A Cry for Justice

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Stephen Okeke

Stephen Okeke, who is currently suffering the socio-psychological impact of losing his toes to amputation resulting from an accident due to alleged forced labour, is painfully crying for justice against his employer, Sonnex Packaging Nigeria Limited, reports Peter Uzoho

Stephen Okeke is a young man of 21 years from Anambra State. He is the only son of his parents and they look up to him for the continuation of the family’s lineage. By 2016, he had finished his secondary education and was eager to further his education. However, due to his parent’s lean purse, that dream did not materialise.

However, despite his family’s low economic status which was not able to see him through the university, Okeke, full of ambition and energy resolved to help himself to realise his dream. He had wished to struggle to succeed and change his family’s economic situation.

The task was onerous but he was determined. One day, Okeke remembered he has an aunt in Lagos, Ketu, to be precise, and decided to travel to stay with her while he looked for what do in the city. For him, the plan was to hustle, make some money and go back to school. In April 2018, he arrived Lagos. From his aunt’s house, he made a friend who informed him of a vacancy in a packaging company.

The company turned out to be Sonnex Packaging Nigeria Limited, a division of Mohinani Group Manufacturing Packaging Solution. Located at #1 Olorunfunmi Street, Ojota, Lagos, Sonnex is into manufacturing of PET bottles, polyethylene nylon and film, shopping bags, among others. A lot of printing work goes on in its printing factory and the workers, particularly those in the factory, work on shifts.

Okeke applied for employment in the company and was recruited and he began work as a factory worker. He started work in February 2019 with allegedly no form of HSE training to guide him in such a hazard-prone environment. Like others in the factory, he was allegedly not provided with the basic safety materials to protect him from danger: no safety boot, helmet, nose mask, or hand glove. But he was ordered to work and be productive, with no concern about his health, and life.

Even when Okeke asked for safety materials, the company allegedly did not give a hoot. Instead, its HR would remind Okeke that after all, he was not the only one working in the factory without safety kits. The company obviously kept treating such serious issue with levity while unconsciously prolonging the evil day.

The Accident
Unfortunately, the day struck and Okeke’s life was shattered. On Sunday, March 17, 2019, barely one month after joining the company, Okeke suffered a grievous accident while operating the pelican printing machine. A heavy object fell off from where it hung and smashed the toes of his left foot. According to Okeke, the accident would have been mitigated if the company had a human conscience.

He said he and others were forced to continue working on that fateful day after working throughout the night instead of allowing them to go and rest. Also he said the injury would not have been as bad as it was if safety materials where provided for him, and if he was given the basic safety training before he resumed duty.

However, when rushed to the hospital, the alleged delays by the company in making the necessary payment for the hospital to commence the required treatment coupled with the hospital’s alleged lackadaisical manner in handling the situation led to the rotting of the injured toes, thus leading to the amputation of the entire toes.

Okeke recounts his ordeal to THISDAY: “When I started work there they didn’t give me any training on how to protect myself. They didn’t give me safety materials to put on while working. No safety boot, or hand glove, nose mask, helmet, and all that. They don’t have all these things. The shoe I used to wear there was my own and it was ordinary shoe, not safety boot. And I had been disturbing them about the safety materials but they never gave me any.

“Each time I went to ask for it they would be shouting at me, asking me if I was the only one working in that factory without safety material. Sometimes they would say they would bring it next week and that next week would reach they would not bring it.

“That day was Sunday. The people that were supposed to come for morning shift didn’t come. So the supervisor there said that we should continue working. I wanted to go but they refused. It was not only me. We were more than eight in that machine. I was even feeling sleepy the time the accident happened.

“They claimed that I was trying to stop the object when it was falling and got myself injured in the process. How can someone see danger coming and you go to stop it. It’s not possible, even a mad man escapes from danger let alone someone with his senses intact. I was operating the machine when the object fell on my leg. If I was wearing safety boot it wouldn’t have been as bad as this. I started work there in February 2019 and got injured on March 17, 2019.”

According to Okeke, since his discharge from the hospital, the company has not bothered to know how he is faring. The only thing he gets from the company is the N19, 000 salary.

“For more than three months now I have not been going to the hospital because of the distance, it’s far from where I stay, and the company is no longer coming to take me there like they used to. They don’t even call again to know how I am faring, what I am doing or something like that. Since I was discharged from the hospital they have not shown any concern towards me. It’s only paying the N19, 000 salary they are doing”.

For Okeke, the incident has left him and his lofty dreams shattered. “I don’t feel happy with my condition now. It’s giving me problem, I can’t do anything again now. Everything I planned for have just gone like that.”

While wondering the alleged wickedness of his employer, he said: “I don’t know why people can be this wicked. They will just use you and dump you to your fate.”

Compensation Demands

Okeke through his legal representatives, Ikehuamen O. Omokhui & Associates, has written severally to Sonnex Packaging Nigeria Limited, the Holy Trinity Hospital, Ikeja, and the Lagos State Safety Commission, drawing their attention to the alleged “fatal injury arising from negligence dereliction of duty” by both Sonnex and Holy Trinity Hospital”.

Okeke however, is demanding for a compensation to the tune of N1 billion from the company having had his life shattered by the company’s negligent dereliction of duty of care.

In letters dated July 22, 2019 and October 4, 2019, addressed to the Managing Director, Sonnex Packaging Nigeria Limited, with the heading: “Re: Mr. Okeke Stephen: Fatal Injury Arising from Your Company’s Negligence Dereliction of Duty of Care,” his counsels pointed out that the company’s lack of safety facilities in its factory and failure to give Okeke formal training in operating pelican printing machine led to his fatal injury.

The October 4 letter reads in part: “We refer to our earlier letter to you dated the 22nd of July, 2019 in respect of the above captioned. We also refer to our visit to your factory at No.1 Olurunfunmi Street, Off Kudirat Abiola Way, Ojota, Lagos, in company of the Director General of the Lagos State Safety Commission and his team.

“On that visit we had the Director General /CEO of the Lagos State Safety Commission, Hon. Dickson Hakeem, his lieutenant, Mrs Victoria Debite, and other members of the team. We all conducted a thorough inspection of your safety arrangement for your workers in your above named factory and found out the following amongst others; Your factory has no safety facilities for your workers at all; Your production factory lack adequate ventilation and it could only be compared to a gas chamber; We also found out that you never provided safety gadgets like safety boot, helmet, gloves and other safety facilities for your workers including Mr. Okeke Stephen, our client….

“Our client is just 21 years old and has no formal training in operating the pelican printing machine that you employed him to operate without giving him a formal training in operating that machine…. In view of the above, our client has instructed us to commence strict legal process (both criminal and civil) against your organisation unless he is compensated to the tune of N1, 000, 000, 000.00 (One Billion Naira).

“Please take notice, if we do not receive a draft of N1, 000, 000, 000.00 (One Billion Naira) in our client’s favour within two weeks from the date of this letter, we have our client’s firm instruction to commence strict legal action against your company and make sure all the laws relating to industrial activities are enforced against your company and the directors.”

Sonnex Reacts

However, confirming knowledge of the letters to THISDAY and reacting to the claims by Okeke’s legal representatives, the Company Secretary, Sonnex Packaging Nig. Limited, who insisted he be addressed as E.O. Eragbai, described the letter and the claims as misleading.

He said: “First and foremost, the petition is misleading. The content of the petition does not reflect what happened on that day, it does not reflect the way the company reacted when the accident happened, neither does it reflect what happened when the Lagos State Safety Commission visited.

“With due respect, the lawyer does not have any right to have authored that his letter dated October 4, 2019. He did not come to inspect our factory. The people who came to inspect the factory were the Lagos State Safety Commission. So, authoring a letter and drawing conclusions in the area where he is not an expert, to me, is jumping the gun.

“He should have waited for the outcome of the commission’s investigation. In fact, the report from the Lagos State Safety commission says: after the visit to the hospital, parties would be invited for another meeting. One now has to wonder why the lawyer is drawing conclusions before the commission comes out with its report and requests parties to come for a meetings?”

Eragbai added that the company chose not to formally respond to the letters upon receiving them because it didn’t see it as necessary.

Hospital Absolves Self

Also, responding to a petition against it by Okeke’s legal representatives, Ikehuamen O. Omokhui & Associates, on the matter, legal representatives to the Holy Trinity Hospital, Ikeja, Olubankole Awosika & Co (Barristers and Solicitors), in its counter letter dated August 8, 2019, addressed to Okeke’s counsels, described the letter of July 22, 2019 as “not only extremely delusory, but distorted for calculated purposes”.

While explaining all that transpired in an attempt to attend to Okeke’s situation at the hospital, Olubankole and Associates concluded: “Against the backdrop of the foregoing, it is manifest that our client was not in any manner whatsoever negligent in the treatment of your client’s injuries. We make bold to state that the medical team that attended to your client were professional in their duty and ensured that utmost expertise was deployed in the treatment of your client and as such your assertion in your letter dated 22nd July 2019 is not only extremely delusory, but distorted for calculated purposes.

“We will therefore advise you and your client to concentrate your efforts on the company who may have failed to provide your client with the necessary safety apparatuses and or gadgets in the work environment wherein your client sustained injuries to his left foot. We hope wise counsel prevails and we trust that you and your client will be guided accordingly.”

Commission’s Laxity

Sadly, while the fate of the poor injured worker is still hanging and threat of legal actions rages, the Lagos State Safety Commission has not yet come up with a report or its position to set the direction of the matter.

Since the commission led by its formal Director General Mr. Dickson Hakeem, went on an inspection to the factory of Sonnex Packaging Nig. Limited, it failed to invite the parties to a meeting before the DG’’s exit.

Although, the commission under a new Director General, Mr. Lanre Mojola, had invited all parties in the matter for a meeting, Sonnex was flagrantly absent from the meeting and no action had been taken against it.

When this reporter called Mojola to know the commission’s final position, he was directed to the commission’s Public Affairs Officer, Mrs Adewunmi Okoh, who only said that the commission was working on the matter and will soon let its position known.

But weeks and months have passed, yet, there was no comment from the commission. While he waited, time led to the rotting of the injured toes, thus leading to the amputation of the entire toes. For now, Okeke cries for justice as his dreams have been shattered by his present predicament.