The scarcity of jobs in the country has forced many Liberians to work under bad labor conditions without options, but the pin-down of local contractors to favor foreign casual workers is causing Liberians working at the annexes of the Capitol Building to grow weary of what they now see as maltreatment on the part of the company engaged in the construction work against them.
Over 80 aggrieved Liberian casual workers, in worn-out and torn Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and dampened spirits, told the Daily Observer they are paid as low as L$550 or US$5 for 12 hours of work on a daily basis. Their daily feeding and transportation are embedded in the L$550, they said.
According to the workers, regardless of how many weeks or months they worked at the project site, when they are fired, there are no benefits.
The ongoing construction of the two annexes to the Capitol Building is funded by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The construction was contracted to a Chinese Company, Jiangsu Jiangsu Construction Company; while another Chinese Company, China International Engineering Design & Consult Company Limited, is playing the engineering and supervisory role.
Accordingly, the two annexes, which will comprise 300 rooms, two separate chambers, as well as the generator house, is valued at US$23 million.
The spokesperson of the Liberian casual workers, called Bobo, narrated that the casual workers from Guinea Bissau, who are working along with them, are paid US$30, excluding daily feeding and transportation.
Bobo lamented that the casual workers from Guinea Bissau are issued PPEs regularly, such as gloves, helmets and boots, while the Liberian casual workers’ PPEs have been worn-out since they were issued more than five (5) months ago.
In an attempt to verify the allegation, the Daily Observer contacted the management of the company, who referred our reporter to a Chinese lady that speaks English.
Refused to reveal her name, she said she is not authorized to speak on the issue. She further shunned our reporter in a second attempt to verify the information, stating she had nothing further to say.
But the workers, who were constructing what would become West Africa’s biggest Legislative building, said they were only working because they had no option, but the money they are earning cannot cater to theirs and the needs of their families.
According to them, they formed a workers’ union to intercede on their behalf and seek redress on their wages; however, they were threatened with dismissal upon the first try to engage the management of the construction company.
“We are just working to feed ourselves. We want them add our money up and also feed us,” Bobo said in rather distressful tone.
Meanwhile, the two annexes of the Capitol Building are part of the Modernization Plan of the Legislature; the Joint Legislative Modernization Committee (JLMC) is chaired by River Gee Senator Commany Wesseh.
Other members include Montserrado County District #16 Representative Edward Forh, co-chairman of the JLMC; and Montserrado County District # 1 Representative Josephine George Francis, who also chairs the House Executive Committee. The remaining lawmakers include the two chairmen on the Committees of Rules and Order and Administration, George Tengbeh and J. Byron Borwne respectively, as well as the Grand Kru County Senator Albert Chie, chairman on Lands, Mines and Natural Resources.
When contacted, JLMC Chairman Conmany Wesseh vaguely recalled that it has been at least a year since he was approached by a gentleman posing as a mediator between the workers and the company, when some questions were raised.
“I said they would do well looking for a lawyer to make a case for them,” Senator Wesseh said, adding that there is no direct relationship between the JLMC and any of the contractors, Chinese or Liberian. According to him, the Ministry of Public Works is the main agency of government that the contractors are working with as first point of contact.
“I’m there all the time,” the senator said. “I go there to inspect the work. I’ll be interested if they can get in touch with me so we can find out exactly what’s going on.”
Sidney Devine, project engineer of the Ministry of Public Works assigned at the construction site, disclosed that the two annexes are expected to be completed within 19 months. The construction begun October 2016 and will end April 2018.
Ignoring Decent Work Bill
Liberia’s minimum wage law requires that skilled laborers earn US$5.50 per day, and at most work eight (8) hours.
On June 25, 2014, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf signed into law the Decent Work Bill, the country’s first labor law since the 1950s.
The act marked the second time Liberia became a forerunner in promoting ILO standards.
In June 2006, Liberia became the first country in the world to ratify the ILO’s Maritime Labor Convention.
The new law is also intended to promote economic development and growth, including by reducing obstacles to efficient business competition.
The new law explicitly promotes fundamental rights at work, including freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively; the right not to be subject to forced or compulsory labor; the right to equality at work, and to equal working conditions regardless of gender or other irrelevant criteria; and the right not to be subject to child labor, including its worst forms.
The law also seeks to implement certain fundamental rights found in Liberia’s Constitution.
In January 2016, Labor Minister Neto Z. Lighe vowed to enforce the new Labor Law to ensure that good labor practices are observed in the country.
He said the ministry would hold institutions across the country accountable to the new Labor Law if they failed to implement and ensure good labor practices.
“We have enough copies already available and have started distributing them to various institutions and hope that employers and employees would also come to the ministry to obtain a copy.
“This was to be done some months ago and was delayed due to the finalization of the law,” he said.
However, despite these pronouncements by the Labor Minister, many Liberians working in the informal sector continue to experience harsh working conditions while their minimum wage do not commensurate with their work.