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Slaves in their country: Story of hardship by Nigerian workers in Indian, Chinese factories


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­IN factories owned by Chinese and Indian investors in Nigeria, low-cost labour, hazardous work without protection, breach of minimum wage law, and human rights abuse are the norms. And young Nigerian workers are vulnerable to avoidable bodily harm, physical and emotional injuries. Yet, these companies continue to exploit their workers, taking advantage of the Nigerian weak laws and poor regulatory system. LUKMAN ABOLADE reports.


AT 26, Vincent Enahoro left his hometown of Oah Okpuje Iuleha in Owan Local Government area, Edo State for Ota in Ogun State, in pursuit of greener pastures.

Against his parents’ advice, Enahoro left Okpuje for the industrial town in the southwest state, with s burning desire to make success of his  life by dint of hard work. His dream to  hit fortune outside his hometown was fired by Michael, his friend who came home from Ota during the yuletide in 2013. Michael had told him of endless opportunities in Ota,  a town dotted by many factories. Enahoro did not want to miss such an opportunity. So, weeks later, he left home for Ota together with his friend.

The End Of A Dream

Vincent Enahoro
Vincent Enahoro, a former worker whose finger was cut off while working for MINL. Photo Credit: Lukman Abolade

Just as Micheal had told him that securing a job would not be difficult−he got a job factory job,  but as a ‘helper’.

In factoryspeak, a ‘helper’ is casual or temporary worker engaged through a recruitment firm to work in the production factory.

Workers in this category are not given the good treatment of staff and can be easily stopped from working as there is no contract between them and the company.

Enahoro got a ‘casual’ job with a company called Manaksia Investment Nigeria Limited (MINL), a steel company sited inside the Ota Industrial Estate.

Late 2013 when he started work at Manaksia, he worked from 6 o’clock am till 7 pm every day and was paid N570 (less than $2) per day.

Helpers’ wages are calculated on a daily basis and the accumulation is paid to them at the end of the month.

In MINL, all helpers are to compulsorily work everyday including Sundays, while their accumulated wages are paid at the end of the month.  Enahoro was later employed as a contract staff because he was hardworking, but with no employment letter and no increase in wages.

“When I joined as a helper in 2013, I was paid N570 per day to work from 6 am to 7 pm, Monday to Sunday, no resting day,” Enahoro said as he narrated his ordeal.

For his first three years at the factory, the hardworking young man, now a father of two, earned a total of N17, 100 at the end of every month. For working 365 days in a year, the highest Enahoro could earn in a year was N205, 200 if there were no deductions for late coming and other infractions.

“Sometimes when we come late, they deduct our money, so I mostly have about N13, 000 or less to go home with at the end each month.”

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This continued until 2016 when he was considered for a promotion for working with the company for three years. His daily wage was increased from N570 to N600 in 2016− a N30 increase.

“In 2016 it was increased to N600 per day. One year later, they increased it to N700 per day but for Saturdays and Sundays, I was paid N750 since I am a contract staff,” Enahoro said.

This was what he earned while working as a machine operator in MINL factory, a role pivotal to the daily production of the company.

Enahoro said he was never trained to use the Cut to Length Machine but it was the only way through which he could get a job as a contract staff with the company.

“They did not train me on how to use the machine but they said if I want them to employ me as a staff, that is the only place they can employ me,” Enahoro said.

For a long period of time, the Cut to Length (CTL) machine developed continuous faults and when he complained, his complaints were disregarded as an excuse for being lazy.

This went on for years until one unforgettable Sunday morning.

He had just finished the night shift from Saturday, and he was made to work overtime on Sunday because ‘production materials just arrived’.

While he was using the machine, a heavy ruler in the machine forcefully held his finger down, and he groaned in excruciating pain as he helplessly watched an iron ruler chop off his left index finger.

A picture of Enahoro’s hand Photo Credit: Lukman Abolade

“I was trying to adjust something from the ruler, then I stopped the machine and raised up the ruler, while I was cleaning the ruler, I didn’t know how the ruler suddenly picked my hand with the hand glove, that was how I lost part of my hand,” Enahoro recalled the horrible experience.

Co-workers quickly took him to Shirish Clinic, a nearby hospital in the town, where he spent six weeks in the intensive care unit.

Another view of Enahoro’s hand after his incident at MINL Photo Credit: Lukman Abolade

During his time at the hospital, MINL continued to pay his wages  so that he could give money to his wife and children to feed themselves and take care of the house he

just started building.

 

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Immediately he was discharged, the company called him to resume work or his payment would be stopped; but Enahoro’s hand was not yet healed.

With bandages wrapped around his hand, he had to continue working on the same machine without it being fixed.

He had no option because he has a wife and children to feed.

“I would first go to the hospital for treatment,  then go to work because the hand has not healed completely and I don’t want them to stop my salary,” he said.

After seven months of working on the same machine that chopped off his finger, his wife, Sandra and some friends  convinced him to resign and demand compensation from MINL

He resigned, but as earlier threatened, his salary was stopped immediately he submitted a resignation letter to the factory.

MINL enrolled Enahoro on the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) where he now receives N1,667 (less than $5) every month. 

It took the intervention of rights organisation, Human Rights Initiative for the Downtrodden (HIRD) based in Lagos State before MINL placed him on a monthly arrangement of N18, 000.

For a few months, he received the N18,000 from MINL but when COVID-19 hit Nigeria and the world, the situation changed.

His monthly arrangement was slashed by 50 per cent, Enahoro now receives N9000 from MINL.

“I went there in April to receive the N18,000 then I saw that it was N9,000 that was written on the payslip for me to sign, I asked why and they said it is because of COVID-19,” Enahoro said.

During that April, he had borrowed up to N10, 000 with hopes that he would pay his debt after collecting the monthly stipend until he was told that this payment has been slashed.

“I didn’t have any other choice,” he sighed.

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 Enahoro said he has been unable to secure a job in another company due to his incomplete fingers.

“I have gone to four companies in this estate and they have refused to employ me because they say it is a partial disability,” he lamented.

He added that since the incident, he has refused to go home to his parents because they had kicked against his decision to go to Ogun State for work.

“I have not been able to go home since then because my father would say he had warned me not to go but I did not listen, I have not seen them since that incident,” Enahoro said as tears rolled down his cheeks.

He wants permanent compensation from MINL through which he can start a business of his own as companies have refused to employ him but MINL has refused to pay him.

MINL refused to reply to questions about Enahoro’s case.

One too many cases

Cases of injuries abound in Nigerian factories where victims of work-related hazards are denied compensation.

In some cases, after completing secondary school education, young Nigerians approach such factories for work in order to raise money for tertiary education.

Rather than realize their life goal, many of them who have opted to fend for themselves at factories owned by foreigner investors especially those owned by Indians and Chinese, often have their lives either cut short due to fatal work-related accident or sustain major injuries that lead to permanent disability.

In some other cases, they work for many years but are never able to save up for education due to poor remuneration from the foreign-owned companies.

Although the Nigerian Government does not have a database of labour incidents, there are several reports of industrial accidents in such factories.

 In 2003, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) statistic states that there are 63, 236 cases of work-related fatality in Nigeria while 16,673 are caused by dangerous chemical substances.

According to UNFPA, Nigerians within the age group of 15-64years are the highest proportion of the over 200 million population.

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About 54 per cent of the total population are of working category representing a high rate of the working population.

Many see this population as prospects for a strong workforce for Nigeria. However, while the majority are unemployed, a large number of them are engaged as menial, casual or temporary workers, working more and earning less from factories owned and controlled by foreign investors.

A Day At Gemini Steel – Hazards That  Nigerians Face While Working

To have a direct experience of what young Nigerians encounter in foreign-owned factories in Nigeria, the reporter went on to search for a job at some factories in Lagos and Ogun states industrial estates.

On August 26, at about 7:15 am, the reporter arrived at the Ikorodu Industrial estate in Lagos State.

Young men, women and few older ones’ flock around the industrial estate, some resuming work, while others are heading home after their night shift. 

The reporter attempted to get a job with many factories in the estate but he was rejected, mostly on the excuse that it is almost the end of the month.

“If you can come on September 1st, I can assure you that you will get a job here but now, the voucher has closed, if you go to any of our contractors, they won’t employ you,” a security officer told the reporter.

After failed attempts at six factories inside the Ikorodu Industrial estate, the reporter eventually got a job with a steel company named Gemini Steel Investment Limited through a friend who introduced him to one of the supervisors in the factory.

The supervisor told the reporter that a section of the factory is in need of a worker.

Immediately, he introduced the reporter to his soon-to-be co-workers in the factory, Tosin and James.

Tosin is a 19-year-old, secondary school graduate of Odogunyan Senior Grammar school in Ikorodu Lagos State.

As he interacts with the reporter, Tosin said he has been changing jobs since he left secondary school with no clear plan of pursuing tertiary education due to his family’s finances.

Tosin lacks the financial means to pursue tertiary education but had learnt fashion designing while he was in secondary school. He had plans to save up to get two sewing machines and a shop to start tailoring business.

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However, for three years now, his dream has remained elusive as he has been unable to save enough due to the pittance he earns as wages. 

“I spend most of it on food and transportation and how much are they paying me, out of all the places I have worked in this estate, the highest I have ever earned is N700 per day,” Tosin disclosed.

His  ‘co-worker’, James said he joined Gemini Steel three months ago. For him, he has no plans, he only wants to live each day as it comes. 

As the reporter and the workers discussed, James flipped a rolling paper, mostly called ‘rizler’ out of his bag then a small wrapped Indian hemp in white leather, he lit it up then began to smoke.

Tosin and James; casual workers at Gemini Steel. Photo Credit: Lukman Abolade

As he blew the smoke, he said “bros, you no dey smoke? this our job, you need to get high before you start o’.

Shortly after, they both left the reporter and proceeded to their workplace to commence the day’s work. 

After spending several hours waiting for the head of the section to approve the reporter as a worker, he finally appeared. 

A full-bearded Indian man, in his late 30s, who eventually told the reporter to resume work the following day.

James had told the reporter that the Indian, whose name is Sassana but mostly called ‘master’ is the head of the section.

Pointing to one of the workers, the master said ‘tell him, tomorrow come’ the worker translated this to the reporter saying the Indian had asked him to resume the following day.

On Thursday, the reporter went back to Gemini Steel, he had already been introduced to the security personnel at the gate who opened the factory gate for the reporter that morning.

Without registration or issuance of an identity card, he was listed as a worker in the factory.

The day’s work began around 8:45 am, the reporter was not given any protective equipment to work with.

When he asked ‘master’ for one, he referred him to his co-workers in the factory. But James said hand gloves are seldom given. He said he had gotten his from a worker that left work a few weeks ago.

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In Gemini Steel, irons are melted and reproduced through coke ovens, exposing the workers to very high heat radiation otherwise known as hyperthermia but they are left unprotected.

There are many departments in Gemini Steel, the reporter alongside other Nigerian workers were assigned to work at the heart of the company’s daily production, a section called CCM (Continuous Casting machine).

In the section, the Continuous Casting machine is used to cast the semi-solid metal as it comes directly from a cooling liquid metal machine

To cast the metal to the desired form, the metal needs to be between 30 to 65 per cent solid thereby generating high heat radiation. 

In the department, some other workers are to lift the semi-solid hot metal with the aid of iron rods to where it would be cooled and eventually turned into a strong iron.

Despite the high risk of an industrial accident in the department, none of the workers including the reporter was equipped with any form of personnel protective equipment (PPE).

A Nigerian worker at Gemini Steel without proper protective equipment. Photo Credit: Lukman Abolade

 As the deafening sound generated from the use of heavy machines fills the factory, the reporter was shown how to use some part of the machine.

All this without any form of protection for the reporter or the other workers, the company plays ignorant of the physical risks the workers are being exposed to.

In a steel company where the continuous casting machine is used, the workers are exposed to several dangers including high radiation heat, fire due to grease/hydraulic line leakage, burn injury that could be caused by a hot surface and other hot equipment in use.

Studies have shown that due to the usage of the Continuous Casting Machine, the workers are prone to suffer from Carbon Monoxide (CO) poisoning emitted from the machine. 

Carbon monoxide is harmful when excessively inhaled because it displaces oxygen in the blood, the heart, brain and other vital organs the body. Large amounts can overcome the worker’s body system that could lead to loss of consciousness and suffocation.

The workers were not provided with a full-facepiece pressure-demand self-contained breathing apparatus to prevent them from inhaling too much CO as they spend the whole day working on the machines with only an hour break.

Apart from chemical dangers, there are wasted sharp pieces of iron scattered on the floor of the factory.

The reporter only had his palm sandals on all through the day.

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One of the workers, Alex, who is in charge of casting the iron from the machine, was seen putting on bathroom flip flops and torn gloves instead of a safety boot and gloves.

Like other workers in the factory, Alex is unprotected and exposed to the dangers that may occur in case of an accident in the factory.

In the case of a fall from a height, injuries sustained could be fatal because none of the workers was provided with a safety helmet.

In fact, most of the worker Gemini Steel factory were seen wearing slippers, no helmet, no safety boot, no safety vest or eye shield.

Gemini Steel’s practice is in contrary to the National Policy on Occupational Safety and Health of the Federal Republc of Nigeria.

Section 5.3 (III) of the policy states that employers are to ‘Provide at no cost to the worker, occupational health protection and personal protective clothing and equipment, which are appropriate for the nature of the job’ but Gemini Steel failed to do so and no one is checking.

The lack of provision of safety equipment for workers does not only happen in Gemini Steel but in many other factories too.

Andy Robinson, a former factory worker who worked with Shongai Technologies, a printing outfit in Ogun State-owned by Indians, also told the reporter that all through his span in the company, he was never provided with any safety equipment despite working with heavyweight machines.

Before he left the company, his Indian boss had hit him in the face that made him bleed through his ear before he lost consciousness.

Andy Robinson, bedridden after he was slapped by his Indian boss at Shanghai Technologies. Photo Credit: Lukman Abolade

Robinson was admitted in the hospital for days because of the injury sustained from the incident.

He said many workers in those factories usually suffer a series of human rights violation besides regular work-related accidents.

Used and Condemned

Young Nigerians who have suffered one form of accident and sustained life-threatening injuries while working in factories felt ‘used and condemned’ by their employers.

In the Ota Industrial Estate is Dada Stephen, who used to work for Aarti Steel Investment, a steel company also owned by Indian investors.

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Dada Stephen, a former worker at Sonhart Investments. Photo Credit: Lukman Abolade

Stephen, a former worker with Sonhart investment was an assistant operator of a manufacturing machine in the steel factory, he told the reporter that during his stay, no glove, helmet or safety boot was ever provided.

His case is not so different from Enahoro’s, for  he also had part of his thumb sliced by a factory machine in Sonhart Investments factory.

Dada Stephen’s hand after an accident while working for Sonhart Investments. Photo Credit: Lukman Abolade

Stephen said after his accident, he was given poor medical attention by his employers and the contracting firm before he was relieved of his job because his ‘hand is not complete’.

According to him, immediately the incident occurred, he was taken to Shirish hospital, where Sonhart staff are treated in case of accidents but he was not treated because he is not a full-time staff then he was taken to the State Hospital, Ota.

Maria Dada, Stephen’s wife, told the reporter that due to the poor medical attention given to her husband, he was made to suffer for many nights as he mostly groaned in pain, and in the middle of the night, he cried like a hungry infant but the company paid little or no attention to him.

Maria said that was the hardest part of her life as she was subjected to nursing her five months baby and injured husband at the same time.

Speaking on his work condition at the factory, Stephen said he was made to buy a safety overall for N2,000 and was not provided with any other protective equipment before he got injured.

Godwin Okoduwa, MINL’s Safety manager denied Stephen’s statement that he wasn’t provided with protective equipment.

However, he did not refute Stephen’s claim that he was made to buy his own safety overall.

Falling to provide safety tools is an act against the National Safety Policy of Nigeria.

Labour officers from the Nigerian Ministry of Labour and Employment are saddled with the responsibility of visiting and checking the factories for proper compliance with protective measures and other stipulated regulations. But this duty is rarely undertaken.

Earning N750 in 12 hours – The  modern definition of slavery

Despite the tenacious and drudgery work conditions, as Nigerian workers strive to earn a living, the foreign-owned companies pay them very poorly and below the minimum wage in Nigeria.

For the companies, it is a system of work more, earn less, low-cost labour is a norm, minimum wage law of N30,000 in Nigeria is non-existent to most of them.

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21-year-old Micheal, a worker at Merchant Investments, Ota Ogun State. Photo Credit: Lukman Abolade

Every morning, Michael, 21 years old, a worker with Merchant Investment Limited walks an hour to work. His house is far away from his workplace but the wages he earns cannot transport him to and from work. Micheal earns N500 every day.

“I stay in Ijoko, from Ijoko to Sango is N150 from Sango to the Estate gate is another N150 then I would have to walk about another 20 minutes in the estate to get to the factory, go and come I would spend N600,” said Michael as he explained his daily movement.

Spending N600 out of his N500 wage is impossible, staying home is an invitation to hunger, Michael treks from home to work and vice versa every day.

Despite the hurdles of getting to the factory, sometimes he goes to the factory and he is told that he is not needed for the day. There is no guarantee of working every day in Merchant, except for the few full-time staff in the factory.

On one Thursday, when this reporter met Micheal at the gate of the factory, he had just been told there is no work for him. 

This caught the reporter’s attention then he joined other workers standing outside of the factory in the guise of also looking for a job.

Merchant Investors Limited has been in existence for more than a decade manufacturing mosquito insecticides, importation of foreign biscuits, bicycles, safety matches, pressure stoves among others.

Job seekers standing at the gate of Merchant Investment. Photo Credit: Lukman Abolade

At the gate of the factory, about ten workers were seen waiting to be granted entrance into the factory while other job seekers stood outside.

The reporter and other applicants waited outside of the gate for more than an hour but nothing happened.

Later, a few left to continue job hunting at other factories, but the reporter waited until the security officer opened the gate asking if the reporter wanted to work.

“Yes sir, ”, the reporter responded eagerly, then the gate was opened.

At the gatehouse was another security officer, a woman in her late 30s and another man who sat in front of a table where many green and red cards with the heading ‘Merchant Investment Limited’ were spread.

A quick inspection revealed that the cards belong to the workers in the factories according to their cadre.

The workers with the green card are the junior cadres who earn N750 every day working from 7 am till 6 pm while the red cards are for the senior workers who earn N850 per day.

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For the green-card holders, they earn N19,500 per month while the red-card holders earn N21,450 at the end of each month.

The man in charge of the cards offered the reporter a job as a security officer with the company.

“The only position we have is security, you just have to open the gate for the people coming in and going out, it is not as stressful as working inside the factory but the pay is N15,000 monthly,” the man said.

He added that for the security job, there are no off days, “You will have to work from Monday to Sunday, you will resume by 7 am and close by 8 pm after every other worker has closed,” he added.

In all the factories visited by this reporter, it was discovered that they mostly engage the workers on contract and do not offer them employment thereby avoiding responsibilities.

Lekan Busari, a manager of Divine Identity, a recruitment firm that provides low-cost casual workers for factories in Ogun state. Photo Credit: Lukman Abolade

In another factory close to Merchant, Aarti Steel, the reporter sought employment through a contracting firm in the estate called Divine Identity Nigeria Limited registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) in 2010 with registration number 915572.

A source had told the reporter that Divine Identity, owned and managed by one Lekan Busari provides low-cost labour workers to many factories in the company.

The reporter met Lekan inside a blue painted container where he calls his office. He gave a registration form to the reporter. When asked how much the company would pay he said, ‘Aarti steel is one of the companies that pay the most in the estate, you would get N800 per day’. 

With N800 per day excluding the four Sundays in the month, the reporter would earn a total of N20,800 at the end of the month.

Lekan also said for the reporter’s first month on the job, he would deduct N800 from the worker’s wage as his own registration fee.

When he was later called over the phone to question him over recruiting workers below minimum wage, he dared the reporter to come to his office to ask the question but the reporter did not go.

In an interview with another executive director of an employment firm in the estate, he lamented that the foreign-owned companies in the estate see Nigerians as the cheapest labour in the world.

“I can tell you that these foreigners see Nigeria as the cheapest labour in the world. That is why they rush here, they don’t pay well and they know nobody would challenge or stop them,” he said.

He added that his employment firm operates in other parts of the country and the tradition is always the same.

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“Even some industries owned by Nigerians are starting to imitate them in meting out various injustices to the workers most especially in terms of payment,” he added.  

When asked why his firm and others in the estate indulge in contracting workers to the factories knowing they would not be paid up to the minimum wage, he said it has become a tradition in the industrial estate.

“If I refuse, another firm would get the workers and I am a businessman, I also need to survive” he noted.

On the disparity between full time and part-time workers, the director said practically, the latter deserves better pay than the former due to the nature of work they do.

He added that apart from working for more hours, the casual workers are made to do the hard work while the full-time workers are given supervisory roles.

The National Minimum Wage Act 2019 exempted workers employed on a part-time basis in the implementation of the new wage of N30,000.

According to the Act, ‘part-time work means work of a duration shorter than those for comparable full-time work in a sector or occupation,’ however, these workers and the full-time workers labour for the same hours. 

Obsolete, outdated Labour Law

A study of the Nigerian Labour Act shows that the law is unable to properly address the many issues surrounding the use of casual workers in Nigeria.

Repeated checks of the Act as seen on the official website of the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment reveal that there is no representation or acknowledgement of casual workers.

Despite the high rate of casual workers in Nigeria, the words ‘casual,’ ‘temporary worker’ and ‘part-time’ do not appear in the whole of the nation’s Labour Act.

Also in the Employee Compensation Act (ECA) of 2010, the word ‘casual’ and ‘part-time’ only appeared once.

However, unlike the Nigerian Labour act, the Ghanian Labour Act dedicates a whole section to the casual and part-time workers in their country.

There are six subsections of Act that address issues of casual employment including remuneration on public holidays for part-time or casual workers in the Ghanian labour law.

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“Our labour law has become obsolete and ineffective to fit the realities of today, reviewing it has become long overdue,” says David Eyongndi, a lecturer at the College of Law in Bowen University.

Eyongndi, who wrote a paper on casual employment in Nigeria added that he gathered that most companies in Nigeria including banks and other corporate organisations make use of more casual workers than permanent workers in order to avoid proper remuneration and other benefits deserved by the workers.

The Senate, however, seems to be quiet about the labour law but in the House of Representatives, the bill was sponsored by two lawmakers in a year after the other has been stuck.

In 2019, Femi Gbajabiamila, the Speaker of the House of Representatives sponsored a bill that scaled all readings in the green chamber but later got stuck.

In 2020, Tasir Raji, another member of the  House Representatives sponsored the same bill which has passed first and second reading but is still lying on the shelf at the lower chamber.

Where is the Nigerian Labour Congress?

On its website, the NLC says the fundamental aims and objectives of the Congress are to protect, defend, and promote the rights, well being and the interests of all workers, pensioners, the trade unions and the working class in general, among others.

So, NLC is the only organisation saddled with the core responsibility to protect Nigerian workers, but the Union appears to have lacked the capacity to often discharge this duty.

Ayuba Wabba, the president of NLC had accused some establishments of forbidding their workers from joining the union in order to suppress their rights.

But there has been no publicly known move by the NLC to unionize casual workers despite making up a larger number of Nigeria’s workforce.

The reporter contacted the leadership of the Union several times to ask questions over this but there was no reply.

Text messages and calls to the secretary of the NLC were ignored.

A visit to the headquarters of the NLC was also futile as he was said to be in a meeting which had no stipulated time to end.

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