Nigerian workers, unite!
On this auspicious international May Day holiday, the plight of Nigerian workers remains as harrowing as it is pathetic. The working population is the engine-room of a functional society that should in turn grease it for efficiency. In Nigeria, workers are hard done by the culpable inefficient state that perpetually scorns them. But inherent in the catastrophe are opportunities for beleaguered workers to pushback and demand better deals from the 2023 political season. And if there is ever any time the workers need to harmonise their numerical strength in enlightened self-interest, it is now!
Fate of world workers has rarely been rosy. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels since 1848 repudiated the oppressive lot of workers in the famous The Communist Manifesto, concluding with the time immemorial battle cry: “proletarians of all countries, unite!” Obedience to the slogan has significantly turned the tide of the employer-employee class conflicts in favour of workers in all civilised societies, including the 80 that are commemorating the international Labour Day this week. Sadly, the Nigerian state is an agonising exception in that triumphant struggle.
The parlous condition of the country mirrors that of its workers more. In its oppressive administrative model, the state is a dichotomy between the ruling elites that live in affluence and the impoverished masses that are in squalor. In the mix, are alienated workers living in a state that commoditises their very existence and pay pittance to have them perpetually dependent on the ruling bourgeoisies. Compounded by the maladministration of the socio-economic landscape, Nigerian workers have lifelong been swimming against the current.
First, the ruling class has connived to ruin industrialisation programmes and scare investors away to have the aberration of government becoming the highest employer of labour. Second, unfriendly business environments and other economic woes did not only starve the proletarian population of new opportunities, it has further thrown many out of jobs with the unemployment rate officially pegged at 33.3 per cent. A lot more of the employed are actually in the underemployment circle, earning less than the N30,000 minimum wage a month! That informed the World Bank’s recent report that only 17 per cent of employed Nigerians hold the wage jobs that can lift them out of poverty.
Most harrowing is that workers are also battered by high inflation that has officially ballooned to 15.9 per cent. Cost of living is pushing higher amid poor pay, deprivation of basic amenities and general security. The Nigerian Living Standards Survey (NLSS) estimated that a whopping 40.1 per cent (82.9 million) Nigerians are poor by national standard – earning below N376.5 per day. And in a country that offers very little hope, the in-thing is migration of the very best of professionals into Europe, America and fellow African countries that value and reward their competencies. Those that do not have the means in the north are migrating to the south in drove to escape daylight terrorism and banditry.
The perilous times for Nigerian workers notwithstanding, their unassailable relevance is not lost on their oppressors and the state. In all establishments, be it public or private, offices or homes, boardrooms or entrance gates, are categories of workers that wheel activities. They are the life of any organisation that no right thinking employer can take for granted. And it is in that consciousness that abounds the unspoken power of one labour force that unionism rides on. In Nigeria, as revealed by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), there are over 30 million Nigerians in active employment. Another half of that figure is underemployed. Prima facie, that is an irrepressible potential people-power that no group of oppressors or oppressive state can outclass. And therein, lies the hope of the Nigerian workers in particular and the country in general.
Regrettably, the labour unions have rarely had more than a superficial interest in floundering policies of the state; nor do they attempt to gain a major foothold on general welfare of members. Real activism from the unions has waned since military rule. What has replaced unionism of old is corrupt hobnobbing with the politicians, divide and rule of the unions, internal wrangling, sectionalism and complete lack of harmony among sister unions. Their loss has been the gains of wrongheaded officeholders that have brazenly formed emperors over general affairs. Otherwise, why should essential workforce in healthcare services, university lecturers and judicial workers embark on long-drawn-out industrial actions where a solidarity protest by the NLC or even NUPENG would have compelled an intransigent administration to buckle down faster?
Why should scores of Nigerians and workers get killed almost daily and the entire workers’ unions see no reason to press for state police or demand accountability for national resources that are routinely railroaded into security without appreciable progress? Why is there so much poverty, unpaid salaries, outstanding pensions and gratuities in states where executive governors freely squander the state resources with reckless abandonment? Why should the power and refineries sectors continue to defy solutions despite huge capital votes, and more than 80 per cent of crude oil get stolen and the union of workers sees no existential doom awaiting the state?
On the flip side, there is a lot more that the workers’ unions can do to change the narrative. As major stakeholders with numerical advantage in the Nigerian project, it begins with telling the ruling elite that ‘enough is enough’ in the consistent mismanagement of general concerns. It begins with formidable unity, groups and teams that cannot be bought by moneybags currently milling round. The workers must realise that they are today facing the consequences of the wrong choices made yesterday. And to have a better Nigeria tomorrow, and deservedly so, they need to make different choices at the next poll. The political season offers an opportunity for workers to unite in agenda setting and not settle for scoundrels. They must begin to separate the whiff from the chaff, bargain and elicit a detailed strategy on how aspirants will address each of their concerns. To these millions of workers belongs the power to rally their immediate environment to choose only those they can trust and can hold accountable.
Similarly, it is imperative to step up the pressure on accountability at every layer of our corporate existence. The enormity of corruption walking on all four in Nigeria is huge and it cuts across the board. Collectively, workers must look inwards and demand probity from the system. At every segment, be it public, private and domestic also, employers must learn to treat their employees well enough, and vice versa, for mutual survival.
Beyond the charade of workers’ parades that often commemorate the May Day celebration across the 36 states, the larger consciousness should revolve around an end to oppressive regimes, irresponsible leadership and permeating corruption that has made working and living in Nigeria harrowing. It is time for workers in their numbers to pushback through their bargaining power. They have nothing to lose but their misery. Nigerian workers, unite! Happy workers’ day to all Nigerians.