How union dues, sundry fees, others undermine COVID-19 safety guidelines
One of the safety measures put in place when government was about to ease the lockdown on 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 had 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.
Aside this, sitting arrangement, drivers of commercial vehicles were to also 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 have remained defiant. The Guardian investigation revealed that some of these commercial bus and tricycle operators only pretended to obey the rules. While majority of them only wear their masks under their chins, some are not even bothered.
Consequently, they don’t also 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 in sight.
This is especially noticeable during the peak periods — from 6am to 8am and 5pm to 9pm, when commuters are in a hurry to get to their destinations or return home before the 10pm to 4am curfew.
In the process, 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 proffer many reasons for their action.
While some say they do not believe there is Coronavirus, others say the spread is not as serious as the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) is making it to be. Some even argue that the whole thing is a scam.
A visit to some of the parks showed a high level of non-compliance with the safety guidelines, as they do not have hand washing 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 are very strict about the appropriate spacing, overloading vehicles and other guidelines specified by government, as they will help check the spread of the virus.
He, however, noted that it is not possible for all the drivers and passengers to comply.
He said: “One cannot rule out a situation whereby some commercial vehicle drivers return to their old ways of doing things. However, such drivers do not load their vehicles at the garages. This set of drivers usually picks passengers along the road and outside the garage, as they know that NURTW officials will force them to comply with the new guidelines, if they load in the garage.
“It is difficult for us to check such recalcitrant drivers. It is the passengers that should protest, when a driver tries to take more that the specified number of passengers.
“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.”
The NURTW official said any of their members that goes contrary to the guidelines would not only be fined, but stopped from operating in any of their motor parks.
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 is the reason for disregarding the guidelines.
Oluwashola noted that although there is a little hike in transport fares across 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.
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 of carrying certain number of passengers,” he queried.
He said: “Mind you, I still have to pay all the usual dues. If 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 queried.
Kunle Agiri, another bus driver, who operates on the Oshodi-Mile 2 route, said 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. These members use touts to front for them at bus stops, while they look the other way.
He noted that it is these sharp practices that would make drivers disobey the guidelines, as they would want to recoup 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 a particular routes.
She said since 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, they openly disregard it in the evenings. So, to avoid being stranded, one has to board any available bus or tricycle to get home.
She said: “It would have been nice, if government would look into those routes with many passengers and provide them with vehicles. This is not what private transport operators can do alone, because their main goal is to make profit and not about stopping the spread of the virus.”
She explained that since the issue of COVID-19 started, some police officers have been extorting money from people caught after the stipulated hour, which has put so much pressure on commuters to the extent that caution is thrown to the wind in this regard.
“Naturally, stranded commuters will rush into any available vehicle, thereby disregarding the guidelines,” she said. “Transporters are also taking advantage of the situation, as they make passengers sit in the old arrangement. 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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