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How union dues, sundry fees undermine COVID-19 safety guidelines

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One of the safety measures put in place when the government was about to ease the lockdown on the Coronavirus pandemic was that operators of commercial vehicles and tricycles should shed 40 per cent of their passenger capacity per trip.

For instance, the 14-seater bus, popularly called Danfo, now has to take only 10 passengers. Operators of the tricycle (Keke Marwa) were also enjoined to take only two passengers per trip, as against four. This was for the purpose of social distancing.

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Aside from this, sitting arrangement, drivers of commercial vehicles were also to emphasise the use of face masks and regularly sanitise their vehicles before and after each trip. In addition, they were to place alcohol-based sanitisers in their vehicles for use by all in the vehicle.

Initially, while some operators tried to abide by these guidelines, many remained defiant. The Guardian investigation revealed that some of the commercial bus and tricycle operators only pretended to obey the rules. While the majority of them only wear their masks under their chin, some are not even bothered.

Consequently, they do not ensure that their passengers comply with the regulation. In most cases, the face masks are only for decoration — to be worn when law enforcement agents are insight.

These operators undermine the authority of the Special Task Force, comprising the Police Force, Lagos State Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA) and others mandated to ensure compliance. And they claim to have reasons for their actions.

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While some say they do not believe there is Coronavirus in the country, adding that the whole thing is a scam; others believe the spread is not as serious as the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) is making it to be.

A visit to some of the parks showed a high level of non-compliance with the safety guidelines, as they do not have handwashing facilities, sanitisers, or the infrared thermometre to take passengers’ body temperature. Also, hand-washing equipment with soap and running water were not seen.

Saheed, an executive member of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), Ikotun branch, said all NURTW branches were initially very strict about the appropriate spacing, overloading vehicles, and other guidelines specified by the government, but now members have gone back to the status quo, especially after the #EndSARS protest.

He called on the government to show more commitment by making sure its agencies do their work.

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According to Saheed, to making the Lagos State a COVID-19 free state, all hands must be on deck.

“We must all ensure these guidelines work. By doing this, the passengers, NURTW members, and government officials have to work together. COVID-19 pandemic should be everybody’s concern. We should all put safety first, as it is the living that makes money.”

Wale Oluwashola, a commercial bus driver and an NURTW member, said NURTW executives are only trying to play safe. He explained that the high pressure the union puts on drivers and bus conductors to make them pay their daily dues and other obnoxious charges are the reason for disregarding the guidelines.

Oluwashola noted that although there is a little hike in transport fares across the board to make up for the shortage in passenger load, union fees and other inexplicable extortion by the police and other government agencies have remained the same. This, he said, is not helping matters, as they have even gone up in some places, and operators are either forced to pay or cease operating on the route.

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He explained that he pays between N2, 000 and N5, 000 a day for his 18-seater bus per trip. “How would I meet my daily delivery and make some money for myself, if I don’t flout the new guideline.

“Mind you, I still have to pay for all the usual dues. If the government truly wants bus drivers to go by the 60 per cent passenger capacity arrangement, it must then constrain NURTW executives from asking drivers to pay all these illegal charges. If I spend N2, 000 to N4,000 or more from the N3,000 to N8,000 the union charges, how can I make enough to settle the vehicle owner, my conductor, and take care of myself?

“Can you believe that as transport fares went up, the various union charges were also increased? It is tasking and with all this, how do they expect us to meet up and make some money for ourselves,” he said.

Kunle Agiri, another bus driver, who operates on the Oshodi-Mile 2 route, said the government must first fulfill its part of the deal by ensuring that the committee set up to ensure compliance does not compromise its roles, as some committee members have begun to exploit the situation. Members of these agencies use tout to the front for them at bus stops, while they look the other way.

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He noted that it is these sharp practices that would make drivers disobey the guidelines, as they would want to recoup the money spent on the police and other government agencies.

On why passengers would board a bus that is obviously not complying with the guidelines, Vivian Efen, a commuter, said it is due to the limited number of vehicles plying particular various routes.

She said since the government introduced the new guidelines, some routes have witnessed many passengers stranded or going late to work. She disclosed that, while most transport operators obey the rules because of the Special Task Force in the day, they openly disregard it in the evenings. So, to avoid being stranded, one has to board any available bus or tricycle to get home.

“To make matters worse, commercial motorcycles have been banned in some places, which is forcing many people, who previously were not boarding public buses to begin to do so, thereby increasing the number of people patronising public buses.”

She observed that the taxis are no better, as they too are taking advantage of passengers, by increasing fares indiscriminately.

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