By Ace Omozuwa
Workers are architects of development, worthy of utmost honor. It is in recognition of this fact that every 1st of May; the global community celebrates the contributions of workers to the development of humanity. Labor Day or May Day as it is also called offers the international community the opportunity to deeply reflect on how to shield workers from the firestorms of socioeconomic misfortunes.
It is set aside to collectively promote the ideals of human freedom. It also seeks to draw public attention to the occupational plight of the working class and contribute to articulating feasible action plans of welfare enhancement. Given the perennial existential traumas the Nigerian worker is dealing with, it appears pertinent to address some vital labor-related issues.
Brain drain has made Nigeria’s knowledge production systems and economy to experience life-threatening hemorrhage. When very skilled and experience workers started leaving Nigeria our work ethics became poor and mediocrity became widespread in many sectors of the economy. One reason why brain drain attained crescendo in 1990s is because, the Nigerian worker is mired in the cesspit of existential turmoil. He is a fitting metaphor of economic upheavals. His plight is as despicable as that of the folkloric enterprising prince condemned to labor for ghost. In order to live meaningfully he has to leave Nigeria or corruptly enrich himself.
One reason why corruption is rife in Nigeria is because workers are victims of the precarious socioeconomic ordeals in the nation. Unjust economic systems have crushed their modest aspiration to cater for the basic needs of life. Many workers cannot boost of houses of their own, good cars, or nutritional three square meals for their family. Life after retirement for many is bleak. It is easy for unscrupulous elements to compromise the ethical values of poor workers that lack social prestige and hope of better tomorrow. Fighting corruption without restoring the dignity of labor and lifting the Nigerian worker out of poverty trap is a no-brainer.
Paying ritualistic tribute to the noble contributions of the Nigerian workers without alleviating their precarious socioeconomic condition translates to canonizing hypocrisy. Forced tributes to the Nigerian worker do not put food on the table. They do not provide access to opportunities for better life. They do not transform sweatshops to safe work environment. They do not ensure access to quality healthcare. They have failed to make public transportation systems better and safer. Rather they are abortifacient, terminating hope and the capacity to dream great things.
The feigned celebratory mode or ritualistic observance of May Day in Nigeria does not challenge the hegemony to undertake deep contemplation that drives social change. Sadly, it is an indirect way of paying tribute to the hegemony. It creates an opportunity for labor leaders to cozy up with the political class and captains of industry. To put workers at the center of May Day and pay due tribute to the sovereignty of the people, the street should be the locus of action, not aristocratic amphitheaters where leaders inspect guards of honor in imperialistic fashion. We must not forget that May Day is premised on the fact that workers are the backbone of democracy and market economy.
It is salutary that in recent years the relationship between the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Trade Union Congress and government at different tiers appears healthy. It is very much unlike the frosty, development-retarding relationship that characterized the Obasanjo-Adams era. However, this relationship is likely to become frosty, if extreme tact is not exhibited as the legitimate clamor for the upward review of minimum wage builds up. Any attempt to politicize the welfare of workers will eventually have untoward effect on the economy.
There was a time in Nigeria when the offer of employment meant “everything good will come” – Sefi Attah’s coinage- in fact, the tittle of her book. That was when politics had not become capital-intensive and money spinning. Creative labor does not mean empowerment to prosper; any longer, only politics can make that audacious promise today. Sadly, even the Nutritional wellbeing of Nigerian workers is questionable. Nutritional well-being is a function of food availability, appropriate diet and more importantly, economic power.
Putting food on the table on every citizen is seen a moral mission of government. Then imagine workers without food.
In the eye of some members of the political class, particularly, in states and local governments, workers are wreckers. They undermine their hedonistic pursuits. They consider wage incentive as ruinous to their political capital. Hence, they could gleefully fail to pay workers’ salaries for months while funding their bizarre hedonistic pursuits with public funds. We undermine the dignity of labor when workers wallow in penury due to unpaid salaries.
The suicide incidences of unpaid workers in Kogi state suggest that the meaning of life erodes when people cannot eat the fruits of their labor. Sadly, men and women in the political class in Nigeria are paid for having heads and hands, not for using them to uplift humanity. Sadder, they seek to ensure that those who use their heads and hands to contribute to national development are not paid very well and as at when due.
Humiliation should not be the end product of creative labor. Otherwise many people will be victims of crises of purpose and meaninglessness. This implies setting the stage for the emergence of anomic society. We must not forget that one reason why the Roman Empire collapsed is that the ethics of pleasure subjugated the ethics of work. Hedonism replaced the quest for heroism.
Workers are not wreckers, they are sustainers of civilization. The glorious flame of any civilization is bound to dim when the idle rich systematically enslave the labor force to a life of destitution. According to ancient wisdom, labor is honor, men who dishonor labor must not bear rule. If they do society regresses.
Workers are wealth creators. They are stabilizers of democracy, expert drivers of economic development devoted to ensuring human society functions seamlessly efficiently. Skilled workers irrespective of their job descriptions are national asset. No society or nation can thrive where labor is open to mockery. As a nation we need to internalize the import of this truism by Martin Luther King Jr.; “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”
One reason why poverty is rife in Nigeria is because labor is the cheapest factor of production. Economic injustice and extremely low wage go hand in hand. In other words, to properly understand the mechanics of economic injustice in Nigeria consider the amount of physical, mental, social, and spiritual energies a skilled worker expend to produce goods and services against the backdrop of his or her take home salary. When workers earnings cannot sufficiently cover the costs of living, poverty will abound and the drive to fuel economic growth through innovative solutions will suffer. This is because workers are integral part of the engine of innovation. Hence, John Locke categorically noted that, “it is labor indeed that puts the difference on everything.”
Any development aspiration that regards workers as mere fifth wheels, rather than as genuine creators of change and progress is bound to fail. Hence, workers welfare was central to the Singaporean model of economic transformation. Lee Kun Yew knew that poor remuneration incentivizes corruption. As Nigeria aspires to diversify its monolithic economic base and effectively transition to a knowledge economy, it must accord due significance to workers and their welfare, like Singapore. Otherwise she will not fully harness her rich human capital for national development.
Governments and employers of labor should endeavor to make the living condition of workers better than that of past survivalists, those whose reliance on traditional knowledge and production systems were unthinkingly mechanistic. The Nigerian worker deserves more than facile motivation of political rhetoric void of action plan. For the May Day to count employers of labor must do all that is ethically prudent and economically rational to elevate the socioeconomic status of human drivers of economic development.
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