Do They Know It’s Workers’ Day? By Aniebo Nwamu

Even some Nigerian workers have forgotten they belong to a labour union. Little is therefore expected this Monday as they mark Workers’ Day at Eagle Square (Abuja) and perhaps the 36 state capitals.

Almost when I thought the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and theTrade Union Congress (TUC) were dead and buried, I read a statement attributed to one official still talking about the minimum wage and warning that workers were running out of patience with the federal government over delay in negotiation of a new minimum wage. The only issue that has been on the front burner for the past decade or two is the minimum wage. President Goodluck Jonathan mercifully increased the minimum wage from N7, 500 to N18, 000 six years ago. But N18, 000 of 2011 is now worth about N70, 000, judging by the level of inflation in the country. Yet, the weak labour unions are asking for N50, 000, a demand the federal government is reluctant to discuss and state governments feign ignorance about.

If anyone (possibly labour minister Chris Ngige) promised Nigerian workers anything on this year’s Workers’ Day, he should not be taken seriously. The fact is that the economy is not just in a recession; it is in a depression and may collapse if the politicians did not wake from their sleep.

The conditions of the country’s civil servants, who make up a majority of the NLC and TUC, show the hypocrisy of managers of the economy. How can anyone prevent a civil servant who earns, say, N30, 000 per month from being corrupt? Some of them have a family to feed, clothe, and send to school. They have house rents to pay, as they do power bills and water rates. Worse, the little salary is not even coming! No fewer than 20 states owe three to eight months’ arrears of salary. Pensioners are not paid either.

The government can afford to ignore the NLC and TUC since they have been decimated. All the subsidiary unions have been agitating on their own: ASUU, SSANU, NASU, NMA, the nurses, pharmacists, and others are either threatening to strike or are striking already. For all we know, things have fallen apart and the centre can no longer hold. The workers can no longer speak as one body – it’s to your tents O’ Israel! And we know what happens when a body is divided. The proverbial bundle of brooms has been untied and scattered; the broomsticks are being broken one by one.

Had the labour movement been pursuing worthy causes, it would have won the sympathy of those of us outside the labour structure. But asking for a pay rise for workers is not one of the best causes. It is selfish. It is just the symptom of a disease they have failed to cure.

Were labour more organised and focused, it would have since tackled the hydra-headed corruption in the country. Corruption is responsible for 95% of the country’s problems — the problems of workers and non-workers alike. In the same country a worker is paid N18, 000, a senator (who contributes nothing meaningful) goes home with N20million to N35million per month. What a failed politician (say, a governor) gets as gratuities after four years of “service” is in the region of N400million, while a civil servant who put in 35 years doesn’t see N3million. Even then, he has to pass through hell in pursuit of the gratuities. Many have died while standing in the sun for long hours as one verification after another is conducted. Many never received anything until they died because their files had been stolen by other civil servants who worked in pension offices.

Rather than fight such cases of theft and robbery, civil servants have been willing collaborators. They collude with politicians to award fictitious contracts, create ghost workers and embezzle cash outright. A true labour force would insist on good governance that will ensure transparency in the business of government, lead to job creation for the millions of unemployed youths and ensure stable power supply.

Is it not shameful that, almost 57 years after independence, most Nigerians have no access to piped water? Each year, thousands of people die of cholera and meningitis. Malaria continues to kill millions each year. Now, mass poverty-induced hunger is killing millions silently.

When unionists shout “Solidarity forever” and swear to “always fight for our rights”, they should stop to think: what rights?

Nigeria’s civil servants are perhaps the most unproductive in the world. Apart from stealing funds and chatting away in offices, most have little positive contribution to make. Admittedly, it’s not their fault but the system’s. That’s why you can have 30 drivers assigned to four cars in some ministries, departments and agencies. I call them jobless workers.

The federal government alone has more than 1, 500 agencies – and still counting. If each of one million-plus federal workers could cultivate yams or rice or cassava on one small farmland each year, the nation would be self-sufficient in food production. But everyone is after oil funds that come at no expense – or so we think. Apart from a few who really work, our civil servants could be compared to beneficiaries of the dough in western nations. They are not paid for the work they do; they are only privileged to enjoy the national cake without sweating for it.

Even then, many are not dedicated to their duties. Or, why would doctors abandon their patients on hospital beds, for instance, because they are on strike? The attitude of medical workers in the nation’s public hospitals is horrible. Negligence is most pronounced at the National Hospital, Abuja. Doctors don’t seem to observe the ethics of their profession simply because everyone is after filthy lucre. In public schools, teachers do not teach – and that explains the current state of education in the country.

Nigeria’s labour unions would have been relevant today if they had stood for good governance over the years. They shouldn’t have ignored such issues as privatisation of government companies, deregulation of the downstream sector of the oil industry, right-sizing or retrenchment, sale of refineries, payment of fuel “subsidy” to ghosts and criminals, and an expensive presidential system of government.

Because they failed to act when it mattered, their demand for a living wage and better conditions of service could be ignored as well. Government knows they can only bark but not bite. Workers are in this hell for the long haul. Happy Labour Day on Monday!

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