Slaves in their Country: Exodus of Nigerians from StarTimes Sparks Debate

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In what they attributed to racial discrimination, five top Nigerian staff and others have in recent times resigned from the Chinese-owned pay-television company, StarTimes. In this report, Raheem Akingbolu digs into the issues behind their resignation

On July 29, 2010, StarTimes entered the Nigerian broadcasting industry through a joint venture between StarTimes, a China pay TV company, and NTA-Star TV Network Ltd. The brand promise at the inception was that the new platform would democratise the pay TV industry and give Nigerians, who had been denied affordable entertainment, an unlimited access to enjoyable and affordable pay TV. It was cheering news. Nigerians were excited. They celebrated the arrival of what they thought would change their entertainment world in their various homes and places of work.

 

Discrimination 

But for some Nigerians, who were perhaps privy to the relationship between some Chinese firms in Nigeria and their workers, the offering was seen as a Greek gift.  Those who nursed this sentiment were always quick to refer to what was tagged “voluntary slavery” in Chinese companies, where Nigerians earn between N10, 000 to N15, 000, monthly.

Seven years down the line, those who expressed the fear appear to have been vindicated. Barely a year after the company was established, some Nigerians within complained that they were not accorded the same respect as their Chinese counterparts. Among other things, they claimed that Nigerian top engineers, regardless of their positions, didn’t have access to some places in the company, especially the server room.  

Among stakeholders in the broadcast industry, there was also a campaign in the early days of the company to highlight an allegation that the joint ownership of the company was a mere smokescreen. Even though the company’s DTT/antennal Pay TV model runs on transmitter based stations available in NTA offices nationwide, Nigeria is believed not to be getting much in return.

 

Mass Resignation 

Recently, the bubble finally burst at the Chinese-owned pay television company following the resignation of many Nigerian staff over alleged racial discrimination and anti-labour policies.

Sources in the company disclosed that no fewer than five Nigerians in senior management positions and many middle-level managers recently resigned from the company over complaints of ill-treatment by their Chinese bosses, especially the chief executive officer, Mr. Justin Zhang. Among those who have resigned, sources disclosed, are former National Sales Director, Mr. John Esoimeme; Marketing Director, Dare Kafar, and Head of Public Relations, Israel Bolaji. Others are Marketing Manager, Habeeb Somoye, and Content Marketing Manager, Ayokunle Idowu. Bolaji has since joined Caritas Communication Limited, a public relations firm, while Somoye has moved to Gionee, a mobile company.

A major complaint of Nigerians in the company is the disparity in the conditions of service, including remunerations. A Nigerian, who joined the company as a university graduate seven years ago said 80 per cent of Nigerians in the company had not benefited from any significant promotions and pay rises in the last five years.

 The staff, who did not want to be named, said beneficiaries of significant promotions and pay rises were those in the habit of spying on their colleagues and passing on information to their Chinese bosses.

She said, “These are issues we have been battling for years. Even the Nigeria Labour Congress once picketed StarTimes office in Lagos over anti-labour practices. Nigerians are really treated poorly here compared to their Chinese counterparts. There are sharp differences in salaries, working conditions, and benefits, such as insurance policy and promotions. Arbitrary demotion of Nigerians is also a common practice. The company is simply bereft of corporate governance.”

 Intolerance 

 Aside from the gulf in service conditions/remunerations, Nigerian staff of the company also complained that their compatriots in senior management positions were treated with contempt by the CEO, the reason they have been resigning one after the other.

Zhang, the CEO, is said to be intolerant of opposing views and in the habit of sacking Nigerians on the spot whenever they offer a dissenting position.  A major victim of Zhang’s intolerance was said to be Mr. Olumide Olawuyi-Oke, described as a brilliant sales manager. He was relieved of his appointment on September 18, 2016 after disagreeing with Zhang during a management meeting. The CEO was said to have summoned him to his office after the meeting and announced to him that his services were no longer required.

A female employee in the Dealer Sales Department said the Chinese bosses had a very low opinion of Nigerians in the company and were always boasting that if they resigned, other Nigerians will happily replace them, as the country’s unemployment situation made the company attractive. She equally claimed that most of the Chinese bosses were less qualified and experienced than Nigerians, who work under them. According to her, it takes as few as three months after employment for a Chinese to be appointed a director overseeing better qualified and more experienced Nigerians.

Esoimeme, the former National Sales Director, was said to have resigned because he was demoted to the position of Regional Sales Director and transferred to Kaduna to create space for two Chinese employees, Mr. Thunder Lei and Mr. Boby Wang, both of whom joined the company less than a year before. Lei and Wang, both appointed National Sales Directors, reported to Esoimeme before his demotion-induced resignation.

The demotion was said to have had the full blessings of the CEO who, as Vice President, Marketing/General Manager of the Lagos office, was considered better for the top job than his predecessor, Mr. Jack Liu, who was viewed as too soft.

A former employee said the company was akin to an ethical free trade zone complete with fraud and deep-seated racism. Many Chinese employees of the company, he said, had neither the required immigration papers for residence nor professional licences/locally required certificates to perform their local roles in Nigeria. Zhang, he said, was Vice President (Marketing) for over three years without Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria certification, licence or membership, a reason for which he was queried by the body.

 The former employee, who worked with StarTimes for five years, said Chinese employees, fresh from the university, enjoyed meteoric rise, while Nigerians were left to stagnate. Those who get promoted to top positions, he explained, had neither power nor influence, as only Chinese call the shots.

 “For instance, every January, the Chinese bosses travel to China for their New Year festivities,” he alleged. “Before they travel, they would announce a junior Chinese staff to run the company in their absence, despite having Nigerian directors. No structure, no hierarchy.”

In December 2015, Mr. Berlin, the Logistics Manager in Lagos, was announced as the acting General Manager of the Lagos office by Mr. Zhang, then Vice President of Marketing, placing him above two Nigerian directors, Kafar and Esoimeme.

 

StarTimes’ Reaction

 But in a statement titled “StarTimes remains a responsible organisation, best place to work,” the company denied the allegations. The statement, which was issued by its public relations manager, Kunmi Balogun, stated that at no time had there been racism or tension among staff of the organisation. The statement said those who claimed to have left due to discrimination voluntarily resigned their positions in line with the exit procedure as encapsulated in their letters of employments.

Balogun stated, ‘’We would like to reaffirm that, as responsible corporate citizens, we remain committed to growing and developing our people in line with our core values while delivering impeccable entertainment at unmatchable rates to our customers.”

Many feel that the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment and the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture should intervene to determine the true position of things in StarTimes with a view to ensuring compliance with all ethical and labour standards.