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Protests against Scancem in Liberia: - We work for slave wages

The workers at Scancem International's subsidiary Cemenco in the war-torn country Liberia are protesting against the salary and working conditions at the Norwegian-Swedish cement factory. - It's very hard for us to survive on the slave wages we're getting. The shooting has stopped in this country, but not the fight to survive, workers tell NorWatch, who recently visited the Aker RGI company.
Artikkelen er mer enn to år gammel. Ting kan ha endret seg.
The workers at Scancem International's subsidiary Cemenco in the war-torn country Liberia are protesting against the salary and working conditions at the Norwegian-Swedish cement factory. - It's very hard for us to survive on the slave wages we're getting. The shooting has stopped in this country, but not the fight to survive, workers tell NorWatch, who recently visited the Aker RGI company.

By Harald Eraker

Since 1977, Scancem, owned 41.2% by Aker RGI, has operated two cement mills and one packing plant in Liberia's capital Monrovia on the west coast of Africa. In cooperation with changing governments and terror regimes in the country,  Cemenco has had a monopoly on the sale of cement in Liberia.

With a production capacity of 220,000 metric tons of cement a year, operations have been severely affected by the civil war that broke out in the country in 1990. But in spite of chaotic conditions in Liberia in the years before the election of a new national assembly and president this summer, Cemenco was able to maintain a certain level of production during most of the war years.

- When the worst fighting took place in the period of July 1990 to October 1991, and for a couple of months last spring, conditions were so bad that we had to close the factory, the financial manager Pramod Gemawat of Cemenco tells NorWatch.

He has been in a situation where he had to run for his life, and he has seen the worst atrocities committed on the street outside his home. But together with the managing director of Cemenco, Horst Wallwitz from Germany, he was been one of just a few foreign nationals who chose to stay in the country during the civil war.

- Neither Scancem nor the authorities in the country have had any dividends to write home about these years. But we see a great potential for sale of cement when the country is to be rebuilt after the war, says Gemawat.

Slave wages
The workers at Cemenco do not share the same hopes for the future.

- The shooting in this country has stopped, but not the fight to survive, workers tell NorWatch one day after work.

After talking to most of the 23 workers "on the factory floor" in Cemenco, and visiting five of them at home, NorWatch is left with the impression of very desperate employees. For fear of losing their jobs, the workers did not want their names to be mentioned. Nevertheless, they strongly criticized the conditions at the Scancem factory.

- Cemenco pays us slave wages. A small clique controls an empire, while we have to perform much hard work for a pittance, they tell NorWatch.

One after the other they show us their pay slips documenting that their gross wages are between 1,200 and 1,500 Liberian dollars a month (about 175 - 245 Norwegian kroner). At the same time these pay slips show that taxes, union dues and repayment of loans from Cemenco considerably reduce the monthly pay.

- A 50-kilo bag of rice costs around 245 kroner, more than most of us make a month, the workers say in despair.

In addition to the ordinary pay, the workers have received an emergency extra pay of 2,650 Liberian dollars a month due to the war situation. The amount is supposed to cover, among other things, medical care and transportation. But how long the workers will keep this extra pay is uncertain.

- As you can see, the extra pay is not on our pay slips. We're afraid that Cemenco will remove it during the wage negotiations this fall on the pretext that we now have peace, says one of the workers.

Lower exchange rate
The salary conditions for the workers have worsened dramatically after the civil war, both because of huge price increases and because the value of a Liberian dollar has taken a nose-dive in relation to the American dollar.

Up to the middle of the '80s the workers made roughly 250 dollars a month. At that time, one Liberian dollar was worth one American dollar. The monthly pay thus was about 1,750 Norwegian kroner. In the years before the civil war started in 1990, the exchange rate of the Liberian dollar started to fall, and it has dropped dramatically during and after the war (at the time of NorWatch's visit, 1 US dollar was worth 44 Liberian dollars).

In US dollars the present pay - including the extra pay - corresponds to one-third of the pay a little over ten years ago. Cemenco's management get their wages paid in American dollars.

- This disparity is something that we have repeatedly brought to the attention of the Cemenco management, but to no avail, says secretary general Edward W. Grant of the Domestic Commercial Clerker and General Services Union (DCCGSU).

DCCGSU, associated with the Liberian Federation of Unions, represents the Cemenco workers during the yearly negotiations with the management, allegedly because the workers at Cemenco according to Edward Grant are to few to conduct their own negotiations directly with the Cemenco management.

Grant points to the fact that the workers do not get free transportation to and from work, and also no free milk (milk is recommended as a remedy against the inhalation of cement dust in the factory), as they did in the '80s.

"The shooting in the country has stopped, but not the fight to survive."
Workers at the Scancem company in Liberia to NorWatch

8 bags of cement
The living conditions of the workers that NorWatch visited were miserable. Most of them can barely afford to rent one single room, around 10 square meters, where up to 7-8 persons live. The roof and walls are in a state of disrepair, and when it rains - and it rains hard in this part of tropical Africa - conditions are intolerable. They have no electricity or running water.

- Just one truckload of cement bags from Cemenco would be enough to repair the houses for all of us, says one of them bitterly, as he shows NorWatch a wall that is falling down in the house where he lives.

Only workers who can afford to buy a building lot, and who can show public papers to prove that they own land, get cement from the Scancem company. This year Cemenco agreed to offer 25 bags of cement free of charge for construction of houses for the lucky ones.

- But how can we ever afford to buy a building lot when we can't even feed our wives and children in a decent manner, the workers ask.

One of them tells us that some years ago he took over his mother's lot when she died, and he asked Cemenco for 25 bags of cement to build a house. But he was turned down by the management because the papers were in his mother's name and not his.

- The only cement we all have a right to, are 8 bags of cement if we die while we're employed at Cemenco, so that our families can make our graves. While we're alive we don't benefit from the company's product, say the workers sarcastically.

According to the Cemenco management, the family gets a "final settlement" of about 4,700 kroner in the event of a death in addition to the 8 bags of cement.

Loan sharks
Due to the low pay, the workers say they have to borrow money to survive, either from Cemenco or from private loan sharks.

- When my mother died recently, I borrowed the equivalent of 3 monthly wages from Cemenco in order to arrange her funeral. I have to pay back the loan in 6 months, says one worker and shows the deduction on his pay slip.

Another worker explains that in order to survive he has had to take up various loans from private loan sharks at an interest rate of 25%. He says that he has no chance to service these loans.

- Tomorrow I'll have to pay 3 months' rent of 600 Liberian dollars for my flat, but I have no money and I have no idea how I'll be able to pay what I owe, he says.

He explains that he also has no money for food for himself and his family this day, and many of the other workers are in the same situation. School expenses for the children is another big problem. The fees vary according to grade, and it costs a family 7,000 Liberian dollars, equivalent to an ordinary half year's salary, to have a child in 4th grade in elementary school. The result is that many of the workers cannot afford to send their children to school, or that they just can afford to let one of them attend.

When asked whether they have discussed their salaries and life situation with the union, they all claim that it is "bought" by Cemenco, and that they don't trust the union.

- We're not allowed to have direct negotiations with the Cemenco management, but have to go through the national union, which we don't trust - they're bought by the management, says one worker.

They all make it clear that they are afraid to complain and to discuss their problems with the Cemenco management.

- Then we'll get fired, is the refrain.

Keeping their mouth shut
- One man has run this factory for almost 40 years, but no improvements have taken place, says one of the workers.

He is referring to the German Horst Wallwitz, who has headed Cemenco since the factory started up in 1967. He is also the Norwegian Consul in Liberia, and lives at the German embassy, next door to the recently elected president, Charles Taylor.

Taylor is the man who at Christmas in 1989 started a rebellion against the regime led by Samuel Doe, who came to power after a military coup in 1980. As long as Scancem (previously Norcem) has been in the country, the Norwegian-Swedish corporation has shared the board room in Cemenco with changing dictators and regimes that have been subject to severe criticism by, for example, Amnesty International (see NorWatch no. 2-96).

As laid down in Cemenco's regulations, Scancem has 4 out of the 8 directors of the board, the government has 3 representatives (3 cabinet ministers), while the local small stockholders have 1 representative.

- Either you shut up about the human rights situation in the country, or you have to leave, comments Gemawat in Cemenco on that issue.

Scancem in Liberia
Scancem AB owns 62% of the stocks in the cement company Cemenco in Liberia. The national authorities own 29% while small local stockholders own 9% of the stock. The factory runs two cement mills and a packing plant with a production capacity of 220,000 metric tons cement a year.

Due to the war, production has been low since 1989; in 1997 it is expected to reach 20,000 metric tons. Cemenco has a monopoly on sale of cement in Liberia, and sells the cement in the country for 7 US dollars a bag.

Scancem AB is owned 41,2% by Aker RGI and 47% by the Swedish company Skanska.

Norwatch Newsletter 14/97