Workers or Slaves?

Today is being celebrated in many countries as a day to remember workers, the proletariat, that drive the economy of any country. In Nigeria, it’s “Workers’ Day”. In some other countries, it’s “Labour Day”. The devotion of a day to workers seems to suggest that workers are highly considered. Is this really the case?

In Abuja, and in various states across Nigeria, today will be marked with a convocation of government officials and labour groups. March parades, speeches and goodwill messages will compete for attention. The day-long jamboree would likely be broadcast live on TV. Government officials would promise heaven and earth. Just like they did last year, and the years before that. “Workers are this”, “Workers are that”. “I will do this”, “I will do that”. At the end of the day, these officials would clean their juice-stained lips, and head home.

How can we say that workers are highly valued, yet we treat them like slaves? Some state governments are owing their workers between 1-6 months pay. Is their any logic available to justify this inhumanity? Governors cry that there is no money. Of course, there is no money. We all know that election campaigns were funded with fresh sand retrieved from the bottom of the Niger. If only some of that laterite-free sand was given to the debt-ridden workers.

We want workers to put in their best, but we have no interest in their welfare. I concede that some civil servants are epitomes of pure laziness. However, the unproductiveness of some workers is not a good reason to deprive the productive ones of good welfare packages. We should even ask ourselves whether the low productivity is linked to the poor welfare policies of various governments.

Just as active workers are being poorly maintained, a worse scenario faces retired  workers. Reports abound of retirees slumping in queues during verification exercises, especially at the federal level. The prevalent trend is that retirees are worse off than their counterparts in active service. How would an active worker concentrate and put his best into his job when he sees that his retired colleagues have been placed in a living hell? It’s no wonder that there is pervasive corruption in the Civil Service. People are trying to wrongly do for themselves what their government’s welfare policy has failed to do.

The private sector is not left out of this ignoble act of not caring for workers. For many private organisations. “Workers’ Day” is just another PR stunt–a day to send embellished emails and goodwill messages. Many government employees enjoy a generous work-life balance thanks to ridiculously lax monitoring policies. In the private sector (not all), workers are practically trapped in a corner. Work-life balance is not considered at all. Why should someone work seven days a week when it’s not a rotation job. The employers are essentially saying, “Work yourself to death. When you die, we would get a replacement”.

Some private sector organisations also owe their workers several months of pay. Nigeria’s high unemployment rate stymies any thought of complaint. Workers in this conundrum just suffer in silence, turning up daily for work, while sinking deep into debt. Employers refuse to pay for rendered services, yet expect loyalty and high productivity.

Nigeria’s lax labour laws also perpetuate the mistreatment of workers. Workers are not adequately protected from workplace harassment and intimidation. An employee can be fired without notice, no severance pay, no severance benefits. It’s worse among contract staff. Sometimes, this even occurs in the Civil Service. Some would say that the courts are there for respite. However, it’s common knowledge that justice is most times for,the highest bidder, and the cost of litigation is beyond what many workers can bear.

If the “Workers’ Day” is real, not mere lip service, then we need to take our workers seriously. Employers at all levels should give their employees a reason to always want to do their jobs, a reason to be loyal, to be productive. It’s time to move away from endless rhetoric and motivational speeches. It’s time to recognise the worker for what he is–the engine of the economy.

Happy Workers’ Day

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