Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The dehumanisation of Nigerian workers

“I sit on a man’s back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible….except by getting off his back”
― Leo Tolstoy, What Then Must We Do?
The above quote is what the lame excuse given by the Osun State Government on its inability to pay its workers seven months’ salaries reminded me. According to a statement made available to journalists in Osogbo on Thursday, June 11, by Governor Rauf Aregbesola through his media aide, Mr. Semiu Okanlawon, he said: “This administration remains very sensitive to the welfare of Osun workers. The financial situation of the state that has made it unable for the state government to pay workers’ salaries is disheartening and painful.” How can a government owe workers so much for so long and still claim to be sensitive to their welfare? As the saying goes, “Sorry does not heal a festering sore.” Anyway, I hope the state government fulfils its promise made last Sunday, June 14 to pay the workers’ salaries before June 30.
But it is quite heart-rending that Nigerian workers have been and are still being dehumanised by being denied their rights to remunerations. The Holy Book says a labourer deserves his wages. This culture of owing salaries has now become entrenched in both public and private sectors of Nigeria. For the records, this ugly phenomenon did not start today nor is it limited to Osun State cited above. I recall that the administration of Chief Bola Ige in Oyo State (1979 – 1983) owed workers’ salaries for several months. My father was a victim as he then was a teacher in the state.
It was reported that about 23 states currently owe their workers’ salaries and other allowances. Among the notorious states are Akwa Ibom, Imo, Oyo, Osun, Benue, Plateau, Rivers, Kogi, Abia, Bauchi and Cross River. The situation is so bad that Governor Rochas Okorocha of Imo State asked President Muhammadu Buhari to bail the states out of their financial predicament. During the courtesy visit to Buhari on Tuesday, May 5, 2015, Okorocha was quoted as saying, “…we are hoping that the President-elect will do all the things that are humanly possible to bring about a bailout not only for the states but the Federal Government, at least for people to get their salaries and turnaround the economy.”
It remains to be seen if the Federal Government who has been borrowing to pay salaries to its workforce is in a position to offer any financial bailout to states. It is true that many states have been unable to meet their financial obligations due to the shortfall in their monthly allocations from the Federal Government due largely to dwindling oil revenue arising from the sharp drop in the price of crude oil in the international market. The just concluded general elections must have taken additional toll on the economy of the states given the huge sums expended by some incumbents to prosecute the “electoral war”. It is an irrefutable fact that many political office holders use public funds to oil their election campaign machineries in what is obviously an abuse of state and administrative resources. Despite that however, much of the problem is also due to many of the governors’ lack of ability to think out of the box and failure to set right priorities. The question is, how is a landlocked state like Katsina, with about 34 local government areas, able to meet its financial obligations to workers and even retirees as and when due while states in the South-South which additionally collect from the 13 per cent oil derivation fund are still gasping for financial breath?
The inability of many states to pay workers’ salaries and settle the pension and gratuities of their retired civil servants has turned many of them into beggars. A retired teacher from Oyo State sent me an epistle via text messages on Friday, June 12, 2015. The old man who claimed to have retired in 2009 narrated his ordeal and asked me for financial support. Not getting prompt response from me, he followed up with a call about 30 minutes later. Quite unfortunately, I could not help out because of my own too many financial commitments which are already choking me.
I really empatise and sympatise with the senior citizen but there is a saying in Yoruba land that when a fire guts a man and his child, the father must first douse the one on him before attempting to put off the one on his child. The man’s story resonates with me as my father, who is now deceased, was a victim of a similar hardship which invariably expedited his death. He, like the man whose story I just shared, was retired from the Osun State civil service in 1995. After a fruitless wait for his pension and gratuity, he became hypertensive, eventually suffered what the doctor called moderately severe heart attack from which he later miraculously recovered but because he could not procure and use his medications as prescribed he eventually died in June 1998.
Let nobody think owing a backlog of salaries is peculiar to the public sector or government employment. Far from it! Many private enterprises are worse off. I have worked in a private organisation where I was owed nine months’ salaries! How I managed to cope with a wife and a child then was a miracle. I recall that then, I was only existing but not living. Similar stories abound in many private enterprises. There have been reports of media houses owing their workers upward of eight to 12 months’ salaries, some private schools and other business concerns indulge in similar conditions.
The socio-economic implications of this ugly phenomenon are very dire. Among other things, it brings about bribery and corruption, indolence, truancy, low self-esteem, depression, and other forms of ill-health. How do you convince a hungry worker to be loyal, diligent and honest? Given that survival is the first law of nature, a starving worker will cut corners and commit all manner of malpractices and sharp practices to live. The Nigerian Constitution says that security and welfare of citizens are the primary reasons of governance. It is most unfortunate that both are at present lacking in Nigeria. The new administration of President Muhammadu Buhari must summon an emergency Council of State meeting to look into how this issue of unpaid salaries can be urgently resolved. The Nigeria Labour Congress, Trade Union Congress and similar pressure and interest groups must also step in to halt and reverse this anti-labour development. It is not only a welfare issue but also a security issue as these hungry workers and their famished families pose great threats to the peaceful coexistence of their communities and society at large.
Follow me on twitter: @jideojong