Revelations of mistreatment of workers add to a picture of widespread labor abuse in Cameroon amidst rising socio-political and economic challenges.
Workers, including maids, cleaners and other domestic workers are being subjected to slave-like labor conditions in Cameroon, with many complaining they have been deprived of work contracts, wages, days off, holidays, and freedom to move jobs, a Mimi Mefo Info investigation reveals.
Indians and Lebanese are said to be the worst employers of labor in the West African country, Cameroon.
Complaints of Indians subjecting workers in Cameroon to slave labor have increased geometrically in recent months because the government is giving a blind eye to these harsh conditions.
Many complain of physical and sexual abuse, harassment, long periods without pay, and the confiscation of mobile phones.
A case in point is a company at the Douala Industrial Zone in Bonaberi known as Harjaarp Sarl. The company is owned by two Indian brothers – Jimmy and Petit Sonny.
The company produces iron rods and other related products, as well as Aluminium Lengos, and Copper Lengos. It also refills oxygen and nitrogen cylinders for commercial purposes.
Harjaarp Sarl workers are expected to put in 12 hours of work each day with the risk of having a day canceled if the Indian employers and supervisors so desire.
“The moment a worker is accused of being stubborn towards an Indian supervisor, their pay for the day is canceled. That is how we have been forfeiting our salaries after days of arduous toil,” a worker at Harjaarp Sarl told Mimi Mefo Info investigators.
“We work without contracts. They take advantage of our desperation to have jobs. They maximize profits through cheap labor. Without a contract, one can be dismissed from the company at any time,” another worker added with tears building up in his eyes.
Our investigations reveal that all administrators and supervisors at Harjaarp Sarl are Indians who each earn a minimum of FCFA 600,000 monthly. The most paid Cameroonian worker at Harjaarp Sarl goes home with FCFA 81,000 each month.
“These Indians spend their time insulting us. They call us ‘penchut’ which means ‘slave’. That’s all they do to merit their salaries. Whereas, those of us (blacks) who work at Harjaarp Sarl are treated like shit and paid crumbs,” one of the workers at Harjaarp Sarl told MMI on the grounds of anonymity.
At Harjaarp Sarl, workers are not provided with protective equipment. They neither have raincoats and booths, nor do they have gloves, overalls, and headgears.
“The few who are lucky to get some form of protective wears and uniforms are those who have worked uninterruptedly for six months. The situation has been further compounded by Chadians and Central African Republicans who are ready to work for wages lower than FCFA 2,000 a day. This influx of cheap labor providers has made our situation worse,” a worker said.
We learnt that corruption is further fuelling the slave labor conditions.
“Whenever controllers from the Ministry of Labour and Social Security come here, they are bribed with huge envelopes and that is all. When making confidential reports on the situation to the authorities, they sell us out and we are dismissed,” laments a worker at Harjaarp Sarl.
Our investigations reveal that phones are not allowed at Harjaarp Sarl. We also found out that these Indians who occupy top positions at Harjaarp Sarl do not treat their domestic staff any better. The same situation is true for the Lebanese who run a large business in Muyuka Subdivision, South West region of Cameroon.
Our investigation reveals:
Controllers at the Ministry of Labour and Social Security and civil administrators in the area are more interested in receiving bribes than in doing their work.
Some workers say they have not been paid for months.
Many housemaids do not get days off and earn less than FCFA 25,000 monthly. (Cameroon’s minimum wage is above FCFA 36,000 a month).
Some contracts and job descriptions are changed once the workers arrive on the job.
Women, and men alike, are sexually assaulted.
The non-payment of wages, confiscation of phones, and the inability of workers to leave their employer constitute forced labor under UN rules. According to the International Labour Organisation, forced labor is “all work which is exacted from someone under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily”.
Lack of consent can include induced indebtedness and deception about the type and terms of work, withholding or non-payment of wages, and the retention of identity documents. Initial consent may be considered irrelevant when deception or fraud has been used to obtain it.
“Menace of penalty” can include physical violence, deprivation of food and shelter, non-payment of wages, the inability to repay a loan, exclusion from future employment, and removal of rights and privileges.
Modern-day slavery is estimated to affect up to 21 million people across the globe.
Some domestic staff working for Indians and Lebanese complained of pay being withheld, insufficient food, overwork, and maltreatment. Some said they had endured verbal and physical abuse by employers/supervisors of foreign nationalities.
“We are afraid,” said 28-year-old Jane*. “We don’t really know what to do. We are trying to survive. That’s why we are forced to work under such horrifying conditions.”
Our findings show that many domestic and even office staff have suffered abuses in the workplace, ranging from excessive working hours to physical violence.
Many maids say they do not get any rest days and that employers confiscate their mobile phones.
The exploitation raises further concerns about labor practices in Cameroon as the country posts to emerge by 2035. The treatment of construction workers in stadia to host the 2022 African football Cup of Nations as well as on the various hydropower project sites is pitiable.
The Cameroon government and its competent services must sit up before foreigners transform all its citizens into slaves.
*Names withheld to protect identities