Last week, some customers who had gone to shop at Shoprite, a South African grocery chain in Lekki, Lagos, were shocked to discover the place was under lock and key. The posh supermarket was shut down by aggrieved workers who are demanding for better conditions of service and the over 200 workers decided to down their tools in what they describe as inhumane exploitation.

A similar action had taken place four years ago, paralysing activities at Shoprite South Africa and before an agreement was reluctantly reached and workers’ conditions improved, the grocery chain had lost millions of dollars to the strike.

Here in Nigeria, although no figure has been made public, it is estimated that the supermarket has already lost millions of naira.

Consumers’ Advocate’s checks revealed that the mall was still shut as the angry workers have taken their case to the Nigerian Labour Congress.

One of the striking workers, Mr. Jethro Ande, told Consumers’ Advocate that workers had been enslaved and the strike was the last option they had to take

According to him, “we work everyday, including Saturday and Sunday, Christmas Day, Easter, we work 365 days a year and 40 hours a week, yet, there is no sick leave or incentives for us. With all the money we are making for them, they are paying us N16,000 as basic salary and we receive no bonus. We will be here everyday until our demands are met.”

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Two days after, the matter took a new dimension as the workers accused the police of taking sides with the company.

The workers, after a protest march to the Nigeria Labour Congress secretariat, Yaba, Lagos, said the police had been ordered that “any of the protesting workers found on the premises should be arrested, shot and prosecuted if he or she is found alive after the shooting.”

The National President, National Union of Shop and Distributive Employees, Mr. Kelly Ogbaloi, who spoke on behalf of the workers, said “the Nigerian Police, currently acting on the orders of the Police Commissioner, should be called to order and his men advised to vacate the premises of Shoprite and allow the relevant government agencies to do their work.”

While the workers were busy trying to get justice by any means available, the management of Shoprite has reportedly already begun moves to recruit new staff.

Irked by the insensitivity of the management of the grocery shop, Ogbaloi cautioned that the management of the company should maintain the status quo so that the workers’ grievance can be addressed.

According to him,  “the management of Shoprite should stop forthwith the purported recruitment going on as there are no vacancies existing under the present circumstances. All parties should maintain the status quo as a prerequisite to the dispute resolution.”

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Ogbaloi further said that the management of the company has been having a frosty relationship with the workers for a long time. The high-handedness of the management, its continuous breach of labour agreement and its insensitivity to the workers’ welfare as well as harsh working conditions, have been pending issues.

“We have had cases of sick workers settling their own medical expenses and also facing grim prospects of losing their salaries if they were ill beyond 10 days. Some workers resume work at 6 a.m. and close at 9 p.m., while they work seven days in a week in a company that sells foods, these workers, who are forced to work for very long hours, are not entitled to any free meal or even rebates.

“Nursing female workers are short-changed during maternity leave and stand the risk of losing their jobs if they have complications during child delivery,” Ogbaloi lamented.

According to him, the last straw that broke the camel’s back was the denial of the incentive bonus. He said the union had agreed forfeiture of a day’s wage but said it would amount to double punishment if the management insisted that the junior workers would also lose bonus from February to April.

On the indictment of the police, the Lagos Command’s Public Relations Offficer, Mr. Frank Mba, said the workers, rather than collecting their retrenchment letters, picketed the company and prevented people from transacting business in the mall.

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He added that the Commissioner of Police, Mr. Marvel Akpoyibo, invited the union and the management of Shoprite to a meeting to find solution to the labour impasse, adding that while the management honoured the invitation, the workers were not represented.

He said there was no time the CP ordered that the workers should either be shot or arrested, but stressed that it was important that the workers did not disturb public peace and infringe on the rights of other law abiding citizens.

“The workers can go to court or other authorised arbitration organisations to express their feelings and press home their demands if they feel unjustly treated. We cannot allow people to break the law and infringe on the rights of other law abiding people,” Mba said.