Workers’ Day: Any dignity in labour in Nigeria?

Posted by Valentine Obienyem | 1 May 2014 | 4,281 times

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May 1 is set aside universally for workers/labourers; it is known as “Workers’ Day”. Typical of Nigerians, being a public holiday, most people now use the day to celebrate their birthdays or those of their children. Some see it as a day on which to hold important meetings. Yet, there are some who do not know what to do with the day. Rather than reduce it to an Epicurean feast and as a day when workers converge on Eagles Square with the President in attendance, it ought to be a day on which symposia, seminars, conferences and rallies are organised. Whatever fora should be dedicated to expounding the ideals and dignity of labour.

One of the misconceptions of the past was the idea of treating labour as something degrading and utterly undignifying. Because of this misconception, people would rather buy or engage slaves to do their work for them, lest they be looked down upon. By degree, this culminated in feudalism, where the feudal lords had their work done for them by the serfs. At this time, the idea of a gentleman was misconstrued as persons with literary tastes; those who were inclined to liberal education. These people had a peculiar perception of a gentleman as one who wanted education for its own sake and thereafter would employ people to do their work for them rather than the indignity of doing the work themselves.

Such conceptions in the past made labour, especially menial ones, to be so disdainfully treated. Because of this perceived lack of dignity, the concept of labour suffered the poverty of misconception. Even highly placed work, such as the type that lawyers do, were lowly graded.  A gentleman must not engage in forensic debates; he had to contract a lawyer to plead on his behalf. If the legal profession, as other professions, was treated this way, consider what was the fate of menial workers. Because of the ranking of labour, labourers were paid wages that did not guarantee lives of frugal comfort; afterall it was only fit for slaves!

Have we forgotten so soon that the wealth of nations is created by the work of labourers? If man ceases to work, humanity will be in trouble. Whatever way we look at it, work is a positive human act. It is gratifying to any reasonable man to turn to service energies, which would otherwise be wasted or misspent in idleness or mischief. The vice of sloth implies the virtue of work. The principle of activity, according to Hegel, whereby “the workman has to perform for his subsistence”, gives man a dignity which “consists in his depending entirely on his diligence, conduct, and intelligence for the supply of his work.”

Besides working for subsistence, there are many other reasons why man finds it useful to work. It is even suggested in some quarters that labour saves man from a boredom he fears more than the pain of labour. Our world is filled up with variety of amusements and diversions that man invents or frantically pursues to occupy himself when work is finished. The satisfaction of labour is therefore as peculiarly human as its burdens. Not merely to keep alive, but to keep himself productive and positively human, man is obliged to work.

When you look at our society, you see variety of work. Some are employed in government establishments: Civil Service or Public Corporation; some are employed in private sectors; some are self-employed; there are others who are unemployed. Wherever one works, the principle of dignity of labour, laborare dignitatem, implies that whatever one does that feeds and enables him to be clothed should be respected and not degraded or treated with contempt.

To respect a particular job implies that the worker should approach his work with all sense of responsibility and diligence. In return, the job should be able to offer him a reward (salary) that will enable him live as a human being. This is the spirit of Pope Leo’s encyclical entitled Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”), where he submitted that “Equity commands that public authority show proper concern for the workers so that from what he may receive will enable him to be housed, clothed and secured, to live his life without hardship.”

In spite of the increase in salary by the present government, an average Nigerian worker, in public and private sector, cannot live the life of frugal comfort. Let us, by way of illustration, bring the minimum wage question in issue. The minimum wage of the Federal Government is N18,500. Supposing a worker lives in Abuja, where the house rent for a room (face-me-I-face-you) apartment in the ghettos of Airport Road or Idu Karimu is about N5,000, the monthly NEPA bill is about N500, monthly transport expenses to the place of work is about N3,000, feeding at N900 per day translates into N9,000. I do not want to go further into medical bill, clothing, etc, because the expenditure profile is already N17,500. You can imagine what it will be when the concerned worker has a family and one or two dependants. Of course, the talk of dignity of labour will not make much meaning to him. Such a job that does not translate into improved living will not inspire respect befitting jobs that are worthy of dignity.

What about those that push wheelbarrows, the cleaners, street sweepers, drivers, etc? Dignity of labour says that they have to respect their jobs, since it is through these jobs that they keep body and soul together. But what of Nigeria, and other countries where the pay package or what this category of workers earn cannot sustain the life of frugal comfort? Is it possible for the doctrine of dignity of labour to make meaning to them? This is where there is conflict about the principle. The question therefore is: “Is labour worthy of dignity in Nigeria?”

Doubtless, in labour issues, Nigeria is lagging. What we have in Nigeria is dead as opposed to living wages. Dead wages make for pauperism, as is the case with Nigeria. Beside oil companies, banks, international organisations domiciled in the country and few public corporations, there is scarcely any establishment, privately or government owned, that pays living wages. This is why the attitudes of civil servants to work are often viewed with understanding leniency. Often they do not approach their work with required seriousness since most of them do other things to make ends meet.

The only way out of this is for government and all those who are engaged in policy formation to take the opportunity of this Workers’ Day to reflect on the real plight of Nigerian workers. It is only when labour is backed with commensurate returns that the doctrine of dignity of labour should become fully realisable. It is then that one can, with all justification, ask workers to live above board. This is the plain truth.

Obienyem, whose photo appears alongside tis piece, writes from Awka, Anambra State. He can be reached by e-mail via

Source: News Express

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