INVESTIGATION: How Visafone conned 2,000 workers into mass resignation before MTN takeover

Visafone Communications Ltd tricked over 2,000 employees into disengagement to pave way for its takeover last January by telecom giant, MTN, PREMIUM TIMES investigation reveals.

On January 7, MTN Nigeria announced it had completed the acquisition of Visafone, then the only surviving Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) network in Nigeria’s telecommunications industry.

The acquisition figure, believed to be a landmark deal, is wrapped in secrecy just as the circumstances under which the workers were kissed goodbye.

The News Agency of Nigeria had reported that over 2,000 employees of Visafone were disengaged with effect from January 5and paid three months’ salaries as severance package. However, PREMIUM TIMES can authoritatively reveal that the Visafone employees were conned into mass resignation.

MTN Nigeria office
MTN Headquarters

In a desperate move to shed the workers and spare MTN any labour issues, the human resources department of Visafone resorted to impersonation by writing resignation letters in the names of each and every one of the employees without their knowledge.

Then, tricks, coercion, intimidation and cunnings were brought to bear to make the workers sign the letters they did not write. This ploy was the only resort ostensibly to protect Visafone from paying full entitlements to employees who built the company from scratch into a 2 million-telephone-line business.

PREMIUM TIMES gathered that two days before MTN publicly announced its acquisition of Visafone, employees of the latter had turned up for work on January 5 only to be served two letters each by the Human Resources. One was a letter of resignation already crafted by the management on behalf of the receiver employee. The other was an acknowledgment letter from the management accepting the purported resignation.

Both letters, sighted by this newspaper, were backdated to December 30, 2015.

One of the affected staff, Olachi Onuorah, who served the company for five years and six months described the tactics employed by Visafone to get rid of its workers as a scam.

She told PREMIUM TIMES that all the employees were left bewildered upon receiving the two letters from the Head of Human Resources, Theodora Chukwuma.

“Up until that fateful day the mass resignation letters were distributed, Visafone had repeatedly brushed aside every enquiries from employees who demanded to be told the true situation of the company after news of imminent takeover began to come from the industry grapevine. The management kept feeding us lies and denials, saying there was no truth in the rumour,” she said.

Mrs. Onuorah, one of the former Visafone workers that petitioned the Ministry of Labour in the wake of the mass sack, insists that Visafone’s tactics was an act of impersonation and one that must be questioned by the law.

“I have no problem getting disengaged if a company that employed me has been taken over by another; however the disengagement must be done in a manner that satisfies best practices, such that guarantee the payment of my full entitlements as required by International Labour Law,” she added.

Visafone’s agitated former employees disclaimed the mass resignation letters which they said were calculated to rob them of their full benefits. They accused Visafone of resorting to contrivance as a means of laying off workers without paying full severance packages. With the workers tricked into mass resignation, all they got was three months’ salary and monetized leave.

Several copies of the controversial resignation letters sighted by PREMIUM TIMES showed that all the letters have the same words and punctuations and the same paragraphs and computer font indicating they were written by the same person.

They read: “I hereby resign my employment with Visafone Communications Limited effective 30th day of December 2015. I wish to thank the company for giving me the opportunity to serve.”

Similarly, all the acceptance letters from the management carried the same tone and date: 30th December 2015. The only uniqueness to the resignation letters are the individual names of the employees at the bottom.

Jim Ovia
Jim Ovia

Shedding more light to the controversial mass resignation, Mrs. Onuorah said that when the workers received the letters written in their names and were told to sign, there was a collective objection. They reminded the management that the resignation was never discussed at any time and that by the letter the employees were technically being asked to fire themselves.

“The Human Resources Manager, Theodora Chukwuma, told everybody that the resignation letters were merely a formality and that it was the only way for former Visafone workers to start on a new slate with MTN since most of them were going to be reabsorbed any way.”

“Different ways were used to arm-twist the workers into signing a letter they did not write. Those that bought the re-employment story began to sign. The Management went personal with some of us that refused to sign. Theodora Chukwuma kept mounting pressure on me all day and kept using languages that bothered on intimidation.

“I was told to take the three-month salary offer or risk spending a lifetime fighting a company that will soon cease to exist. Finally, sensing that I was standing alone, I signed. I must have been the last person to sign,” Mrs. Onuorah said.

Labour lawyer, Oghenero Ukpe, told PREMIUM TIMES that Visafone’s action of authoring a letter of resignation for about 2,000 employees was tantamount to forgery and impersonation.

“The question we must ask Visafone is: was it the company that wrote the letter of application for each of the workers to be employed? If no, on what authority did it act in writing the purported letter of resignation? The fact that the workers signed these letters under duress makes the said resignation null and void. It is of the same reasons that wills are contested and nullified when it becomes known that the owner did not write it of its own free will or was not in a proper state of mind,” Mr. Ukpe said.

CHALLENGED ACQUISITION

Mass resignation is not the only controversy trailing the acquisition of Visafone by MTN Nigeria. Last February, rival telecoms operator, Etisalat, dragged MTN to court to prevent the latter from using the 800MHz spectrum it acquired from Visafone to deploy broadband services ahead of its competitors, arguing that doing so will further entrench MTN’s dominance in the Nigerian telecommunications sector.

Visafone was one of the leading CDMA/ICT companies in Nigeria, offering a number of services, which include voice, high speed data (3G), internet and other Value Added Services (VAS).

PREMIUM TIMES called Visafone’s office in Abuja for comment on the forgery allegations. A male voice responded but refused to disclose his identity just as he pleaded he could not speak on the matter as he was no longer in the employ of the company. He only added that he used to work in the Corporate Affairs department of Visafone.

PREMIUM TIMES telephoned Jim Ovia, the former owner and founder of Visafone, on his mobile. On two occasions the calls were not taken. An SMS was sent but still was not responded to after five days.

etisalat
Etisalat

In response to PREMIUM TIMES enquiry, Funso Aina, PR and Protocol Manager in MTN’s Corporate Services Division, sent an email reply:

“Last January, following media interest in MTN’s acquisition of Visafone and subsequent allegations of mass sack, the founder of Visafone, Mr. Jim Ovia, issued a categorical statement on the matter where he said, ‘Contrary to media reports, MTN did not sack 2,000 staff or any staff for that matter. However, out of the total 350 professional staff that Visafone had prior to the acquisition, some voluntarily resigned and were adequately compensated.’

“MTN subscribes to the highest ethical standards in all transactions and our acquisition of Visafone was concluded after obtaining all necessary statutory and regulatory approvals.”

Reacting to MTN’s claim, Mr. Ukpe said while the firm may have necessary regulatory approvals, it may not have acted right on with its due diligence on labour issues.

“Of course regulatory approval came from the National Communication Commission but that is not what we are talking about here,” he said. “The labour component is a big issue in any takeover anywhere in the world and a company like MTN should have known better. It is not a matter you tackle in a hatchet manner rather by negotiation.”

The lawyer added that if MTN’s due diligence could not detect the serious issue of forgery and impersonation, the telecoms company should know that when it acquired Visafone, it also acquired the liabilities.


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