Unemployment and underemployment are major factors that drive poverty. For the poor, labour is often the only asset they can use to improve their well-being. Hence, the creation of productive employment opportunities is essential for achieving poverty reduction and sustainable economic and social development.
This is because it is crucial to provide decent jobs that both secure income and empowerment for the working class. Lately, the high rate of underemployment in the country is forcing most employers to maltreat their workers, with most foreign firms exhibiting such characteristics.
Most of the firms found culpable, The Guardian gathered, include Chinese and Lebanese companies, as well as some Nigerian firms in acts of unhealthy work practices.
Already, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) in Q4 2020, said while the country’s underemployment rate stands at 22.8 per cent, a combination of both the unemployment, 33.3 per cent and underemployment rate for the reference period stands at 56.1 per cent.
Many foreign companies in Nigeria have been accused of going against labour laws and treating their Nigerian workers with disdain.
Labour experts described as alarming, the way foreign firms violate the rights of their workers and labour laws.
They said it was fast becoming a common occurrence to see labourers/workers deformed by industrial machines, while getting the stipulated entitlements that could cushion the adverse effects of the accidents on victims was also difficult and frustrating.
General Secretary, the Federation of Informal Workers’ Organisation of Nigeria (FIWON), Gbenga Komolafe, who said the issue had been a recurrent one, linked it to issues around labour abuse, degradation and labour relations.
He gave instances of workers losing their limbs and lives due to non-provision of personal equipment by these firms and also cases where the workers, who are mostly, casuals are being overworked, exceeding 14 hours.
He traced it to the over-flex-civilisation of labour relations that had been taunted in the last two decades, stating that it makes it possible for companies to have perpetual casuals.
According to him, as casuals, they cannot be unionised. “Unions cannot provide basic protection, cannot play oversight roles on whether they are working on the right kind of decisions. This is labour degradation, which manifests overtime, using complex cases to take up on all of them,” he said.
He said the union had taken up countless cases of issues at the National Industrial Court (NIC) on domestic workers over bad abuse and arbitrary dismissals. He said the union had continued to campaign against casualisation, which he said has taken a huge chunk of workers.
“All these are happening because there is no labour protection. We can’t organise them because they are not our members. Because they are not ‘workers’, a union cannot unionise them.
“We ask that the laxity in labour law that legitimises them should be amended. We will continue to fight for union rights should be for all workers.
“It is part of the agenda of political reforms that workers get better representation in governance. All workers should have basic protection, secured work environment and basic protection of the union while at work,” he said.
On the kind of punishment or sanctions that should be meted on them, he gave instances of an expatriate, who referred to one of his employees as a slave, he said the union took it up and justice was served and the expatriate was sent out of the country.
For some of the informal sector workers that are not unionised and have been maltreated by these foreigners, he urged them to report the office of the public defender, Federal Ministry of Labour and other intervention centres on human rights abuse.
Komolafe urged that Nigeria should create a standard on domestic employment so that whenever an employer deviates, there should be punishment for the person.
He said: “You cannot recruit someone and mortgage the person’s salary. They should make it public so that the employee will know his right. Mortgaging someone’s salary is illegal. Domestic workers should know that the employer cannot pay them anything less than N30,000 monthly.”
To tame foreigners’ abuse in Nigeria, he added that there should be a regulation, “make it punishable either for an expatriate or Nigerian. It should be sponsored as an administration and as an Executive Bill to protect the weakest people in the country.”
On employers capitalising on the country’s underemployment rate to maltreat workers, the Director-General of the Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Association (NECA), Adewale Oyerinde, said when an employer decides to play otherwise, there are provisions in the labour laws that address such through the ministry of labour and factory inspectors.
According to him, it is the responsibility of the employees to speak up over employers not meeting their obligations, adding that labour should not be treated as an entity.
“For us, we advise that the employees become more vocal, don’t sit down and die in silence but go through work conditions that are detrimental to health or terms and condition of employment. He should seek guidance from relevant authorities,” he added.
The Deputy President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Joe Ajaero, who noted that businesses are not working due to economic policies and failure of governance said: “If companies can’t make a profit, it will be difficult to pay salaries. Government that is the highest employer of labour cannot employ and can’t get the enabling environment for people to set up their businesses to make money. The workers you are sacking are the victims even when they are making profits, they still want to maximise the profit and that makes it difficult.
“While they are sacking, they are putting pressure on the few they are retaining. If one person has to do the job of three people, it will affect his health. That is why there is the issue of sudden death on daily basis.”
A Public Affairs Analyst, Jide Ojo said because of a growing glut in the unemployment market, it was very easy for multinationals and foreign firms to maltreat workers.
Stating that the Federal Government is compromising Labour laws, he revealed that many of the Chinese firms operating in Nigeria overshoot their expatriate quota, through the Federal Ministry of Interior. He accused labour leaders of compromising the unions, adding that they sell out after being bribed out by these companies.
“Reliable source quoted that people accused of jail terms in China are being brought to Nigeria to serve their prison term as field workers and labourers. They are serving a jail term. Instead of keeping them inside the jail, they will bring them to Africa as a means of serving their jail term and make them work on the field under the disguise that they are technical staff.
“The expatriate quota is controlled by the Ministry of Interior, through the Nigeria Immigration Service, after they grease palms of some of their seniors, they look the other way. Those who are supposed to be occupying the space of senior management positions are not there. We are losers.
“We have not been able to broaden our productivity base. If there were more jobs created and strict enforcement of the labour laws, many of the multinationals operating in Nigeria will not be able to toil with the terms and conditions as enshrined in the nation’s labour laws. But there are compromises along the value chain at the level of ministry and agencies that are supposed to enforce the laws,” he said.
Speaking further, he said if the National Assembly had been carrying out its oversight functions properly, they would have discovered the leakages and the slave labour practices.
Stating that corruption along the value chain also contributes, he said: “Even when they go on oversight to those companies, they simply just grease palms of these lawmakers and they will just make empty threats after which operations will just go as business as usual.
“Enforcement of the labour laws is the way out. We need to create a bigger industrial base so that people will have choices. If you are offering people a slave contract, they will not take it because they have choices. If you can shun corruption and carry out proper enforcement of labour laws, it will reduce to the barest minimum.”
Former President of the Human Capital Providers Association of Nigeria (HuCaPAN), Aderemi Adegboyega, urged the ministry of labour’s inspectorate to be active and beef up its visits to factories to checkmate abuse of manpower.
According to him, there are standards that Nigeria needs to create and “until these standards are created, any foreigner that violates the standard would be dealt with.
“Let’s be realistic, we are looking for foreign investments at the same time we cannot do that in their country because laws exist, because if you do it, there are consequences.”