Nigerian workers and the work of Penelope

This season of national anomie is not the best of times for Nigerian workers. Emasculated, apoplexy, pauperized barely describe their present predicament. The palpable enormity of despondency suffusing Nigeria was evinced by the fact that the recent announcement of a new national minimum wage was met with stark indifference, undisguised apathy and the ominous feeling that it can neither palliate nor improve their economic situation.

The gloom and hopelessness enveloping the average Nigerian worker has its roots in the financial and psychological haemorrhage Nigerians have suffered over the years, exacerbated by decades of poor socio- economic policies, inept leadership, political quagmires and pillaging of Nigeria’s national treasury. With the total cabalization and cartelization of the various means, levers and instruments of power, majorities of excluded Nigerians have had no chance, respite, reprieve or breathing space in the economic pogrom heaped on them. In the early nineties, the common refrain was that poverty ruled over Nigeria’s landscape like a colossus. In 2019 Nigeria has not only become the poverty capital of the world, poverty and its attendant mentality have been ingrained in our minds like myths immemorial.

Nigerians toil relentlessly daily to overcome an array of obstacles that have been erected against their progress. Nigerians strive to acquire additional skills and degrees to improve their situation in an economic system that only makes them slave harder, longer and more for a tokenistic existence. While many  Nigerians pull themselves up by their bootstraps, hanging precariously on the socio-economic cliffhanger, political office occupants swim in luxury. That is why the assurance member of the House of Representatives who recently became speaker in the current dispensation nonchalantly rubbed it in the face of Nigerians by buying his wife a 100Million naira car.

Work is central to people’s wellbeing. In addition to providing income, it’s also an important psychological boost that enhances people self-worth, promotes social contacts and increases national productivity. The impact of qualitative work on the accomplishment of worker aspirations and galvanizing socio-economic and political advancement is unquantifiable. UNDP noted that work contributes to public good, and that human beings working together increase material well-being and accumulate a wide body of knowledge that is the basis for cultures and civilizations. 

But how many Nigerian workers actually get self-actualized or get the financial and work satisfaction they deserve or require?

The universal principle is that if you work hard you will eventually reap the fruits of your labour. If you are a diligent and honest worker in Nigeria, you end up with nothing at the end of the day. Faced with pitiful salaries and a skyrocketing cost of living, the average Nigerian worker needs loans or cooperative assistance to pay rent and school fees, to buy second hand cars and household items, to perform basic ceremonies like weddings, naming, burials, and children’s parties. The private sector actively collaborates in the scheme to perpetually penurize and enslave Nigerian workers as most of them engage in unfair and unsavoury labour practices. Further, the woes of Nigerian workers continue unabated after employment, as the Nigerian retiree is said to be one of the poorest in the world and Nigeria has been described as one of the worst places in the world to be a pensioner.

The present government reels off positive statistics and gloats over its various achievements, such as programs to bolster youth employment, diverse social protection schemes, unprecedented capital projects expenditure and patronage of local contractors. Meanwhile, many Nigerians still face severe social and economic hardships. So, who are the beneficiaries and what is the actual impact of these much touted programmes? During Buhari’s first term, Nigerians became poorer during the first term of President Buhari, and unemployment is spiralling out of control.

For Nigerian workers, when it rains, it pours. In the past six months, Nigeria has been described as one of the most miserable, poorest, slave-like open defecation hole for workers’ rights in the world. The current minimum wage is far less in value than the 1981 minimum wage, meaning that the quality and standard of living of Nigerian workers hit rock bottom in 2019. These grim statistics only serve to underpin the misery of Nigerian workers. If you are not part of the ruling elites and their acolytes, working becomes equivalent to performing the work of Penelope.  Convinced that their case is beyond redemption, many Nigerian workers have generally resigned themselves to fate and have lost the quest to live independent, fulfilled and enjoyable lives 

The average Nigerian worker has been left to permanently penny pinch on the fringes of an impecunious life. This is where the work of Penelope comes in, work which is eventually fruitless, unrewarding and leaves the worker poorer at the end of the day. Overtaxed, slavish and poorly remunerative work makes the worker labour continuously in vain with no end in sight and no hope at all, a vicious cycle of no savings, tangible achievement, or headway, just living for the next day. No matter what you do, you will never get by and you will never get ahead, with the odds stacked against you by an insidious, reprehensible system that crushes your wellbeing, welfare and progress. This is the kind of work that is preponderant in Nigeria and the kind of work that the majority of us are engaged in.

It isn’t surprising that Nigeria lags behind on Global Human Development indices and reports. The link between work and human development as advanced by the United National Development Programme needs to be continuously highlighted for the sake of posterity. Work enhances human development by providing incomes and livelihoods, by reducing poverty and by ensuring equitable growth. Human development— by enhancing health, knowledge, skills and awareness— increases human capital and broadens opportunities and choices. It’s time for the current regime to make crucial policy choices tocreate work opportunities, ensure workers’ well-being and develop targeted actions against inequalitiesthat can have positive impacts on society as well as the wellbeing of Nigerian workers and their families.

Nigeria’s social partners must join forces to make Nigeria a better place for Nigerians to work and enjoy the fruits of their labour; to make work a fulfilling activity regardless of cadre or profession; to block loopholes in laws and rules that make it easy forpublic and private firms to exploit and denigrate workers, to uphold the freedoms to associate and to bargain collectively that can make it possible for Nigeria to realize humane and just conditions and terms of employment that canameliorate our collective sufferings and put an end to the work of Penelope that majority of honest, hardworking, long suffering Nigerians presently suffer. 

(Image Credit: Time)

The time is now: Time to ramp up the struggle for Nigerian women workers’ rights


Today marks another epoch in advancing and championing the cause of women’s rights, equality, safety and justice worldwide. This year’s theme, Rural and Urban Activists Transforming Women’s Lives, references past struggles, the progress that has been made, the tenacity of those who have made the achievements possible and the challenges of the future. Women have recorded giant strides and made great advancements in several spheres over the past decade, but significant gender inequality and widespread discrimination still persist in the world of work.

Employment is central to empowering and emancipating women.  Qualitative jobs, positive work environments and good employment conditions are essential for women to self actualize, maximize  potentials, enhance status and contribute to development at all levels. A clear evaluation of the dynamics of the average Nigerian work setting reveals that women workers still have a long way to go in terms of enjoying basic rights and dignity and participating fully as stakeholders. Working women in Nigeria disproportionately and frequently encounter stunted promotion progression, lopsided hiring practices overt discriminatory policies, sexual harassment/violence, working conditions disparities, limited training opportunities, poor employment security and are concentrated mostly in three D jobs.  As a result, Nigeria is losing out on utilizing women’s skills, ideas and expertise.

Women workers face a war on their rights on all fronts. Nigerian Labour laws are outdated and do not contain enough provisions to protect women workers’ rights and address their issues. Weak remedies in these laws enable employers to impugn and assail women workers’ rights. Nigerian trade unions fail to protect women workers’ rights, advance women issues and promote qualitative participation in trade unionism. Nigerian women routinely cater for their children, sick family members, and elderly parents, a mass of unpaid work which they combine with paid work. Meanwhile, the employment policies of majorities of public and private sector establishments in Nigeria fail to take these into consideration.

Nigerian women workers have issues organizing and mobilizing themselves and using the power in their numerical strength to change their situation. They have failed to maintain a united front against their oppressors at work. For example, Nigerian women workers cannot even produce the national president of trade unions in sectors that they dominate, such as the Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria, National Association of Nigeria Nurses and Midwives, National Union of Food, Beverage and Tobacco Employees, National Union of Hotels and Personal Services Workers, National Union of Textiles Garment and Tailoring Workers and Nigeria Union of Teachers. The necessity for the mass spectrum of women workers in Nigeria to unite and lead the campaign to fight for their rights is long overdue.

In some Nigerian workplaces, pregnancy can translate to demotion, punitive transfers and even termination of employment. The Labour Act Cap 198 LFN 1990 54 (1) stipulates a maternity leave of 12 weeks, but many Nigerian enterprises deny women workers this basic right. In some cases, companies have served women termination letter four weeks after giving birth or during their confinement or after delivery. Others deny women of the benefit of enjoying both annual and maternity leave in the same year. In some cases, marriage, childbirth, weight gain and aging have also been sufficient grounds for overt discrimination and maltreatment.

Women workers habitually endure overt and covert sexual comments, innuendos, provocations and unwarranted sexual advances in Nigerian workplaces. Even married women are not left out, as the “sacred institution of marriage” is no longer a hindrance to sexual harassment. Women are viewed as part of the perks of the job for the pleasure of some ogas at the top. It is an open secret that several public institutions and private sector firms demand some form of gratification in kind from women workers to earn promotion, get favourable postings and obtain positive reviews.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017 affirmed that globally gender parity is shifting into reverse this year for the first time in a decade. Nigeria also witnessed increasing gaps in participation, remuneration and advancement between women and men in the Education participation and opportunity sub index with a decline from 118th position on the 2016 Index to 122nd position in 2017. The 2017 International Trade Union Confederation’s Workers Rights Index rated Nigeria among the world’s worst countries for workers. In the same perspective, Walkfree Foundation’s Global Slavery Index  2016 classified Nigeria among the ten countries with the largest estimated absolute numbers of people in modern slavery in the world. The linkage between the three reports and the situation of women at work in Nigeria and the fact that women bear the brunt of the results of the reports cannot be controverted.

The negative multiplier effects of the assault on the dignity, rights and person of women are evident in terms of heightened employee turnover, development of inferiority complex syndrome or depression, strong resentment and loss of self worth, creation of hostile work environment, non utilization of potentials due to by passing qualified women for promotion, positions, employment, general lethargy through loss of motivation and morale necessary to work. Denying women basic rights hurts their long-term earning capacity, on-the-job performance and professional integrity. As noted in the Global Gender Gap Report 2017, as the world moves from capitalism to an era of talentism, competitiveness on a national and organizational level will be decided more than ever before by the innovative capacity of a country or company. In this new context, the integration of women into the talent pool becomes a must. But when women are being oppressed and unfairly treated, how possible is it to maximize their limitless potentials and utilize their assets?

It is time to ramp up actions geared towards removing all systemic barriers to women’s employment status, ensuring that all women workers have a level playing field at work, curbing all forms of gender discrimination, putting an end to the systemic undervaluing of work traditionally performed by women, ending all forms of sex stereotypes, misconceptions and bias about women and their capabilities at work and discarding the notion that workplace policies are modeled on traditional male norms. It is time to stop the humiliation, assault and inhumane treatment women workers in Nigerian workplaces endure daily.

This can be done when all of us individually and collectively join forces as stakeholders to ensure that women workers are accorded their rights, treated with dignity, taken care of fairly and given unfettered access to employment opportunities. Male workers can take a pledge that we will not demote, discriminate against, take adverse actions at, intimidate, denigrate and sexually harass and then accord all respect and rights to women workers. Trade unions should do more to put an end to the abuse of women’s rights in Nigerian workplaces. NLC and TUCN as the central labour organization need to set their shoulders more firmly against the boulder of oppression that burdens women workers despite their immense contributions to national development.

Employers associations led by NECA have a big role to play by telling their members to curb unfair labour practices and workplace policies that obviate and abridge the rights of women workers. The Federal Government should double its efforts to safeguard the rights of women workers.  They should partner with the National Assembly to enact effective labour laws that can protect the basic rights of women at work, take special cognizance of and offer special protection for pregnancy, motherhood, childbirth, care and related issues.

Ramping up the struggle for women workers rights entails initiating changes to how people, associations, and organizations and society interface with, perceive and regard women,. It encompasses amending and expunging obnoxious laws that encumber women workers’ rights and dignity and involves creating effective and durable women policies, programmes and institutions that can protect women’s rights. Ramping up the ante for women workers rights entails involving everybody to stand up for and speak against this situation. The Executive Director of UN Women noted that healthy societies have a wide mix of voices and influences that provide the checks and balances, the differing threads of experience and perspectives, and the debate that shapes good decision-making. The silence of these voices bodes ill for any society.  The time is more than ripe for these voices in Nigeria to speak up and lead the struggle to end the retrogressive abuse of women workers’ rights and promote decent work, fair conditions of work and a level playing field for women in employment in Nigeria. The time is now.

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(Image Credit: Pulse).

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