Nigerian workers tackle French employers over restructuring

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Workers of multinational pharmaceutical company, Swiss Pharma Nigeria Limited (Swipha), have protested against what they described as unfair treatment by the management of the company.

The workers, who sang solidarity songs as they crowded the company’s office in the Akowonjo area of Lagos State, on Monday, alleged that the firm’s new Managing Director, Gaby El Khoury, introduced certain policies which were “enslaving”.

PUNCH Metro reports that Swipha, a drug manufacturing company established in 1976, had a financial crisis that led to its acquisition in March 2017 by Biogaran-Servier, a company based in France.

The new management was said to have appointed an acting Managing Director, identified as Romie, a Briton, in an elaborate takeover ceremony.

However, after Romie left the company in June, the new helmsman, El Khoury, a Lebanese, took charge and promised to restructure Swipha with better deals for all workers.

Problem started in December 2017 when workers in the Pharma division (marketing and sales) allegedly received letters asking them to sign a new contract which placed them on probation for six months.

A new handbook also served the workers allegedly stated that upon their resignation or sack, they would not work in any pharmaceutical company in the country for one year.

Some of the workers, who had attained retirement age, were allegedly verbally dismissed.

A breakdown in communication between the labour unions and the management of the company led to a shutdown of the firm.

Some of the protesting workers, who spoke with our correspondent on Monday, said they were not against the restructuring, but the new policies. A product manager, who had worked with the company for about 10 years, said, “When El Khoury came, we were told some managers would have to leave and we agreed as it is the norm with every acquisition.

“Apart from the sacks, many of the area and product managers were demoted and made sales reps. Less than two weeks afterwards, he recruited new managers from his former soap-making company. This is a pharmaceutical company. There are some controlled drugs that only pharmacists can carry. Now, we have pharmacists with experience being demoted and headed by non-pharmacists with no experience.

“Late last year, we were given new appointment letters. In the new contract, which they asked us to sign, once you are relieved of your job, you cannot work in any pharmaceutical industry for the next one year and you would be on probation for six months. As a pharmacist, where else are you expected to work? The company can as well sack you within a month and you lose everything. The contract means the company has disengaged you and is employing you afresh as a beginner.

“Also, some staff members that were well paid, like commissioned reps, were placed on N50,000 salaries. These are people you expect to go to distributors to pick goods and transport them around, supplying pharmaceutical outlets around Lagos. How will they cope with N50,000 as salary and transportation fares? With the fuel scarcity, I spend N1,000 every day to get to work. And these are guys who used to collect N35,000 as transport fares, with five per cent interest on total monthly sales, aside from their salaries.”

Another worker explained that the staff members were not to blame for the financial problem that led to the takeover of the company.

He noted that the firm was the first WHO GMP approved company in sub-Saharan Africa and obtained the first ISO certification in Nigeria due to the hard work of workers.

He said when Swipha issued the workers the new appointment letters, the two unions in the company, National Union of Chemical, Footwear, Rubber, Leather and Non-Mettalic Products Employees (NUCFLANMPE) and the Chemical and Non-metallic Products Senior Staff Association (CANMPSSA), sought audience with El Khoury, but he declined.

He said, “Our working days used to be from Monday to Friday. But as part of the change, the company said our working days will be from Monday to Saturday.

“The company didn’t pay those in the sales and marketing department because they refused to sign the new contract letters. When we saw that the MD did not heed the call for a dialogue, we had a congress meeting and decided that we would sit from 8am to 5pm without working for two days.

“Sometime last week, he wrote CANMPSSA and agreed to a meeting in Sheraton. At the meeting, the union said the company had breached several Nigerian labour laws and that it should return to the status quo. Swipha agreed that the manner it went about the restructuring was wrong, but said it cannot return to status quo. They had some agreements at the meeting.

“But around 7pm that Thursday, over 20 armed mobile policemen took over the premises. Some workers also started receiving text messages from the company that Swipha had been shut.”

Another worker said tension started mouting in the firm when the MD started coming to the office with three armed mopols.

He called for a review of the new policies and the reopening of the firm for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

Two retirees of the company, Samuel Adeile and Ajibola Babatunde, said they were disappointed with the way they were disengaged from the company.

“I was formally employed in 2001. In December 2017, the new human resources officer called those affected one by one and said from the end of the month, we should stop coming to work. No formal retirement letter, no benefits, no entitlements,” he said.

A statement signed by the company’s management addressing some of the enquiries from PUNCH Metro on Wednesday, said Biogaran, the second largest French Pharmaceutical Group, acquired Swipha as part of its expansion plans to other African countries.

It said, “When Biogaran bought over Swipha, the firm was in a very poor state; it was heavily indebted to banks, with obsolete machines, huge social debts with backlog of unpaid gratuities, pensions and unpaid leaves. In fact, the company was totally bankrupt and under threat of being seized by banks.

“Upon inception, the new management decided to lift the company up to its group compliance and social policies, corporate governance and benefits for the employees. Management decided to restructure the organisation to ensure efficiency by removing superfluous staff and aligning the firm with global best practices.

“The senior managers in charge of the Pharma division (sales and marketing) were fully engaged in the restructuring process including setting new salaries scale, job grading, staff to retain or disengage.”

The statement said the policy preventing workers from joining competing pharmaceutical company for one year after disengagement was made after an agreement was reached with the workers, adding that it was for a category of senior staff members “who had access to critical company information.”

“It was initiated because of the ugly experience the company had about a year ago when a senior worker left Swipha and went to another pharmaceutical company. He left with the formula of one of our flagship brands,” the statement added.

The company said it discovered that some of the medical reps were involved in certain deals permitted by the former management, which did not help the company.

It said part of such was the sale of drugs to customers who were unknown to the company and at strange prices.

“The major reason given for allowing the practice by the former owners was because of poor salaries. We then decided to engage prominent external auditors to look into the company’s salary structure with a view to aligning it with prevailing industry rate.

“At the end of the exercise, it was truly discovered that the salaries of the medical reps were poor and management decided to substantially raise their salaries (up to tripling them) and to stop this non-compliant situation in line with NAFDAC regulations for controlled drugs.

“Most of the medical reps refused the new system, as they wanted to keep being invoiced directly, by selling it freely to the trade and keep the same advantages.

“In addition, some of the existing sales reps were commissioned agents and not staff of the company. When we came in, we decided to boost their morale by staffing them and placing them on a basic salary in addition to commission ranging up to 200 per cent of their gross salaries,” the company added.

The management said the union members had held a violent protest on the premises which made the company to hire police protection for the managing director.

Swipha said that on January 3, some of the workers attacked one of the cops and attempted to snatch his gun.

It noted that to forestall any tragedy, the company shut down its operations until the security situation improved.

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