Friday 15 August 2008

Nigeria: The plight of unpaid but working Nigerians

Unpaid in employment

This issue has been on my mind for months but I have never really been sure of how to approach the issue as a topic for analysis and serious debate.

A conversation I had yesterday presented a framework on which to hang the views I have on this matter.

I just conducted a search on Google for “unpaid workers in Nigeria” and “unpaid salaries in Nigeria” and the results read like an atrocious abuse of the workforce that have been browbeaten and enslaved into situations they probably cannot think themselves out of.

The list of organisations that have defaulted in what should be a standard binding contract that has moral implications, humanitarian concerns, the serious responsibilities that have been shirked to the point that it should be considered criminal conduct is appalling.

Offenders everywhere

In April the staff of Mobile Telecommunications Limited (MTEL) were on strike on the issue of not being paid for 5 months [1], The Nigerian Football Association was owing a backlog for a Nigerian coach running back almost 6 years [2] before the arrears were cleared a few months ago.

Workers at Ajaokuta Steel Company Limited had not been paid for 6 months [3], basically, this abuse pervades all areas of business endeavour in the public, private and unregulated sectors of the Nigerian economy.

I do wonder how any business can thrive if the fundamental worker incentive of getting paid is not there, workers have to endure months to years of hope and despair, unsure of how to make ends meet as they travel to work each day unsure of if they would be kicked out unto the streets on the sudden collapse of their company and without recourse for just recompense.

Employer – employee disconnect

There may be the issue of companies that have not sorted out the billing and collection aspects of the organisation before embarking on any venture who having engaged in a contractual arrangement cannot even trust the paper on which the contract is written because business owners lack requisite honour and integrity to be trusted to do what is right.

There seems to be a disconnect before the needs for a business to continue as a viable concern and the need to maintain and improve the productivity of the staff to make the organisation even more profitable and efficient.

Imagine being a patient about to undergo a serious operation in a hospital where the doctors, the surgeons and the nurses have not been paid for months and consider the risk at which a life has been placed in the care of utterly demotivated people - this scenario should be easy to extrapolate to other business organisations.

Legislate for the right to get paid – on time

There is no reason for organisations in the public sector in an oil-rich economy like Nigeria’s to delay the prompt and efficient payment of salaries to their staff.

In the private sector, there has to be a requirement introduced to ensure that funds are available to cater for the staff they take on and where that pool of funds diminishes a commensurate realignment of priorities has to be implemented to cater for properly compensated lay-offs and properly remunerated packages for those retained.

It is time to stop this practice of keeping the faith for miracle payments that might come at some bye-and-bye future date – companies that cannot pay for services should not engage those services.

Long-suffering or stupid

One can say Nigerians are long-suffering in one sense and probably stupid in another, they are held hostage on a hope for change which does not have a term except that of continually unfulfilled promises to the extent that employers even brazenly to think they are doing their employees a favour, by having them work for free for ages without any clear prospect of when they would be paid.

Workers themselves seem to be willing and resigned to accepting this situation without question, they are numbed into compliance by numbers and under the threat that their are others who would even probably pay to be employed.

It is criminal, whatever way you look at it, that this business attitude thrives with impunity and there is no recourse for serious punitive sanctions on the owners of those businesses.

One wonders if an employee eventually finds employment elsewhere where the business appreciates its duty and responsibilities whether that employee would still be entitled to the accrued arrears owed by the former employer or that would be forfeited.

Politicians can afford to feel completely unconcerned about an aspect of business development that requires some inspired legislation that begins to protect the right to a salary promptly paid for work done – they have allowances and salaries unthinkable to the hapless workers who make up their electorate.

Work for lesser incentive

Unfortunately, whilst I refuse to add this issue to my Apes Obey! Series, it is evident from Lord Lugard’s assessment of Africans of Nigerian descent – “he will work hard with a less incentive than most races” and this salary arrears business takes this matter to the extreme, people are being taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers who take all the profits and leave their staff in servile bondage without pay.

The effect on society has not been measured at all, where those few who happen to have the little from getting paid suddenly take on extended family responsibilities to cater for others who still have to get to work, pay the rent, feed the family, manage their health and send their kids to school.

A man’s dilemma

Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, workers have responsibilities they cannot cater for because they are not getting paid and they have to contend with landlords, schools, doctors and other essential needs to keep body, soul and mind together.

We have reached a state where the ability to feel shame has been lost as everyone falls into debt as a means of scraping to survive – it must be a crime to employ without prompt payment and there must be sanctions that force business owners to forfeit assets to meet their responsibilities as employers.

Workers should not have to carry the blame for the mismanagement of the organisation or its funds; it should be fraudulent to have funds extracted from the organisation for other services when employers have not fulfilled their obligations.

Duty and responsibility of employers

Our society is fractured and broken because of these unconscionable activities and it is time to bring back the virtues of honour, integrity and binding contractual relationships that first define corporate social responsibility as a clear duty to employ within the means of the ability to pay.

There should be a perpetually binding requirement to pay up all arrears to existing and former employees or their named dependants before an organisation earns the respect of the markets and ratings that allow it trade without the anti-social sobriquet of employers being slave-traders in everything but name.

There should be an impartial ombudsman who monitors the corporate responsibility of firms with the power to force a delisting from the stock market, seize assets to pay up arrears, commit the principal officers to trial with sanctions that deprive them of their liberty and ultimately close the business or take it into administration with a management team that would turn things around.

At the risk of sounding socialist, we cannot pretend to be capitalist when the resources of production are press-ganged into communist sameness in the hope that feudal lords would be benevolent to the workers who have by default become slaves.


[1] Sourced from Vanguard - Nigeria: MTEL Workers Shut Down 200,000 Lines Over Unpaid Salaries

[2] BBC SPORT | Football | African | Chukwu demands unpaid salaries

[3] Daily Trust - the online edition - Ajaokuta Steel workers unpaid for six months

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