May 1st (May Day) is the day set aside in most countries for the celebration of International Workers’ Day (Labour Day). While some people see it as a festivity to be celebrated with pop and pageantry, more circumspect people see it as a day to be handled with its historical background in view. It was a day that was birthed by a struggle and thus we can not separate the day from its roots. As we celebrate humanity’s workforce today, don’t let’s forget the evils that still stare us in the face especially in a developing country like Nigeria. While thinking about the state of labour in Nigeria, many sad realities come to mind but the following three top the list.
1. High Rate of Unemployment
“When large sections of the population aren’t contributing anything to the economy, productivity will be low and the economy will not be viable”
As we celebrate Workers’ Day, we need to remember that a large number of people who are supposed to be working don’t have any work to do. Fifty percent of Nigerian youths are unemployed. This group includes those who have not acquired any skills and thus are not employable — the unschooled, and the untrained. These are people who neither had a higher education nor learnt a trade. They’re products of a failed society, a society that encourages people to have children without any plans to train them. Family size control is not universally embraced within the country, leading to people having unnecessarily large families and children more than the number they can train. A society where access to quality education is difficult will also have a large number of unemployable citizens.
And we should also worry about people, who despite their higher education, still remain unemployable. They go around with their ostentatious certificates from the famous universities but they lack basic competence even in the disciplines they have studied. Employers of labour put them through simple competency tests and they can’t defend their ostentatious certificates. They’ve remained unemployed because they’ve remained unemployable.
Why should we be bothered about this trend? Because it hampers economic growth. An economy develops when ample man hours are put in. When large sections of the population aren’t contributing anything to the economy, productivity will be low and the economy will not be viable. This will show in the critical sectors like agriculture and manufacturing in which we have performed very low.
There’s a gender angle to this pathetic story. Women suffer unemployment more than the men as a large percentage of the women are content with being housewives. This jobless status makes them victims of matrimonial perils as they can’t provide for themselves. Their choices in marital relationships are reduced as they remain at the mercy of their husbands and husband’s family.
And the big one is crime and violence. Cyber crime (‘yahoo yahoo’) which made Nigeria popular for ‘419’ is as a result of unemployment. Youth unemployment has contributed to the large number of political thugs and political violence that we have today. Security of lives and properties is uncertain in a society where the unemployment rate is high as there will be so many bandits, hired killers, abductors, and armed robbers around. You can use military force to chase the agberos off the streets but till they’re gainfully employed, you won’t succeed much. And even though the religious basis of Boko Haram is not in doubt, unemployment is surely one of the contributing factors.
2. Workers’ Welfare
“The take-home pay of most Nigerian workers can not take them home.”
A lot of the so-called employed people are actually underemployed. People take up jobs not because the remuneration is encouraging but because they don’t have a choice. This is common with the private sector where people are employed as contract staff and are paid paltry stipends (chicken change in Nigerian parlance). The take-home pay of most Nigerian workers can not take them home. The issue of minimum wage which stands at a paltry sum of ₦18,000 as we speak should be in the front burner. At the current inflation rate, how much is ₦18,000? At the current exchange rate, Nigeria’s minimum wage is just a little above $60 for a whole month. In the US, the federal government enforced a minimum wage of $2.75/hour and some states even boast of $10/hour. That means the minimum wage of a Nigerian worker can be realized in just a few hours by his American counterpart that’s also on the minimum wage. The Nigerian Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress are presently pushing for a sum of ₦90,000. That will be wonderful if it sails through. If the politicians are carting away humongous amounts of money, the workers deserve much more.
And so many workers have not even been paid for months now. There are workers in the country that are yet to receive June 2015 salary. Imagine people working for 8, 10 months unpaid!
And why exactly do state and local government workers earn less than their federal counterparts? Why should two people who do exactly the same job description and volume of work earn differently just because one works with the state and the other works with the federal government? Is it a curse to work for the state government? These are inexplicable evils being perpetrated in our country. They’re a serious affront on the right of the worker.
So many workers that are due for promotion are yet to be promoted. Some that have been promoted haven’t been paid the emolument that accrues to the new position. Some people work in unsafe environments and have suffered permanent disabilities or even died on duty. Some people are put through extremes of rigor just to milk out extra productivity more than what is normally expected. These scenarios are common in the private sector. Sexual and ethnic harassment happen in work places and nobody is ready to do anything about it. And I don’t need to go through what is happening to the retirees. We all know it. We all know how pensioners queue up endlessly without getting anything and how some of them even die of hunger. A typical Nigerian worker doesn’t enjoy life whether during service or after retirement.
3. Workers’ Lack of Commitment to Work
“In an economy where a large cross-section is jobless and the few ones that are employed are still irresponsible, you can only ask where development will come from.”
While some of the things I’ve highlighted can discourage people from being committed to work, employees don’t have any reason to be negligent. However the picture we have is that so many workers are negligent of their duties. Government offices are filled with people who come late to work and leave early. You enter an office and you meet people sitting down and chatting, leaving their work undone. Picture a government office where the staff arrive around 8 am but do prayer meeting till 9 am before starting the day’s work. In an economy where a large cross-section is jobless and the few ones that are employed are still irresponsible, you can only ask where development will come from.
Dignity of labour is absent in some sectors. The health sector is notorious for this as one group of workers feel they should extend their work description into other people’s. Instead of people to face their work and be happy doing it, they keep envying some other people’s role. This leads to industrial disharmony and ultimately, lack of productivity.
The government at the various levels should stop paying lip service to the issue of employment. Empty promises are useless: what we need is action. The alimanjiris in the North and the agberos in the South can be enrolled into vocational training and gainfully settled down into doing something tangible with their lives. Agriculture can employ large percentages of the population but the government needs to make it attractive.
All employers of labour should take staff welfare and safety seriously. Casualization of workers should stop. Workers too should show commitment to the work they’re being paid for.
Thank you and Happy Workers’ Day in arrears!