The labour and toil of workers has created vast material resources capable of assuring a better standard of living for Nigerian workers. However, what happens to this wealth? What reward does the Nigerian worker get from his sweat and toil?
Instead of benefiting from the wealth he creates the Nigerian worker sinks deeper and deeper into the swamps of poverty. For those who have the will signs of workers poverty are not hard to see. 95 percent of Nigerian workers are living below poverty line. They are highly malnourished and could hardly afford a balanced meal. The lowest paid workers in the Nigerian public service earns a total salary of N6,036.00 per annum, while the highest paid earns N44,928.00 annually. This translates to N503.00 and N3,744.00 per month respectively. However, this figure does not tell the whole story. Where and how does the Nigerian worker live and work?
Modern day slave camps
Inside a typical Nigerian factory could be described as a "sight out of hell". The working environment is completely hostile. The hours are long, there are no safety precautions and ‘accidents’ are the order of the day. There’s no protection against harmful chemicals, unsafe machines, etc
For example, at Universal steel, a Chinese metal scrap recycling plant, workers don’t go on break. They work non-stop and this leaves the workers physically and mentally drained each working day. Workers in the welding department are subjected to intense heat from the fire in the furnace. There is no protection; workers face naked fire in the furnace. Thereby causing side effects such as loss of sight among the workers. Also, there are increasing instances of blood and heart problems among workers. The excess sulphur and nitrogen dioxide inherent in steel manufacturing causes severe respiratory diseases. It is no different at Sasoplast, a plastic manufacturing company located at Mushin. The company runs three non-stop shifts. Workers who complained about the absence of break were told that they are paid to work, and not to rest. In the dyeing and grinding department workers are exposed to poisonous chemicals and fumes, as a result workers suffer from chronic cough. There are absolutely no safety precaution whatsoever or treatment. A worker who lost his right wrist in the course of duty was given N500.00 for each finger as compensation, N2,500.00, for the lost of a wrist! No less than a dozen accidents occurs here on a monthly basis. Sometime ago some workers were sacked; their crime was that they left their machine to help an injured colleague and "delayed production." Workers are told on the first day at work that any injury sustained in the course of duty is their funeral.
Despite the fact that workers in these factories are gradually going blind due to intensive exposure to the furnace the workers handbook of Universal steel reads "treatment needing eye spectacles would not be the responsibility of Universal steel". Worse, the life of a worker is worth 500 Naira as that is the amount specified by the handbook, to be given to cover burial expenses of a worker who died in active service.
When asked about the alleged use of harmful chemicals in production the standard reply of factory owners and their representative is "The workers just have to be careful. Shall we stop production because of the poisonous nature of a raw material?"
The story is the same in WAHUM, Whassan, Five Star industries, Arcee, Spintex and many others. Production takes place under intolerably harsh conditions, starvation wages, industrial accidents, physical harassment, body searches, etc. In addition, a growing trend in these factories is the growing casualization of workers and the use of child labour. The underlying philosophy is that casual workers enjoys no benefits whatsoever. They are hired at the gate and fired at will. The increasing use of child labour in most of these factories proceeds from the standpoint that children are docile, easy to control, do not form unions, go on strike, and demand higher wages. These are veritable sweatshops.
For the most part medical and health facilities are not available and where they exist are not adequate as workers are not given treatment beyond a certain amount. This, coupled with the deterioration of social and economic conditions has given rise to a fantastic upsurge of easily resistible infectious diseases among workers.
Also, the massive overcrowding of workers in hostile working environment helps fuels these diseases. Diseases like cholera, tuberculosis, yellow fever, Typhoid etc. Into this complex mix is thrown the AIDS scourge. At present these diseases are out of control, but that should not have been the case. They were easily preventable. Workers have created vast material resources capable of combating these diseases. Drug exist that could keep them at bay. However, these drugs are affordable only to the rich. So too is health care. The collapse of the society has meant the collapse of the health services. When all these factors are placed in context what we see is a whole generation of Nigerian workers gradually dying from easily resistible diseases. There is nothing inevitable about the rise of these diseases. Their primary source lies in the subordination of basic Human needs to the ruthless drive for profits. Economic collapse and the general poverty level of Nigerian workers mean that most families cannot afford basic health care services. The policy of privatization and commercialization has taken basic Health service beyond the reach of the poor masses. Health has become an expensive commodity that could be bought and sold!
The living conditions of workers is no better than their working condition. Nor is the rise of these diseases restricted to hostile working environments. Closely related to the collapse of the society is the rise, at fantastic rates, of the slums, ghettos, to which the poor masses are confined, removed from the sight of the rich. Every Nigerian big city has it’s own slum, It’s own ghetto. The massive overcrowding of these areas helps fuel diseases.
Rows upon rows of rickety wooden houses suspended over swamp, crumbling blockhouses with the plaster peeling off, makeshift zinc houses, etc gives the impression of a war zone. These houses give neither comfort nor self-respect to a man. There are days, weeks and months when the inhabitants of this place seem to live worse than animals. When it rains the whole place gets flooded. The filth and squalor is terribly depressing. These areas qualify for a "disaster zone". Yet in these hellholes little children are growing. The people who live in these places are generally poor, working class families. They live on the outskirts of society, with no help and nowhere to look for help. No medical service, no proper sanitary facilities, no potable water, no good schools, etc. destitution is on the increase and millions of children are born, live, and die on the street without ever having a roof over their head.
Tony, a security service worker, captures the sense of degradation, misery, and hopelessness of life in the ghetto in the lyrics of his song, CRYING IN THE GHETTO:
"Being a working class youth, means living in the
Living in the ghetto, means sitting in the dark,
Watching upper class youths, doing
What you know you could do better
It means sitting in the dark, watching others
In the light
Yet not having the strength
To go into the light."
In most of these houses a tall person cannot stand upright; the ceiling are so low. The walls are cracked, the plaster is peeling off, and when it rains the roofs let in water. There is filth and squalor everywhere and the whole place stinks. It is not uncommon to find a family of ten living in one tiny cubicle called a room.
Unemployment is on the rise. Everyday thousands of persons walk the streets on empty stomach in search of jobs that do not exist. Thousands get thrown off their jobs. Last year alone over 250,000 lost their jobs in the name of rationalization this in actual fact is nothing but a ruthless drive for profit maximization.
Nor is this unemployment cyclical. It is permanent. Nowadays, a man or woman over forty who losses his or her job knows that the possibility of getting another descent job does not exist. Factory shut downs and the collapse of the financial sector has further wiped out thousands of jobs. Factories still operating have cut down their workforce drastically.
The National Aviation Handling Co (NAHCO) has dismissed 40% of its work force and even then the threat of sack is still hanging over the head of more workers. At the Federal Aviation Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) the story is the same. Over 2000 workers of Five Star textile industries were thrown into the reserve army of the unemployed when the factory closed down last year, without their entitlements. The bank crash further rendered thousands of middle-class workers jobless.
Rationalization, restructuring, downsizing, retrenchment, whatever it is called, its effect on Nigerians working families is painful. Millions are out of work, millions are being laid-off at alarming rates as factory owners, and government parastatals seem driven by a single-minded mission to rid itself of "excess workers." Workers are been blamed for the fall of profits. Hand-in-hand with the sacking of workers is the extension of the working hours. The absence of unemployment benefits or any form of social security makes layoffs a "death sentence".
The Labour Unions
The labour unions were created by workers as organs of struggle, in the course of the long fight with capitalist, to protect their interests. However today, it seems workers need protection from their own leadership. Judging from the past instances of betrayals of the workers by the leadership of the labour unions one wonders in whose interests is the union being run. The men at the top of the movement have lost touch with those whom they were supposed to represent. There is no longer fraternal relationship. Big unionism is now a calculated (mis) representation of an ideal that has turned into another form of big business. Labour leaders have become "bourgeoisified" having the same interest as the capitalists, using the workers movement as their bargaining counter. They collaborate with factory owners to hold back militant branch unions. Often times dissolving them and setting up caretaker committee, and generally acting as a brake upon the labour movement. Their treachery and betrayals are without end.
The labour unions, no doubt, still remain means of struggle. But to successfully do this the leadership must be transformed. If owing to certain objective factors could not capture new grounds, they must at least defend tooth and nail grounds previously conquered. Workers must defend the gains of the past. To do this a fighting leadership is necessary.
Also, it is necessary to see all the abuses, all the indignities to which workers are subjected to as the twisted outgrowth and expressions of the existing capitalist system. Workers must understand that there is no way out of the prison house of poverty, starvation wages, diseases, urban ghettos and rising unemployment, etc, except by smashing down the barriers of capitalism and placing the control of industries in the hands of workers. Workers must have the right to control their own lives. To do this what is needed is a fighting leadership that corresponds to the needs of the struggle.
The conditions of the Nigerian workers, as other workers, present a problem insoluble under capitalism. Workers must have no illusions, no confidence in any bourgeois formation but must rely on their own strength as only the unified struggle of Nigerian workers could assure a decent society to all working people. To do this a Workers Party representing the interest of all workers is needed. Workers must bear in mind that there can be no dignity in labour until labour knows no master. Now, more than ever, there is a crying need for a Workers' Party with the goal of Socialism.