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)

About Tinuoye Adekunle Theophilius

Tinuoye Adekunle Theophilius is an Assistant Director, Labour-Management Relations, at Micjheal Imoudu National Institute for Labour Studies, Ilorin, Nigeria, and also an external faculty associate at the Global Labour Research Centre, York University, Ontario, Canada.