By Harald Eraker
- The new agreement on wages and working conditions which our subsidiary Cemenco has made with its employees is much better than the one they had before. The wage level has been raised considerably, and now even the blue-collar workers are paid in US dollars, says information manager Oyvind Steen to NorWatch.
When NorWatch visited the cement factory in Liberia last autumn, we met a desperate working staff who complained in unison of "starvation wages". By comparing their pay slips with the costs of basic goods in the country, it was not difficult to establish that the workers had fundamental problems in making ends meet (see NorWatch 14/97).
One of their main grievances was that they, as opposed to the Cemenco management, were paid in Liberian dollars, in a country where US dollars are frequently used. The combination of a dramatic depreciation of Liberian dollars relatively to the US dollar in the last decade, and an enormous price increase and inflation, has resulted in successive decreases of the workers' real wages.
Thus, the workers have now reached a breakthrough for the demand that they should be paid in US dollars, which in itself will result in improvement of the living conditions of the employees. However, information manager Steen refuses to disclose how much the wage increase amounts to:
- I find it inappropriate to give accurate information on this, says Steen.
With regard to other aspects of the new working agreement, as for example the workers' demand to get a certain number of cement bags in order to repair their dilapidated houses, Steen is also unwilling to provide information.
- I do not know the details of the agreement, but there have been improvements with regard to environmental issues, too. The entire plant is going through an improvement by replacing parts of the old equipment with new ones in order to, among other things, reduce the emissions of dust, says Steen.
When asked whether Scancem has received a positive response from the Cemenco workers on the new agreement, Steen answers that at least they have not had any negative reactions.
Trade union pressure
Scancem is the international division of Aker RGI's cement operations. After NorWatch's report on the wage- and working conditions in the Liberian subsidiary, the trade union at Norcem - Aker RGI's cement division in Norway - got involved on behalf of its colleagues in the South.
- We raised the issue of wage conditions with the Scancem management, and we are happy that the workers' situation now seems to have improved, and that Cemenco is wage-leading in the country. But we have not been informed on the actual implications of the agreement, so it is difficult to assess how good it is, says trade union leader Arne Sandum at Norcem in Brevik.
He says that they have not yet been in contact with the workers in Liberia, but that the trade union at Norcem will check if it can be arranged.
Steen adds that the Liberian subsidiary is a part of the Scancem group's ISO 14001 programme - a method to improve health, environment, and security (HES) - which Scancem International will implement in all of its companies in Africa where they are responsible for operations.
- Our ISO programme is a three-year project, and our aim is that all our plants shall be ISO 14001 certified within the end of year 2000. We have started with the cement factories in Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Liberia. Last winter we had a thorough investigation of the environmental aspects of our activity in Benin and Togo, says Steen.
The investigation in Benin showed that, when the wind blows in certain directions, the cement factory may cause dust problems for people living nearby. This problem Scancem intends to address as a part of ISO 14001.
- We have said that we will improve and do something about the dust problem. This is partly an economic question. The more dust is emitted into the air, the more money we lose, says Steen.
Trade union leader Sandum is not happy with the fact that Scancem so far has not done anything with regard to the trade union's demand that all former workers at the company's subsidiary in Ghana who complain of health damages, must be entitled to a complete health check (see NorWatch 16/97).
- We regret that the management in Norway has not arranged for this to be done, and this we have told them. An experienced man from Norcem took part in the investigations of some of the West African factories recently, and there is clearly more cement dust down there than we are used to, says Sandum, who is now hoping that Scancem's action plan will improve the conditions.
- At the Brevik factory, the health division here at Norcem is now carrying out a large-scale examination of the lung functions of all the employees born between 1918-1938. The problem with cement dust and health injuries is that we do not know enough about it yet, says Sandum.
"The new agreement on wages and working conditions for the employees in Liberia is much better than the one they had before. The wage level has been raised considerably, and now even the blue-collar workers are paid in US dollars."
Information manager Oyvind Steen in Scancem
Scancem in Liberia/Ghana
Scancem owns 63% of the cement company Cemenco in Liberia, and 59.5% of the cement company Ghacem in Ghana. Scancem is owned jointly by Aker RGI and the Swedish company Skanska, who own 33% and 39% respectively.
Norwatch Newsletter 16/98