Law News
A’court decides 1,999 disengaged WAPCO workers’ fate

The Lagos Division of the Court of Appeal is set to deliver judgment in the case of 1,999 disengaged workers who sued Lafarge Cement WAPCO Plc, formerly West African Portland Cement Plc, for a breach of contract.

The 1,999 workers are urging the court to declare that Lafarge Cement Plc is indebted to each of them in the sum representing their basic salaries for 24 months with interest.

Justice Hakeem Oshodi of a Lagos State High Court in Ikeja had, in a judgment delivered on June 30, 2008, dismissed their case for lacking in merit.

But the workers, through their lawyer, Mr. Akin Aladesua, have approached the appellate court seeking to determine whether they did not successfully prove to the lower court that the company was indeed indebted to them in the claimed sums.

In their statement of claims, the claimants/appellants explained that sometime in 1998, a former Managing Director with Lafarge Cement Plc, Engr. Joseph Makoju, convened a meeting of the entire workforce of the company where he briefed them on the company’s plan to downsize its workforce. According to them, Makoju had, in the meeting, explained that the company intended to lay off some of the workers in a bid to cut cost, especially in view of the company’s move to build a new plant at Ewekoro, Ogun State, a project which was capital intensive.

Makoju, according to the disengaged workers, explained to them that the redundancy exercise would be in two phases. In the 1st phase, the workers were enjoined to opt for voluntary disengagement, with a promise to get 36 months basic salary if they could take the step. In the 2nd phase, however, a worker could chose to continue to stay until he was compulsorily retired.

It was the case of the claimants/appellants that they chose the first option, particularly in consideration of the fact that, by the nature of their contract of employment with the company, they were not entitled to any form of gratuity.

The workers said that after they had made their decisions known, the company subsequently handed out to them disengagement forms which they filled and submitted through their various heads of department.

They, however, said that shortly after they had submitted those forms, Makoju convened another meeting of the entire workforce, wherein he informed them that the company had changed its offer of 36 months basic salary to 12 months basic salary for the workers who opted for voluntary disengagement.

According to them, this new development was conveyed to the workers in a letter dated January 20, 1999.

And in line with that letter, the workers were subsequently paid their 12 months basic salaries as contained in a letter dated February 10, 1999, which informed them that their bank accounts had been credited.

But the workers said, “This development drew the ire of the appellants and when the respondent realised that the appellants were planning to mobilise and protest the payment of only 12 months basic salaries, the respondent’s management quickly dispatched its letter dated February 12, 1999, to all the appellants.”

The said letter was an acknowledgement of the receipt of the workers’ forms of voluntary disengagement.

One of the paragraphs read, “Please be informed that your final entitlement would be communicated to you in due course.”

But the workers said, “Despite its letter of February 12, 1999, the respondent has steadfastly refused to pay the appellants the remaining 24 months basic salaries and other entitlements which was the basis on which the claimants agreed to voluntarily disengage from the services of the respondent.

“Thus piqued by this development, the WAPCO Workers’ Union and representatives of the 1999 WAPCO disengaged staff held series of meetings with the respondent with a view to recovering the balance of the 24 months basic salaries and other entitlements, but the respondent has refused to yield to the demand of the appellants.”

According to them, it was this failure that necessitated the lawsuit before the Lagos State High Court.

But in the company’s amended statement of defence dated September 28, 2006, it insisted that the only agreement it had with the workers was 12 months basic salaries, as expressed in its letter of January 20, 1999.

The company’s lawyer, Mr. J. Ogunu, said, “Contrary to the stance of the appellants that they were offered 36 months basic salaries and other allowances to induce them to choose the option of voluntary disengagement, what was contained in the letter of January 20, 1999 was the offer of 12 months basic salaries and other allowances.

“This offer of 12 months basic salaries was arrived at after inputs from the workers representatives who sat on the ‘Business Process Review Committee’. This committee was specially set up to make recommendations on the proposed package for voluntary disengagement.”

Giving judgment in the matter, the high court on June 30, 2008 ruled in favour of the company and dismissed the workers’ claims. It was consequent upon this that they had lodged an appeal.

They asked the appellate court to determine “whether the mere acceptance by appellants of their entitlement (that is 12 months basic salaries and allowances), would bar them from contending that they have been short-paid; and that the appellants could therefore be said to have waived their full or remaining entitlements.”

They also want the court to judge whether the oral and documentary evidence they tendered before the lower court had not established that the company had breached any of their legal rights.

In addition, they prayed the appellate court to determine whether or not they had successfully proved that Makoju, acting on behalf of the company, promised them 36 months basic salaries.

In the event that the court ruled in their favour, they want their allegedly outstanding 24 months basic salaries to be paid with interest at the rate of 21 per cent from February 10, 1999 until judgment and at a rate of 15 per cent from the date of judgment until final liquidation of the judgment sum.

They also prayed the court to put the cost of the lawsuit on the company.

After taking final written addresses of the parties on February 26, 2015, the appellate court presided over by Justice Sidi Bage, reserved judgment till a date to be communicated to the parties.

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