Tole Tea Workers Leading the Fight for Social Justice
For the past four months, if you take a walk or drive by the Labour office in Buea, Cameroon , you are bound to see over 500 people (mostly women 40 or older), sleeping, sitting or lying outside on the ground in the dust or on concrete. At the main entrance to this building, placards are hung in a straight line making a fence, carrying messages like: “Refugees Camp in Cameroon”, “…only death or money can remove us here”, “who owns the Tole Tea Estates; Brobon or Danpullo?"
Some of them have developed pains, suffered heart attacks, caught colds and infections, as there is only one pit toilet shared among the 500 women and men present.
Since September 12th , the Ex-Cameroon Tole Tea (CTE) Workers have occupied the Labour office and National Security building here. All in demand for what is rightfully theirs: severance that was supposed to be paid to them a decade ago when the tea plantation was privatized.
The ex-Tole tea workers incident demands a reflection on the state of social justice and workers’ rights in Cameroon.
This is a very serious problem in the country: protecting workers rights and providing social justice.
Ten years back, in the media nationwide, the government of Cameroon announced privatizing the tea plantations, which included Tole Tea Estate situated in Tole Village in the Southwest region.
News reports first said Tole Tea had been bought by a South African-based company known as Brobon Finex, whose chairperson was Derrick Garvie. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that Tole Tea was owned by a Northwest Cameroonian-based tycoon by the name of Ahaji Danpullo.
Ahaji Danpullo, highly influential in the country, owns multi-mega companies, countless herds of cattle and abundant hectares of land. He also is the proprietor of one of the leading satellite TV stations in the country.
In October 2002, a convention was signed determining the terms of privatization of the tea sector which demanded that all workers jobs, conditions and privileges for employees would remain the same should workers agree to sign a contract to work with the new employer.
It is important to note that, in that time, employees for the tea sector were housed in camps on the plantation land. Schools were built for employees’ children, health care and other facilities were provided to the employees and their families.
In addition, the Cameroon legislation at that time stipulated that employers terminating employees’ contracts should ensure that their employees be paid all entitlements which include a so-called good separation bonus. And in this case, the government which was the CTE former employer was supposed to pay these due on or before October 2002. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case.
And shortly after the new management of the Tole Tea Estate under the leadership of Ahaji Danpullo, the benefits agreed upon were gradually breached. By 2006, all these workers who were in total 736 were dismissed without compensation. In order words, Danpullo did not honour the privatization agreement nor did the government in its own part.
The resulting effect to these led to strike demonstrations in February and July 2006. Later, some of the workers were arrested in the cause and this action by the GMI Police angered the workers more, so much so that the female workers stripped naked at the GMI Police Station where the arrested male colleagues were kept until they were realized.
This behaviour by the female tea workers, besides other mounted pressure led to former Prime Minister .H.E. Ephraim Inoni to summon an adhoc committee meeting in August 2006 on the verification of the social rights of the Tole CTE workers.
Attendance for the meeting were some six ministers; six CTE Management including Danpullo and six worker representatives of Tole and CTE Head Office, Bota.
In the meeting, nine resolutions were adopted. And these resolutions were meant to be respected and realized soonest. Over the years, seven of the resolutions have been realized except for two; articles seven and nine. Both talk about the good separation bonuses or “a golden handshake”, which is the main reason the ex-CTE Workers have been sleeping in an open air since September 12.
“No human being should be allowed to live in an open space for over four months” Pa Nicholas, former ex-CTE Worker, said when interviewed on the Tole Tea workers sit-down demonstration.
It hurts to see old mothers and fathers suffering. And it hurts most to realize that a state can leave part of its population, especially the old, exposed to health risks and other forms of human security threats.
It is true that in some situations, governments worldwide haven’t served in the interest of its people. But the case of Cameroon is most complicated to address.
On most instances, standing up against unjust practices and for fairness and equality in Cameroon, even at a minimal level, is often very challenging, painful, and exhausting. However, this shouldn’t be a reason not to keep fighting for social justice. And I believe that if the citizens embrace such commitment and devotion like those of the ex-CTE workers in condemning unjust practices, there might be a significant decrease on the level of employers’ abuse on workers’ rights.
This brings us back to the severance due. As explained by Ma Regina, an Ex-CTE Worker, “A good separation bonus simply means the old employer pays a worker a negotiable amount depending on the employee length of service and salary”.
A spokesman for the Ex-CTE Workers, Bate Atem said “It has stopped from being a Labour problem. It is now a social problem”.
And in an interview with the Regional Delegate for Youth affairs, Buea , since his office building is the nearest official structural to the Labour Office building, he stated “ my personal worry is the youth under their care, the effect of these young people living without parental control might be dangerous to our society”.
The fact that the Tole crisis has slowly expanded into a social issue is already threatening to the community and the nation at large. For example, the Tole Estates was estimated to have a population of 5,264 in the year 2006, with the majority being women and children. And three-quarters of these workers are the breadwinners to their families and extended relations.
With the shutdown of the Estate and the abuse of workers’ rights and agreement, the estate’s population, especially the women, are exposed to social challenges and health risks due to their vulnerability and increased level of unemployment.
For instance, it is obvious that once a person loses her / his financial grounds and social status, (s)he becomes emotional distressed and traumatized; having invested so much so that life won’t become uncomfortable.
And as a woman and a daughter, seeing another woman, a mother subjected to such harsh conditions saddens me. Worse of all as a women’s human rights defender seeing women’s human rights violated just metres away from my base is offensive.
Being a student, knowing what it means to lose an academic year makes me feel extremely sad for the Ex-CTE Workers’ children for losing this academic year. And yet, their parents have not received any compensation from the government.
“Education is a gift and should never be denied to a child; directly or indirectly”, Ma Indingo, Ex-CTE Worker explained when interviewed on the Tole Tea workers sit-down demonstration
This is a very sensitive issue and should be resolved with care and interest.
I strongly recommend that proper counselling and guidance be offered to these kids, during the post-demonstration moments. So as to enable the children to grow up without nursing bitter hatred and grievances against the state, especially those of the Labour office sector.
Though as of now, very little research is made available to know the total numbers of children who stayed out of school due to the Ex-CTE Camping at the Labour Office. Nonetheless, based on past experiences from different communities, there are certain consequences that are common and the CTE situation is not very dissimilar.
And I hope that, sooner would this cause come to a pleasant end and may this endeavour bring meaningful change and end abuse of workers’ rights in Cameroon.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.