October 2, 2022

It is no secret that Chinese have dominated all sectors of the Sierra Leonean economy for the last ten years under the All People’s Congress. They took the largest mine in the country, the Tonkolili Iron Ore Mine, at the peak of the Ebola crisis when the Iron price at the International market fell heavily and the country was further hit by the Ebola epidemic.

Whatever the reasons for the take-over, amidst the very unpleasant economic environment at the time, we as Sierra Leoneans cannot tell. Frank Timis had badly managed the company and having secured huge debts they needed funds badly to recoup the debts but as it was unable this possibly led to recession.

Shandong Iron Ore Mine Group, which had 25% stake in the business, took over the company after series of administrative protocols. The closure of the African Minerals Company left many Sierra Leonean businesses in a very bad shape due to the non payment of series of debts associated with various services they have offered the company. Workers’ initial End of Service Benefits were also not paid while the new owners took responsibility to carry over these benefits and pay whenever personnel are leaving.

It could be recalled that workers who had worked for very long time with African Minerals undertook various strike actions to get Shandong to pay the benefits accrued from AML before they would continue.  Several cries to the APC Government to get Shandong to pay these benefits failed. Labour Ministry was compromised and gave deaf ears to the plea of workers as they were largely compromised against their very people.

Despite all of this the company was enjoying huge tax waivers and tax holidays and also went into agreements with Government to temporarily withhold all “Pay As You Earn” tax (PAYE), NASSIT Contributions on the pretext that the company was not stable by then considering the Ebola and the fall in Iron Ore price. It was also against the backdrop that the company should be able to maintain the bloated workforce they had inherited from African Minerals.

At the end of the day the Chinese company developed a very bad contract with the workers that called for only two months End of Service Benefits for any worker that is leaving the company after serving for any period. The contract has also included other inhumane working conditions. This contract was coerced through workers to sign and was attested by the Ministry of Labour and received the expressed approval of the APC Government.

Shandong has early this week disrespectfully stated that they would only pay half of what they owe the workers as End of Service benefits. Where does this leave the workers who had worked with both African Minerals and Shandong?

It is worthwhile to note that a good number of these workers have taken up series of litigations against the Shandong Iron Ore Mine Group for End of Service Benefits and other related matters. Any attempt by the company to fold up now should be immediately investigated by the new administration.

The new Labour Minister should ascertain whether this company is leaving on a clean slate. There is need to cross check with the NRA and NASSIT to ensure they have fully paid up their tax obligations they owed to personnel and the state.

It is very reasonable that this Company cannot continue to operate aganist the new executive orders by the President, putting a halt to tax waivers and tax holidays.

ROAD CONSTRUCTION

The story is also the same for their involvement in other sectors like road construction and the trade sectors. In the controversial toll road agreement, Sierra Leonean workers working in the construction of the road are paid pittance and treated in a very inhumane way. Chinese workers who supervised the construction do not pay attention to either social or environmental considerations in doing their work. Workers work under very unsafe and dangerous conditions and some have incurred very serious accidents that have been swept under the carpet with pittance given to the victims.

They have continued to acquire huge plots of land from locals in areas where they operate, without due consideration to international and local procedures and laws under the watchful eyes of the APC led government. They have flouted Corporate Social Responsibility issues as they work in several local communities around the country. Their relationship with Sierra Leonean workers, who work very heavily in these projects, is very bad.

Mr. President, it is against this backdrop that we are appealing that all Chinese investments be probed and full scale investigation be conducted on their tax obligations and other welfare related matters with their national workforce.

These companies had a field day and were doing all they wanted to do, coupled up with huge support from some Sierra Leoneans who had managed to occupy the few top cadres of these companies through political patronage. There was complete disregard for local content policy and our labour laws.

Local trade was also badly affected with the coming of the Chinese into the country. A simple example is the local gara-tye dying trade which was very prominent in Makeni and other areas. This died down because the Chinese started bringing a fabric very similar to the gara for pittance. This later saturated the market and killed the gara-tye dying trade.

FISHRIES

The story is also the same for the fishing sector. In Tombo, Goderich, near Freetown, local fishermen have persistently complained that the Chinese companies operating in these areas have put them out of business. Their use of highly sophisticated method of fishing is killing all the young fishes in the sea. Poverty has become endemic in these areas to a point that fishermen who had relied on this sector for their survival could hardly send their kids to school neither afford money to take care of the health needs of their family.

The Ministry of Labour, Mines and politicians, under the past APC regime in the places where they are operating, were largely compromised. Workers as well as communities were not treated as expected by these companies.

Sierra Leoneans in the mining sector, fishing, road construction and other sectors have suffered for so long in the hands of these so called Chinese investors. It is their wish that this state of affairs would be nipped on the bud.