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Priority for Nigerian workers’ rights

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The title of this piece is adapted from Saint Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, “The Priority of Labour” (Laborem Excercens) issued on September 14, 1981. It was released to mark the 90th anniversary of another landmark encyclical which was issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, “Rerum Novarum” (The Condition of Labour). I rely on James B Nickoloff’s piece, “Laborem Exercens” in “An Introductory Dictionary of Theology and Religious Studies” to highlight some points from the encyclical. The points are: (1) work enables humankind to survive and flourish, (2) issue of creativity, suffering, justice, human rights, technology, environmental pollution, etc are tied to the labour issue, (3) “the basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done, but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person” (par 6), (4) labour has priority over the capital, (5), there should be commitment on justice for workers, (6) Marxist collectivism which is against private property, and liberal capitalism which views private property as an absolute; are both rejected, (7) work is both a duty and a source of right, (8) workers have the rights to rest, to pension, retirement, insurance, and engage in labour unions and (9) work is spiritual and has redemptive value.

If some of the key points from above are used to assess the situation of workers in Nigeria, much is still to be desired. The issue of the strike has been a constant one in the country. If it is not university lecturers on strike, then it is polytechnic or colleges of education lecturers. If it is not lecturers, then it is medical doctors or health care workers. If it is not health care workers, then it is local government employees, etc. Strikes inundate the Nigerian labour space. Strikes indicate disagreements between government and unions. Unions on strikes have often complained of government not honouring agreements signed with them from previous years. Government should work to ensure that the conditions favourable to end strikes in the Nigerian labour space are put in place.

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Another problem that encroaches into the wellbeing of Nigerian workers is pension administration. It is a right of workers that they are entitled to pension and other retirement benefits. It is here in Nigerian that pensioners have to go for continuous verifications that are often unending to collect their pensions. Retired workers in their old age have to wait in lines for hours under the heavy heat of the sun to collect their entitlements. It is painful to note that some have died standing in pension lines to collect their retirement benefits. When it comes to the treatment of workers it is not well with Nigeria. Some of those in power have corruptively enriched themselves with pension money meant for retired workers.

The social conditions under which many workers labour in our land are horrible. Poor social infrastructures have worsened things. Years of corrupt governments have depleted our resources. There are bad roads almost everywhere you go in the nation. Many Nigerian cities are experiencing traffic jams. Workers waste many hours on the road to commute and return from their places of work. They can’t work to the best of their abilities. At the close of work they have to commute many hours to get back home. Compared with western standards our communication and transportation systems are in poor conditions. Yet the many rulers that govern us travel to western countries to spend their holidays and they see what happens there.

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The worker is entitled to some fundamental rights that should be safeguarded. The “African Charter on Human and People’s Rights,” the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UNDR), the Nigerian Constitution, and the Nigerian Labour Act, affirm workers’ rights to equitable and satisfactory conditions of work. Take for instance, the UNDR statements that: Everyone has right to work, just and favourable conditions of work, protection against employment, just and favourable remuneration good for human dignity, entitled to social protection, right to rest and leisure, equitable working hours and periodic holidays. It is an aberration that when many persons graduate they can’t find work in a nation that is so rich and blessed with abundant natural resources. And this is so not because there is not enough money to create jobs but because some in power have embezzled public money. There is hardly adequate power supply in the land.

Even when workers get home they cannot comfortably relax after a heavy day’s work because of the heat. There are generators everywhere almost in every corridor and veranda generating noise pollution and heat. What a land that Nigeria is now! Nigeria, we hail thee! Nigerian workers are suffering and are in pain.

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While it is true that every Nigerian worker has rights, they should also honour their contractual obligations to their employers. What the Nigerian Catholic Bishops said in their 1982 communiqué, “For Peace and Progress” still pervades the Nigerian work situation. They argued that some Nigerians have wrong attitude to work, some despise hardwork, some are lazy, and undisciplined, they lack joy in work; they want promotion with quick money through nepotism, bribery, tribalism, “godfatherism,” popular manoeuvring, and embezzlement. It is equally true many are hardworking, diligent and competent. The point is that workers should shun vices and promote virtues and good ethical behaviours in their work place.

These are gravest of times for the Nigerian workers and labourers. Workers all over the world are passing through the pains and pangs of the pandemic of Covid-19. All the more during this time, and after the pandemic ends, Nigerian workers should be given favourable working conditions. This done, they will excel in their duties. They will enjoy a healthy, peaceful, and prosperous life. All hands should be on deck, especially the powers-that-be to ensure the rights of Nigerian workers are fully safeguarded.
Fr Ikeke, teaches philosophy at the Delta State University, Abraka, Nigeria.

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