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Casual workers tell agonising stories of enslavement, abandonment.

TUNDE DODONDAWA and KEHINDE AKINSEHINDE-JAYEOBA tell the stories of casual workers who claim they are being treated casually by all, including those who should fight their battles.

CASUALISATION is not a new phenomenon in the labour sector. In fact, the interpretation of certain labour laws in Nigeria could deem it lawful and the worsening economic situation has seen nearly all the stakeholders in the labour circle come to terms with the inevitability of having persons on such employment module in nearly all the sectors of the economy. But the concept may have crossed the thin line between having workers on temporary basis which is what casualisation is, and a new form of slavery in the name of employment, which is what the arrangement is allegedly gradually turning to.

Penury to slavery?

Recent history of employment and the worsening statistics of unemployment and loss of jobs show that the alleged dehumanisation of employees in the name of casualisation is not new and not peculiar to brands or nationalities of employers of labour, despite the profiling that has now come to underline the abuses associated with the arrangement.

A few years back, staff members of a company located in Ikorodu and owned by a celebrated moneybag from the Northern part of the country, had sent their representatives on a save-our-soul assignment to the Tribune office in Lagos after a peaceful demand for a better welfare package saw many of them fired by the management. The representatives alleged, among other things, inhuman treatment of the workers, particularly those on the casualisation arrangement.

When Saturday Tribune got across to the company's image maker (name withheld), he claimed that the sacked workers were unruly and stopped production in the company for days, leading to a huge revenue loss. He was definite about the company not having them back but a negotiated understanding that was later brokered saw their dismissal converted to sacking and the one month salary in lieu of the termination of appointment paid. The leaders of the protest, who were also affected by the purge as full staff, also had their dismissal converted to resignation with entitlements paid. The owner eventually sold the company.

A new form of slavery

The alleged inhuman working conditions complained of by the workers in the sold firm were likely not to be anything close to what was recently reported about a company (identity withheld) located along the Mowe axis of Ogun/Lagos boundary. Words reportedly leaked from the closed gates of the company that the management usually locked up workers at resumption and would not allow them to step out until the close of work. The report further claimed that the shut-in workers must just work; not talk or smile at one another, reminding one of the slaves of old, having their mouths padlocked while working in the sugarcane plantations of their masters. The official reasons for the policy could not be established but workers in the system felt it was just because they are casual workers.

Lagosians may not have completely forgotten an overnight fire incident in a confectionary firm years back when casual workers who were locked in for the night production could not escape. They burned to death because the supervisor allegedly took the keys to the locked gates home.

A semblance of the scenario is allegedly playing out at the Mowe firm, though the lock-in is said to only be in the daytime.

Crying wolf?

While cases mentioned above could be deemed extreme situations, random sampling of experiences of factory workers across Lagos who are mostly on casual engagement will confirm the alleged inhumane treatments being reportedly meted out to casual workers. Gbenga is a living witness. He works in a popular beverage company in Lagos and shared his experience with Saturday Tribune. According to him, in recent times, the working condition in the company has gone from bad to worse since the recession. Prior to the recession, Gbenga explained, things were not so bad as they, at least, had a clear picture of what was required of them to do, knew the working hours and the salary, which though was not too good, was paid as and when due - complete with allowances that compensated for the deplorable working condition.

'But when there was recession in the country, the workforce was reduced, which we understand, considering the state of the economy. But what we fail to understand is their ingratitude. For example, we have to work extra hours. We are being over-laboured, yet there is no sign of appreciation from the company's owners. Rather, we are being threatened that if we slack in our duties, it is a pointer to the exit door,' he lamented.

He said further that the state of health of many of the workers had deteriorated, noting that there were now frequent complains of ailments like headache and malaria.

'I had always believed myself to be a strong man until last year when I became sick. I rarely fall sick but last year, I treated myself for malaria fever about three times. Then I had issues with back pains and strains on my feet. On an occasion, I visited the company clinic. I don't even know the injection I was given. All I know was that I almost died. Since then, I don't even report being sick to the nurse at the clinic; I just go ahead to treat myself,' Gbenga said.

Perhaps the most painful part of working in the factory for Gbenga is his conviction that the labour union has been compromised. 'There is nobody to fight our cause. Yes, we have the union but they are just figureheads, or worse still, anti-workers. They only fight for their selfish interests. Anytime we present our cases to them, they leave the meeting with huge promises that the issue would be addressed but by the time they come back, the tune is different. Our guess is that the company pays them to remain inactive.'

For Emmannuel, who has been a factory worker for seven years, the experience has not been palatable, too.

'In my years at the factory, I have seen so much and heard tales of many who had devoted their lives to their jobs as a factory worker but got nothing in return. Right now, in my company, we are still fighting to be given our scope of duty which should have been the first thing given to all employees. There is no clear contract. For example, concerning gratuity, many of the ex-factory workers are being owed their gratuity which has put fear in the minds of others who want to call it quits because nothing will be given to appreciate their dedication, hard work and sacrifices for the company.'

No show from labour unions

From the interaction with a union leader who pleaded for anonymity, it was discovered that the management of companies work together with state executives to deprive workers of their rights. He disclosed that the working relationship between workers and management of the company has not been satisfactory and nothing suggests any future improvement.

He explained that for the past three years, there had been a clamour for Condition of Service, specifically gratuity payments but this had been annulled.

According to him, 'efforts and attempts to make our displeasure known to the management have been frustrated by the state executives with the excuse that it is illegal to protest and that union follows procedures.'

Supporting the claims of collaboration between union executives and management of companies, Uchendo Alice, also a casual worker in a manufacturing company, believes that the non-implementation of the National Joint Industrial Council (NJIC) decisions reinforces the alleged hidden agenda of company owners as the decisions would not have been negotiable once national agreements had been made via the council.

Worst culprits?

In the manufacturing sector, the most brutal form of casualisation is believed to be rampant. The banking sector is also said to be almost totally casualised, according to insiders. The banks allegedly champion casual engagement as a way of increasing flexibility and lower cost, while reportedly ignoring the poor commitment and lower productivity that come with the arrangement. That is why the preference for casual labour is believed to be more of ideology rather than genuine economic calculation because in the long run, casual employment does not chart a good path to profitability and performance.

Speaking with Saturday Tribune on the fate of workers in casualisation era, Comrade Tony Joshua of Steel Workers Union blamed the spate on high level of unemployment in the country.

'We know that casualisation is evil and we are doing everything we can to fight. However, high level of unemployment is also responsible for this social injustice. With casualisation, workers are not entitled to decent work conditions, severance payment and pension.

'But when we decide to fight and perhaps shut these companies, the workers will be the ones fighting against us and preventing us from successfully fighting for their rights. This is so because they don't want to lose their jobs. Getting other jobs may be difficult for them,' he said.

However, Mercy John, who works in a beauty products manufacturing company, has little or nothing to complain about. According to her, she was well aware of the working conditions before joining the company as she had friends working in the organisation.

'Although, when the reality of the job hit my body, it was strange but I quickly adjusted. I had no choice but to adjust. I have just secondary school leaving certificate. There is no decent job for such qualification. Nobody gave me any job description when I started work. I learnt on the job, watching others and I quickly learned the rope being a quick study and being eager to earn a living because I had not done anything meaningful for five years after I left secondary school. This was a huge opportunity for me and I grabbed it with both hands,' Mercy explained.

According to the National President of the Association of Senior Staff of Banks, Insurance and other Financial Institutions (ASSBIFI), Comrade Oyinkan Olasanoye, 'the difference between a casual staff and the full time staff with condition is that part of the conditions are salary, remuneration and safety at workplace.

'We have enough laws in Nigeria, safety at workplace, factory acts, employee compensation. We have so many of them. The Labour Act we are using as of today is outdated. We have tried several times to sponsor bill on the upgrading of the Labour Acts but as of now, nothing seriously has been done about it.

'I believe the reason why we have not been able to achieve the achievement of this upgrading of our Act is this: in every other country of the world, we have a tripartite system - the employer, the employee and government. The government becomes the regulator, the supervising authority over employment but in Nigeria, we have a unilateral system - employer and the government are fused together as one.

'With due respect, there is no bank or any financial institution in Nigeria that you will not trace the masquerade to the executive and the legislative arms of the country. So, it has been very difficult to get a new labour law in place.'
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Publication:Nigerian Tribune (Oyo State, Nigeria)
Geographic Code:6NIGR
Date:Apr 21, 2018
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