Dignity of labour is an age-long philosophy that regards all forms of legitimate jobs as being equal, with no profession superior to another. The crux of dignity of labour lies in the fact that no legitimate means of livelihood should be relegated or extolled over and above another. This philosophy plays a fundamental role in ensuring respect for human rights and dignity of human person across the world. Overtime, the practicality of this philosophy in the Nigerian social context has become a reflection of a myth than a reality due to several social contexts where certain professions are extolled over another based-on prestige and nobility. Any society desirous of shared prosperity must ensure that a holistic approach is given towards inclusivity. The Nigerian socio-cultural enclave believes that conventional professions such as law, medicine, engineering, and finance are more prestigious over others and this notion has resulted in the over-saturation and unwarranted competitiveness in the labour market.
As a society, dignity in labour must be organic because it promotes the values of hard work as an antidote for poverty, necessity as the mother of invention and talent utilisation.
Human capital development suggests that every idea and intellectual capacity through adequate utilisation of energy has a robust place in the development of society. Hence, ideation which is one of the cardinal objectives of any citadel of knowledge across the world must constantly engage in the unending dialogue of societal evolution. This presupposes that most unemployed youths in Nigeria either in the formal or informal sectors are unable to find a place where their skills can be utilised. In Nigeria, some courses are being viewed as less viable due to its insignificance in society thereby contributing to the brain drain and exodus of Nigerians. I remember as an undergraduate, most of my friends who were studying microbiology, anatomy or zoology and had great plans after graduation were unable to secure their dream job that could stimulate their thoughts and create a synergy between theory and applicability. They eventually learnt an entrepreneurial skill like baking or fashion designing or switched career paths while still in Nigeria. As a result of the japa (exodus from the country) wave, they relocated to further their studies abroad and are doing excellently well in the health sector through research. These sad narratives have become the realities inhibiting societal development in Nigeria.
Since the casual pride of certain professions exists in the formal sector, the fate of those in the informal sector is then uncertain because they are viewed as being unlearned and are apportioned menial jobs based on their level of education. Nonetheless, life may not be fair but those in this sector must be accorded respect because human rights remain inalienable. To this end, my perspective on social justice was born from the employment angle to mean that every individual who wakes up each morning to eke out a just living in whatever chosen field should be able to afford the necessities of life needed for the pursuit of happiness. Dignity of labour must be entrenched and made organic through policies that are people centric. The informal sector contributes to 80 per cent of the jobs in Nigeria and is largely unregulated by the government in terms of social protection that guarantees pension, healthcare, and decent wages. One of the key elements for reducing poverty and social inequality is living wages which transcends the traditional minimum wage that only pegs an amount to be paid by an employer without considering the socio-economic realities of the employee.
For instance, Section 3 of the National Minimum Wage Act, 2019 states that an employer shall not pay an employee below the minimum wage of N30,000. The feasibility of this law amidst biting inflation in Nigeria coupled with the fact that it recognises employers in the formal sector rather exposes those in the informal sector to the whims and caprices of their masters. The question then arises ‘what is the fate of the apprentice or the petty pepper seller under Ojota bridge of Lagos in terms of remuneration or retirement plan?.’ For instance, in Australia, apprentices are entitled to a contract of employment stating the terms of work and are prohibited from being paid below the minimum wage. Nigeria as a nation must renew its minds to believe that relevance in any society is not based on designation but the impacts made by every individual while being engaged at work.
In simple parlance, the managing director of a company is just as important as the gateman because they all discharge the responsibilities of their office towards the common goal of the company. The government should therefore ensure that in its poverty reduction road map, it creates policies that accommodate every individual outside the formal sector through means of identification. However, since the exact population of Nigeria has been speculative, the government will find this rather challenging.
The continuous casualisation of labour in both the public and private sectors can be ascribed to our disrespect towards service and dignity of the human person. The Natural and Sociological Schools of thought posit that laws should be fair and should be a tool for social engineering. Casualisation of labour in Nigeria demeans labour by placing employees on temporary service for years without providing them access to the benefits of a permanent employee. This act is a violation of Section 7 of the Labour Act. However, casual work is not in its entirety illegal, its modus operandi and conditions of employment employees are subjected to is rather unfair. Casual work exists across the world only that it must not deprive employees of their right to decent living. For instance, while casual workers in Australia under the National Employment Standards are entitled to leave and flexible working conditions, Nigerian casual workers are not entitled to these benefits. This therefore raises the need to analyse whether casualisation of labour is a matter of mere semantics or working conditions due to its modus operandi in Nigeria.
Education across the world should not be restricted to the four walls of a classroom. This stems from the reality that dignity of labour remains the bedrock of any productive society. Our approach to education must be one that develops and stimulates students to provide solutions to challenges confronting the world. Education must not be one that is limited to the certificate as a dividend for years spent but one that inspires individuals to provide autochthonous solutions. Our educational curriculum must teach that the world needs the individual design, skill, thoughts and ideas in policymaking, invention, and several other human fields. On an average, the Nigerian university system churns out nothing less than 500,000 graduates yearly to contend for the sparse jobs that are not even decent. Education is not limited to university and polytechnics and that is why we must as a society explore other learning institutions such as Colleges of Education and Technical Colleges. These are institutions that have been placed below radar due to our preposterous notion of the institutions as being less seasoned. The unending discrimination between university and polytechnic graduates will only do more harm than good in materialising dignity in labour. Imperatively, we must keep in mind that the pursuit of happiness implied in Thomas Jefferson’s speech during the Declaration of American Independence betokens that people should be able to pursue their dreams based on passion and not the destiny or fate designed by society.
I often encourage students at technical colleges to never feel less of themselves but to believe in the skills they have acquired and stay resilient believing that with God on their side, the sky will be their stepping stone. We all have a place in society and must also give room for flexibility because no one has it all figured. I remember while I was a law student, I had always pictured myself being in the courtroom because that was the conventional destination for a new wig. I tried forcing myself after law school to fit into this societal design, but this never worked.
I explored litigation for the shortest of time during the one-year, mandatory National Youth Service Corps scheme days but found it less appealing. While still chasing the courtroom dreams, I was unable to secure job opportunities for courtroom but rather in-house roles where I was mentally tasked in complex and technical fields of law from the advisory perspective. For about a year, I was faced with the demeaning comments of litigation lawyers who perceived me as being a lazy lawyer and less of a lawyer. I was less perturbed each time the comments came because of my undaunting reality of dignity in labour.
The pulse of dignity in labour felt in any society is critically dependent on its growth. This is because citizens must be allowed to work and earn fairly in living a decent life. The veracity of dignity in labour in Nigeria has been refuted over and over due to lean labour policies and implementation that justifies hard work and legitimate means of income. Our society has had to deal with the praises of young people engaged in the societal malaise of ‘yahoo-yahoo’ and ‘hook-up.’
These are young people who on average believe from their life experiences that school is a scam and that working legitimately without expedience is a recipe for poverty. While there is no justification for sharp practices, our society must lead an exemplary life by showing that hard work pays, and that legitimate means of livelihood guarantees decent living through fair income and social protection.
Finally, we must celebrate individuals who reflect the values of Nigeria to entrench dignity in labour through laws and policies that guarantee the 8th Sustainable Development Goal of the United Nations on decent work. It has been over three years since the bill to criminalise casualisation of labour was initiated in the National Assembly and yet no record of progress. The rising unemployment rate subsists not because of the absence of job opportunities but because Nigeria has failed to explore other aspects of its life such as sports, tourism, arts and culture to mention a few. We cannot continue to put in place unsustainable policies because one of the quickest ways to eradicate poverty is to ensure that citizens who work legitimately earn decently through the instrumentality of the law. I have interacted with several casual workers in Nigeria particularly factory workers who have been such for more than five years and earn N25,000 monthly with no contract of employment or other welfare conditions. We cannot dehumanise labour and expect crime to be less attractive. Charity must begin at home, but our economic and labour policies must be in sync to improve working conditions for the average Nigerian worker. This sums up my idea of social justice.