Concerning Cheap Labor in Nigeria

By: Deji Yesufu

Throughout December the company that usually removes the garbage can from my home was unable to do so. When I finally reached the lady in charge, she told me that the Hausa boys they use to collect the dumps from each home had gone for Christmas holidays and they were still not yet back a week into January. When their company could no longer wait, and with incessant calls by customers to come and remove the overflowing garbage in their homes, they eventually settled for Yoruba boys. “So why didn’t you use them earlier…”, I asked her. “Ha, our boys charge higher o…” she exclaimed.

While the Hausa boys will take something between N1,500 and N2,000 for a day’s job, Yoruba boys take nothing less than N3,000. I was happy to hear this. It means that the cost of such labor is not too cheap south of Nigeria and anyone who is interested in employing young men from here would have to pay well for it. Yet, I was concerned that Northern Nigeria is still a source for cheap labor in Nigeria.

The phrase “labor is cheap” in Nigeria was brought to my reckoning by the brilliant Ibadan mechanic, Tunde Onokoya. In his morning radio program, he often explained that cheap labor is the reason many Nigerians know very little about DIYs on their vehicles. When it will cost you about a week’s wage to change the oil in your car, you are likely to learn how to do it yourself. I’ll return to this matter of lingering cheap labor in Nigeria. For now I must position this article with more anecdotes.

During the six-month lockdown, my children became increasing restless at home. My wife told me that she had learnt from a Zoom seminar that children will need to burn off excess energy by taking long walks around the neighborhood. So, one evening we took a stroll through my estate. I have a terrible manner of never venturing beyond my house or the street I live in. I could live years in a neighborhood and not know what the adjoining streets look like.

So while walking through the estate, I discovered the share number of young able men either sitting by an estate gate or sitting by the gate of the house. They are usually referred to as “gate-men”. All they do is to open the gate when their employers arrive home and shut it when they leave. They also act as security guards. They run errands for the employer and they just sit around the gate – all day long doing practically nothing. We can afford to employ these men because they offer cheap labor to us. Yet we do not realize that what we have on our hands is a ticking bomb.

So they say we should travel so that we can learn how other climes function and we can imitate them. Permit me to bring my overly told story of my travel to Germany in March last year here again. Fortunately or unfortunately it is an experience I am yet to get over with. The German economy is super rich; I understand it is richer than that of the United Kingdom. I noticed that everywhere we went in Berlin there was no such thing as a gate man.

Truth is that even if there was, this matter of a minimum wage will force you to pay him for doing practically nothing. So when you drive into a hotel parking lot, your room tag opens the gate to the place. Whatever neighborhood you live in has a gate tag that opens the gate automatically any time you drive in. The company I trained in was situated in a university campus. Everyone that owned a car came into the campus with a tag that you swipe through a computer, which then opens the gate for you. The gate man is not needed in such a country.

Now back to this matter of cheap labor: the southern part of Nigeria has built its work force to a point that the least degree any adult here has is a Primary School Leaving Certificate. Gentlemen, that certificate will be over qualification for the job of a dumpster or a gate man. So we will need to employ people from other parts of the country who have no education at all. We see then that if our nation can commit itself to building a populace where the least educated person has a university degree, then every employer will be forced to pay a minimum wage to their employees. Or else, you will do your job yourself.

The next thing that we can do to fix this matter of cheap labor is for everyone of us to have some milk of human kindness in us. We cannot say because there is unemployment in the country we can then employ people and pay them peanuts. How exactly would you distinguish yourself from the Lebanese overlords who employ Nigerians and use them like rain water in their companies. We will not be any different from them and we will earn the same judgement from God – which he has destined on such evil fellows.

My children are seven and nine years old. Their mother just designated them to begin washing the dishes on alternate days. Before this time she washed the plates and I helped her often. When we got married I told her I will not bring a curse on myself by employing under-age children to work in my home. For about a decade of marriage, my wife and I labored to keep our home – doing all the menial jobs ourselves. Only employing a woman to clean the house on alternate weekends because we cannot afford to pay her every weekend. This woman is not educated but we pay her well. I will not join those who employ people at whim and pay them peanuts because labor is cheap in the country. Maybe this is the reason we have kept this woman’s services for close to a decade now.

What is the point of my rant?

It is two fold: the Nigerian people should commit themselves to building a nation of educated elites. I have purposely not said government because I no longer believe that government should be the sole builder of a nation – the people should. When we understand that an enlightened mind can do a lot more than just getting a job, getting a salary and living fine, we will realize that an educated populace has a way of naturally building the country inside out.

This matter is not just government not creating jobs; the matter is that Nigerians are not brilliant enough to be creative enough, to produce goods and services that people from all over the world will fall over themselves to pay for. And we are not there yet because oil is still servicing our incompetence – a subject for another day. Suffice to say here that a productive economy will naturally produce employment for people. Money will come in for goods produced, people will be employed in these companies and they will be forced to pay them well because the employees will have basic education you cannot just take for granted.

Second, Nigerians must develop a sense of patriotism and nationalism. When I wrote my book Victor Banjo, a Nigerian from the UK got a soft copy of the book off the internet. He said the mere fact that the book was written by a Nigerian propelled him to get a copy. If we all think Nigerian, if we realize that employing someone and paying that person well is empowering this person to do more for his community, we will realize that what goes around will come around. A nation where its citizens are not paid peanuts will develop to be a strong nation within and without. Nigerians will remain in Nigeria; no one will need to go to Libya to live as a second class citizen. And when our people venture out of the shores of this country, they will be respected and paid well for the jobs they do.

Of course the other option is to continue with the stratified soceity that we have. Where we have the super rich and the mindless poor. And like they say when the poor find nothing else to eat, they will turn around and eat the rich. We all have a duty to do something about cheap labor in this country. You can start by paying that mechanic his due for what he did on your car. Employ an adult help in the house and pay them a reasonable wage – if not a minimum wage. If all you can get is an underage worker, commit to giving her an education as long as he or she is under your roof. Let us as a people take some radical steps at eradicating poverty around us and we can be sure that we will be building a future for ourselves and one that our children will be proud of.

Posted by Deji Yesufu

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