion – but AMCON says the amount is far less: N2.1 billion.
Other liabilities, according to findings, are indebtedness to contractors put at N2.5 billion, indebtedness to foreign suppliers placed at $4.4 billion and liabilities to statutory bodies and corporate creditors such as Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), which alone make up N12 billion.
AMCON, it was gathered, has settled some of these liabilities; particularly debts owed the Benin Electricity Distribution Company (BEDC), which recently restored electricity to the plant after seven years of darkness. The workers argue that the difference of N1.1 billion was due to the omission of some names and figures in the report submitted by the consultant hired to compute their entitlements.
They accuse AMCON of short-changing them despite their years of sacrifice at the company. Peace Oputu, chairman of Iron and Steel Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (ISSSAN), reveals that efforts to make AMCON adjust the figure to N3.2 billion were fruitless.
“We (the workers) gathered ourselves and met with AMCON. We talked but the meeting was fruitless because they didn’t agree to our terms,” says Oputu, disappointed in how workers have been treated by the Federal Government after the collapse of the steel company.
“They calculated certain amount, N2.1 billion as what is owed DSC workers, but we have EDP that takes care of all expenditures and all the money that comes in for the company. “When we met with the committee set up by Delta State government, we made it very clear to them that our money is much more than that.
“Then we calculated the money with the EDP, and came out with N3.2 billion. This was what we took to AMCON in Lagos. AMCON said their own was just to acquire; they had paid the debts owed by the company and as a result, they didn’t have any other thing to give us. “They were just going to part with N600 million, representing 22.5 per cent of the N3.2 billion. So, the meeting was deadlocked because we were not happy.”
While waiting for their entitlements, ICIR gathered that about 500 retired staff of the steel company died in the 13 years that followed, that is 2005 till date.
This explains why, when AMCON came to disburse the N600 million in March 2017, those still alive ignored the directive of Oputu-led ISSSAN and Steel and Engineering Workers Union of Nigeria (SEWUN) not to collect the money. Though it was obvious that they had been underpaid, the workers, who were dying of hunger and sundry illnesses, could not resist the temptation of the AMCON payment.
“Hunger is there, you cannot tell anybody not to collect the money. We the union came out and instructed them that nobody should go out to receive it but the next day people went out. You can imagine the level of poverty among our people,” laments Oputu. But ISSSAN and SEWUN are insisting on the payment of 100 per cent allegedly agreed by the unions and AMCON, through its receiver/manager. They allege that AMCON acted without consulting them in the calculation and payment of “25 per cent of their total entitlements”.
Adewale Okeshola, general secretary of ISSSAN, laments that AMCON reneged on the agreements reached at the meeting with its receiver/manager. “We later gathered that AMCON through the receiver/manager was holding meetings with some disgruntled elements within the workforce in DSC who paraded themselves as seeking the interest of the workers who have suffered delay in the payment of their salaries for over five years now,” he says.
“These groups, we gathered, entered into an unholy alliance with the management to short-change the workers in the payment of their terminal benefits. After a protracted wait, we were shocked that the workers had been paid 25 per cent of their entitlements as final payment.
“This is not only a far cry from the agreement reached between the two unions and the receiver/ manager appointed by AMCON, but also unacceptable. We want to say that SEWUN and ISSSAN were not carried along in this decision.
We have made several entreaties through correspondences to the concerned authorities to rescind this dehumanising decision and honour every agreement both parties reached for the interest of peace and harmony. Up till now, our efforts have fallen on deaf ears, thereby creating tension and restiveness by workers.” Efforts by the state government to intervene have yielded only little result, at least not in assuaging the worries of the aggrieved former workers.
A committee on Delta Steel Company Affairs set up by Governor Ifeanyi Okowa and headed by Moses Odibo, wrote to President Muhammadu Buhari requesting N5 billion bailout for AMCON to offset the salaries and other indebtedness so that the company’s new owners could resume produc-tion in November 2016.
The amount requested was not released. Rather, the President, it was learnt, referred the letter to AMCON to defray the debt since that is its statutory responsibility.
A breakdown of the sought N 5billion is as follows: N3.2 billion for staff salaries, N1 billion as part payment of N7.5 billion indebtedness to PHCN/BEDC, N198.7 million owed Nigerian Gas, N500 million for general supplies and N58 million to offset scrap supplies.
Despite these calculations, particularly the debt to workers, AMCON paid only 25 per cent of N2.1 billion that it said was the workers’ entitlement.
The workers argue that from the time when the Federal Government took over the company from Global Infrastructure Company till date, no letter was given to any staff regarding disengagement, retirement or any related matter. “Invariably, the government is not coming closer to us and we don’t know what is happening with this company for now,” laments Oputu.
“My members are working there because what gets to your mouth gets to your stomach. My people are dying in the township there. We lost minimum of three people every day.
When the new investors came in, they made several publications that they were going to turn Delta Steel Company around, promising to spend billions of dollars. “But today, that is not what we are seeing. If they don’t live on the account of the school; they won’t survive.
The proceeds from the schools are what they use to run the plant and one of the schools, school II, is grounded.
“We were over 5,000 when the company was working well, but we were reduced to almost 2,000 when Global Steel came in. Several people have died, more than 700 since 2011.” Jude Nwauzor, manager, Corporate Affairs of AMCON, did not respond to questions on the allegation of short-changing the former workers.
While he promised to get back, he referred the journalist to Joseph Nwobike, AMCON Receiver/ Manager for the company. In an SMS, Nwobike, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), said he would not respond to gossips and unfounded allegations.
“Thank you for contacting me. I really do not respond to gossips and unfounded allegations. The records are there for all to see,” he says. But when he was further asked to make the record available by this journalist, he went mum.
AMCON, though, says it ensured that all verified former workers who were eligible and also participated in the agency’s verification exercise were fully paid directly. Following their inability to liquidate the debts they owed several banks, AMCON took over the assets and undertakings of Delta Steel Company Plc (DSC)/Global Infrastructure Nigeria Limited (GINL) and appointed a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Ajibola Aribisala, as the receiver/ manager of the company.
However, in 2015, AMCON replaced Aribisala with Nwobike, who subsequently engaged the services of an audit firm to carry out a verification of the former staff. “At the exercise, only those who were staff of DSC/GINL at the time of the take-over by AMCON were audited,” AMCON says in the report.
“At the conclusion of the exercise, Nwobike engaged the representatives of the staff – an engagement that led to an agreement to accept as full and final settlement of their outstanding salaries and gratuities, a percentage of the verified sums.” It was, however, gathered that although the percentage agreed to be paid was below the workers’ expectation, AMCON says the arrangement was the best in the circumstance, seeing that DSC/GINL was insolvent.
According to AMCON, over 1,600 staff were screened and paid in the exercise, which lasted between March 13 and 31, 2017. Hunger, sickness, deaths…the plights of ex-workers “My wife dey house now, to eat dey hard us; na so so quarrel. I don’t know where to start from and I get seven children.”
That is the lamentation of Francis Agbonkaro, who worked at the plant as a plumber for 25 years. With three university graduates and four undergraduates and a wife to cater to, life has not been easy for him since his retirement in 2005 from the company without the payment of his benefits.
The whole family, he reveals, lives on the petty trade run by his wife in the Steel Camp – the residential quarters constructed for staff of the company. “Na my wife just dey do small small thing wey we take dey survive. I get seven children. Three graduate, four no graduate, dem don already finish secondary school because no money to sponsor them. I no fit calculate how much dem owe me,” he says. But he is happy despite his poor condition of living because several of his colleagues who worked at the plant have died of hunger and treatable ailments.
“Population wey don die, dem no dey fit talk that one. I even fit say the population wey die dem plenty pass people wey dey alive. Some house dey here, the husband die, the wife die,” Agbonkaro continues in Pidgin, apparent signs of poverty all over him. Still, he can be said to be lucky. His colleagues, Salami Omokha and Osifo Mathew, are already cursing the day they joined the steel company – they have lost their sights due to years of exposure to high temperature without protective gears as con-casters at the plant. Omokha, who also retired from the company in 2005, was a melter of iron ore.
“Melting has to do with converting iron ore, which has been reduced to direct iron, and then you convert them to liquid steel, you convert them to any grade of steel you want,” he explains. Before iron ore can be converted, the melter must attain the temperature of about 1740 degree centigrade.
That, Omokha says, was usually done by him and others in that section “and not that you have the safety devices to look at those things”. “Those are the things we looked at and today now we are having the adverse effects; we cannot see.”
Trained in Germany and Italy for iron ore melting, he says 90 per cent of those that worked there “have this problem I’m having now; the problem of sight”. “I went to Germany and Italy in 1980 and 1981 where I was trained as an electro handler, melter, and caster. I trained many people on the job when I returned, and many of them today are happy to identify with us now that we gave them good training.”
Life after retirement has not been rosy, as according to him, “the situation after retirement is hopeless”. “We are surviving through charity, particularly from friends who are better placed. My children are not grown up yet; even the ones that have graduated have no jobs. Our wives are the ones jumping from places to places, converting whatever they have to money. We are also hoping for a better tomorrow whether the Federal Government will remember us.
“We are not getting our retirement benefits. I’m in my condition now, the plant is also in its own condition; we don’t know who to speak for who. Whether the plant is to speak for me, because the plant is also in the same condition in which I am now; the plant is sick. “I wish the Federal Government can have a little rethink and come back to that place to see exactly what they have there. They should not allow it go fallow the way it is now. People are there now but nothing meaningful is coming out of there. It is like the government is not taking the issue of Delta Steel Company seriously.”
When reminded that the plant had been handed over to a pri- vate investor, he asks: “How can you give the company to a private investor without following up, without knowing its profile and without know what they are doing there? “The government is weak in this area.
There are so many of their projects that are abandoned. Come to where we are residing in Township, schools have been abandoned, taken over by weeds. It is a nonchalant attitude by the government.” On whether the Premium Steel and Mines Limited has the capacity to transform the moribund plant, Salami retorts: “Those are not steel makers; if they are still makers we will know. The same government that allowed them in is the same government that owes us.
“My health challenges are numerous; one, I cannot see far objects. Doctors told me that there are cataracts in my eyes and these are the manifestations of areas where we worked. Again, the pains are there all over. Many of the people that worked with us have long died. “Government should live up to its responsibility and pay us our money, our entitlements, so that we can also straighten our heads and maybe we can live longer. With better treatment, nobody will know that you are sick; meaning that there is a solution to your problem. We have problems and the solution is there; only that we cannot afford it.”
Of the trio, Osifo Mathew is the worst hit; he has been suffering from stroke and has lost his sight. With his eyes wide opened though laced with mucous to suggest there are problems with them, Mathew could not recognise his friends. Twenty-five years of exposure to high temperature as a con-caster at the steel company is responsible for his battle with glaucoma. With such debilitating health condition, he is also not paid his entitlements after retirement from the company. Looking straight at this reporter as if he could actually see him, he says, “I worked at con-cast. We started the steel company and I was retired in 2005.
But up till now, I have not collected my entitlements. I have problem with my eyes. In fact, when the eye problem started, I was first affected by stroke. “The eyes have been bad for the past four years.
They said they cannot operate it because it is glaucoma. “They recommended drugs and eye drop. I can see just faintly. The last eye drop I bought was N9,000 and used it for two weeks.” Osifo makes one final plea to the journalist: “I want government to pay my money so that I can treat myself. As you are talking to me now, I’m just looking at you like a film. I’m not seeing you; I can’t describe the shirt you are wearing.”
•Akinwale is a snr investigative reporter, ICIR, Abuja
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