Dignifying Labour in Nigeria

I have been following with keen interest the recent strike embarked upon by members of the Prof. Ukachukwu Awuzie – led Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), likewise the various comments from some of the concerned stakeholders, each advocating ways of ending the strike. My interest was influenced by two main factors; first as a former student and second as a former university teacher though in the United Kingdom. I could relate to what the affected students are going through especially those in their final year because my graduation and NYSC call – up was almost derailed by the many ASUU strikes of the 90s when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Uyo particularly the long forced stay-at-home in 1992. This was in the days of the Attahiru Jega – led ASUU.

As generous as the federal government’s 40% salary increase offer made by the federal government appointed Gamaliel Onosode Re-negotiating committee to ASUU may seem, as against the 109% increase the lecturers are asking for; ASUU maintains that the issue goes beyond money, that they are actually looking at the bigger issue of access to university education in Nigeria. As the impasse continues to the disadvantage of the students, one can see a servant (ASUU) / master (federal government) relationship at play once again which may have influenced the application of the ‘tokenism’ concept by the master in resolving the issue to the neglect of the other issues ASUU has raised. Whatever ASUU may be fighting for, the current strike has provided a good opportunity for the government and employers of labour in Nigeria to look at the recurring issue of employee welfare and benefits in Nigeria.

A casual look at many of the sectors will easily expose the disparity in conditions of service amongst the various categories of staff. There is now a ‘we’ against ‘them’ culture in place in many organisations and sectors which also reflects in compensation and conditions of service; the ‘we’ being the high salary earners with mouth-watering perks, and the ‘them’ being those caught unfortunately in the bottom cadre, including artisans and other sundry service providers such as vulcanisers, bricklayers, drivers, mechanics, cooks, office assistants etc who service and prop up the ‘high yallas’.

One need not be a sociologist to observe that the great disparity in pay and conditions of services has led to a condition I chose to describe as the ‘dehumanisation of the Nigerian worker’, and the ‘pauperisation of the professions’. This has resulted in a crisis of confidence, and forced extinguishing of the career dreams of some of those who find themselves practicing certain trades and rendering certain services in Nigeria which society seem to have come to regard as dead-beats but this should not be so.

It is as if the Nigerian society accords no regards and dignity to drivers, teachers, nurses, members of the police force and other armed services, tradesmen and other artisans hence the very low wages and income they earn. It may seem also that some of these categories of workers have come to accept the presumed low status of their jobs, and also fail to see how their services contribute to national development, thus, they do not act in ways that dignify their labour and profession. Sometimes in Nigeria, if you bring a workman or artisan into your home, you are asking for trouble. If you look the other way, he or she will rob you dry just like the guys that came to do some repairs at my house the other day. I haven’t set my eyes on my Samsung camera or my Diesel wrist watch since they left, and who knows what else? Take your car to be fixed by the mechanic and all he may be thinking about is how to take some of your car spare parts and replace them with bad or reconditioned ones. It is as if the culture of cheating has now been entrenched in all the trades and professions.

During this ASUU strike period, I found myself visiting the Bar Beach police station on Ahmadu Bello Way, Victoria Island, Lagos where my trusted driver of almost 16 months was being detained on suspicion of stealing my Nokia handset containing my United Kingdom T-Mobile contract SIM card which he used to chalk up calls of over two thousand four hundred pounds (£2,400) without my knowledge, an offence he readily admitted to in addition to confessions of other stuffs he has been stealing from me.

While attending to this matter, the opportunity presented itself severally to banter with some of the police officers I met at the station. I came away with the impression that yes, some members of the police force do take bribes but perhaps the government and the Police Service Commission are yet to grasp the ticking time bomb they have on their hands as they continue to play politics with the issue of police welfare, training and equipment, the lack of which may be at the root of all the other issues bedevilling the police force in Nigeria. During one of my visits, I met a band of junior police officers celebrating a recent promotion, on enquiry, one of them told me that his has been 16 years in coming. How can this be acceptable?

This scenario also plays itself out in the education, health and other strategic sectors. From the Bar Beach police station, you could see the multi-storey building located at the back which serves as barracks or quarters to some of the police officers. The run-down building can only be described as somebody’s nightmare and you wouldn’t expect any police officer living inside any of the flats to come to work in the morning with bright ideas of how to crack the rising armed robbery and kidnapping menace in Nigeria. I am told that police barracks all over Nigeria are also in similar states, and some are in even worse conditions.

Back in the United Kingdom, I was attracted to university teaching because it was one of the highly regarded professions. Alongside members of the Police Authorities, Nurses and other allied health workers, teachers were categorised as Key workers by the UK government. Around 2002/2003, we all benefitted from a scheme introduced by the UK government known as Key Worker Living Scheme. The scheme gave priority social housing to members of the profession I mentioned who are covered by the scheme. The U.K government also gave qualifying key workers the sum of £50,000 as down payment towards the purchase of their own homes. Aspiring teachers had their Post-Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) teacher training tuition paid for them and also received a bursary of £6,000 during their training year. Science, Maths, Engineering and shortage subjects teachers received higher bursaries and a special ‘golden hello’ sum of £10,000 if they completed their training and signed on to a teaching job. Teachers’ salaries were comprehensively reviewed upwards and in most cases were higher than what the private sector was paying. This led to many people leaving banks and other private establishments to join teaching. For both the teachers, the government and the society, one could see a high regard for the teaching profession, and the teachers really felt a sense of dignity of labour and didn’t have to wait till they got to heaven for their reward.

While you may think that the teachers were having it all laid out for them on a golden plate, a massive shortage of skills hit the trade sector comprising plumbers, bricklayers, technicians, builders, electricians and such other skilled and semi-skilled craftsmen. These category of workers commanded higher hourly rates than even the teachers and some city workers. Around this time, there was a reported case of a university teacher resigning his teaching job to learn the plumbing trade. These tradesmen or ‘white van men’ as they are called view their job with a high sense of professionalism, they are dedicated to good workmanship hence the hi

gh premium they charge and the society also recognises their importance and compensates them adequately.

In our own situation, such tradesmen may have been pushed to view themselves in negative lights hence the low fees many of them attract. Rather than looking at ways to add value to the work they do, many like my driver have now resorted to underhand activities to live a lifestyle they have not worked hard for. A driver today wants to live big like his Oga, without knowing that his so-called Oga may have paid his dues along the way offering similar type of services in the past before getting to where he may be in life presently. My driver could not believe it the day I told him all the different odd jobs I did when I went to Europe newly; from cleaning office complexes to loading containers at a clothing factory, later graduating to dish washing at a hotel, driving Nigeria – bound cars from Germany to London, and later still as a student, working nights as a security officer while I went to college in the day.

It was at the police station that I told the investigating police officer what I thought the problem with our society was. People, particularly young people are so much in a hurry to reap where they did not sow, workers not having a passion for the work they do, the society not having any regard for some type of professions and workers. There is so little pride left among the professions. In Nigeria, unless you work in a bank, oil, telecommunications or any of the other upscale fat-salary paying professions, the society appears to have little regard for you. There is no longer dignity of labour but great nations have always been built on the strength of the productivity of skilled and semi-skilled workers whose services are recognised, appreciated and rewarded accordingly.

Written by
Uche Nworah
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