On this auspicious international May Day holiday, the plight of Nigerian workers remains as heartbreaking as it is pathetic. The working population is the engine room of a functional society which in turn should grease it for efficiency. In Nigeria, the workers are abused by the culpable and ineffective state which perpetually despises them. But disaster is inherent in the opportunities for beleaguered workers to push back and demand better deals from the 2023 political season onwards. enlightened staff, it’s now!
The fate of the workers of the world has rarely been rosy. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels since 1848 repudiated the oppressive fate of the workers in the famous Communist Manifesto, concluding with the timeless battle cry: “Proletarians of all countries, unite! Obedience to the slogan has dramatically reversed the tide of employer-employee class conflict in favor of working people in all civilized societies, including the 80 that mark International Labor Day this week. Unfortunately, the Nigerian state is an agonizing exception in this triumphant struggle.
The precarious condition of the country is more a reflection of that of its workers. In its oppressive administrative model, the state is a dichotomy between the ruling elites who live in affluence and the impoverished masses who live in misery. In the mix are alienated workers living in a state that commodifies their very existence and pays a pittance to make them perpetually dependent on the ruling bourgeoisies. Aggravated by the mismanagement of the socio-economic landscape, Nigerian workers have always been swimming against the tide.
First, the ruling class colluded to ruin industrialization programs and scare off investors so that the aberration of government would become the biggest employer of labor. Second, the hostile business environments and other economic problems have not only deprived the proletarian population of new opportunities, they have also thrown many people out of work, with the unemployment rate officially pegged at 33.3%. Many more employed people are actually in the circle of underemployment, earning less than the minimum wage of 30,000 naira per month! This informed the recent World Bank report that only 17% of employed Nigerians are in salaried jobs that can lift them out of poverty.
Most heartbreaking is that workers are also being battered by high inflation which has officially soared to 15.9%. The cost of living is rising due to low wages, deprivation of basic amenities and general security. The Nigerian Living Standards Survey (NLSS) estimated that a whopping 40.1% (82.9 million) of Nigerians are poor by the national standard – earning less than 376.5 naira a day. And in a country that offers very little hope, the main thing is the migration of the best professionals to Europe, America and other African countries that value and reward their skills. Those without means in the north are migrating south in droves to escape daytime terrorism and banditry.
Despite the perilous times for Nigerian workers, their unassailable relevance is not lost on their oppressors and the state. In all establishments, whether public or private, offices or homes, meeting rooms or entrance gates, there are categories of workers who carry out activities. They are the life of any organization that no sane employer can take for granted. And it is in this consciousness that abounds the tacit power of a workforce on which trade unionism is based. In Nigeria, as revealed by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), there are over 30 million working Nigerians. Another half of this figure is underemployed. At first glance, it is an unstoppable potential people power that no oppressor group or oppressive state can outrun. And therein lies the hope of Nigerian workers in particular and the country in general.
Unfortunately, trade unions have rarely had more than a superficial interest in defeating state policies; nor do they attempt to gain a foothold on the general welfare of the members. Genuine union activism has declined since the military regime. What has replaced the unionism of yore are corrupt relationships with politicians, divide and conquer unions, infighting, sectionalism and the total lack of harmony between sister unions. Their loss was the gains of misguided officials who brazenly trained emperors on general affairs. Otherwise, why should the essential health service workforce, university professors and justice workers engage in long drawn out industrial action where a show of solidarity from the NLC or even NUPENG would have forced an intransigent administration to comply more quickly?
Why should dozens of Nigerians and workers be killed almost daily and the whole labor union sees no reason to lobby for the state police or demand accountability for the national resources that are routinely channeled towards safety without appreciable progress? Why is there so much poverty, unpaid wages, unpaid pensions and gratuities in states where executive governors freely squander state resources with reckless abandon? Why should the power and refinery sectors continue to defy solutions despite huge votes from capital, and more than 80% of crude oil being stolen and the workers’ union sees no existential loss awaiting State ?
On the other hand, there is much more workers unions can do to change the narrative. As major stakeholders with a numerical advantage in the Nigerian project, it starts with telling the ruling elite that “enough is enough” in the constant mismanagement of mainstream concerns. It starts with great unity, groups and teams that cannot be bought by the bags of money currently circulating. Workers must realize that today they are faced with the consequences of yesterday’s bad choices. And to have a better Nigeria tomorrow, and rightly so, they have to make different choices in the next ballot. The political season offers an opportunity for workers to unite in agenda setting and not settle for scoundrels. They need to start separating the smell from the chaff, negotiating and getting a detailed strategy on how the aspirants will address each of their concerns. To these millions of workers belongs the power to rally their immediate environment to choose only those whom they can trust and whom they can hold accountable.
Likewise, it is imperative to intensify the pressure on accountability at all levels of our corporate existence. The enormity of the corruption that walks over the four in Nigeria is enormous and it touches every sphere. Collectively, workers must withdraw into themselves and demand probity from the system. In every segment, whether public, private and domestic as well, employers must learn to treat their employees well enough, and vice versa, for mutual survival.
Beyond the charade of worker parades that often commemorate May Day celebrations in all 36 states, the broader consciousness should revolve around the end of oppressive regimes, irresponsible leaders and the pervasive corruption that have made work and life in Nigeria harrowing. It’s time for mass workers to push back their bargaining power. They have nothing to lose but their misery. Nigerian workers, unite! Happy Labor Day to all Nigerians.