The Living Hell of Everyday life for Workers in Lagos, Nigeria

We spoke to two workers in Lagos (Nigeria) who described the conditions of work in the various factories they have worked in. A really horrifying account.

We spoke to two workers in Lagos (Nigeria) who described the conditions of work in the various factories they have worked in.

"We can start by describing the conditions of work at the Niger Biscuit factory in Apapa, Lagos. Over 500 workers are employed there. They work two twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week. That means they work an 84-hour week. Daily pay is 70 Naira (47 pence!). Most workers have to spend 40 Naira a day on travel expenses (27 pence). That means that for a 30-day month they earn 2,100 Naira and spend 1200 on travelling. That leaves them with a monthly take home pay of 800 Naira (£5.33).

In the past, they could at least count on being able to feed themselves on the biscuits, but now they have introduced stringent controls and the workers are not allowed to eat them. Some obviously still take some to eat, but they have to do it secretly for fear of losing their jobs.

The workers eat at the canteen outside the factory, on credit, as their wages don't cover their expenses. That means that at the end of the month the workers are in debt. So after a month of exhausting work there is not even the satisfaction of taking home a wage packet.

Because the workers are in debt to the food-sellers, the sellers take advantage by giving the workers smaller portions for the same price, because they know the workers will not complain as they count on this source of food to survive until pay day.

The sellers keep an account of the credit waiting for the workers' payday. Sometimes they use the factory supervisors to deduct what is owing to them directly from the workers' salaries.

Because the workers cannot make ends meet, they can never pay off the whole debt. But a condition for getting new credit is that they pay off at least a part of debt at the end of the month, so the debt keeps growing. I have known workers with debts of up to 2,000 Naira at the end of the month, practically their whole salary. They have to pay off at least half of that at the end of the month, thus piling up further debt."

Where does the workers' salary go?

"There is transportation which takes up half the salary. Then there is the rent, which is at least 400 Naira per month. If a worker has a family (as most of them do), he has to feed them, clothe them, pay the children's school fees. If he is young and unmarried there is the pressure from his parents to provide some income.

The company provides no medical care. If a worker gets injured that is his own business, and he has to pay for it out of his miserly wage. The same goes for medical care for his family.

Rent is at least 400 Naira per month. To have a healthy diet of three meals a day for an individual you need to spend at least 100 Naira per day. That is well beyond the means of many workers. So usually, a worker will skip at least one meal, if not two. Many workers will go to work hungry and eat their only meal of the day at the factory where they have access to credit, and thus it goes on in a vicious circle."

What is the situation like in the other factories you have worked in?

"Apart from the Niger Biscuit company there are other companies that operate in a similar fashion, like Tonobi Plastics (ex-Rubber Shoes), Ijora Textile Company, Sasoplast Nigeria Limited, Wahum (glass making). The conditions are the same in all these factories because of the very low wages. The workers get into the situation of accumulating IOUs, which means that most months the workers go home without any salary as it all goes to pay off the various IOUs.

In all these factories, the whole work force is casual labour, so there is no Trade Union, and therefore no organized dissent. There is a large turnover. This is a conscious policy of the bosses to stop the workers from organizing. There is so much unemployment that the bosses can just take on new workers.

One of the methods of checking the workers is to make a member of the boss's family (or from his tribe) supervisor over the others, so that they will be very loyal and make sure no-one protests.

One of the most infamous of these companies is Bagco Bags. They produce bags for cement, salt, etc. Often the workers are subjected to humiliation at the end of every working day. The company has security men that engage in body searches, in a room equipped with Close Circuit TV. The workers are stripped completely naked, both men and women. The supervisor, who is always a man, is watching through the CCTV system. At the end of the day they poke fun at the women commenting on their bodies."

How many hours a day do the workers have to work?

"In all these companies the working day is long and tedious. It always leaves the workers mentally and physically drained. When there is a union the company can be forced to run three shifts of eight hours each, but where there is none it is usually two 12-hour shifts.

At the Niger Biscuit factory the day shift starts at 6 am and goes on until 6 p.m. To get to work the workers must be up at least by 4 am. Walking out on the streets at that time in the morning is very dangerous, as the streets are infested with armed robbers who operate at night. Often a worker will be attacked by a gang of armed robbers who will remove the few Naira he has in his pockets, or if he has none they will remove his wrist watch or shoes, or even his neck chain."

What happens if a worker arrives late?

"If the workers arrive late the boss will deduct money from their salaries. An example is the Bemil Security Company, where if a worker comes late they will deduct the money from his salary. For arriving ten minutes late, they can deduct 50 Naira, or he can even be sent home, depending on the mood of the supervisor that day.

If you are, absent for a day they will deduct two days' salary (about 300 Naira, £2, in the case of Bemil Security where wages are a bit higher than at Niger Biscuit).

Are there any other unjustified deductions from workers' wages?

"Another injustice is the so-called National Housing Fund which workers are obliged to contribute to. They have at least 50 Naira a month deducted from their salaries. This fund is supposed to be financing the building of cheap accommodation for the workers, but so far, none have ever been built.

There is also the problem of damage to or theft of company property. The workers are always held responsible and the cost is deducted from their wages.

It is also very common for workers to receive their salaries late, often one or two months in arrears. One of the most striking examples is what has been happening at the Delta Steel Company, where workers are owed up to 36 months back pay. As a result at least 44 workers have died of hunger. Whole families face total destitution."

How are women treated?

"Most of these factories prefer employing women, because wages for women are lower, although they often do the same work as men.

A case in point is Skaymports Nigeria Limited. They export charcoal. Most of the women's work consists in carrying big sacks of charcoal onto the trucks. All these women are casual labourers, with absolutely no rights, no rights to maternity leave, etc. Most of these women are the breadwinners in their families because their husbands cannot find work.

I personally witnessed the plight of pregnant women. I saw women walking to work until the last day before giving birth. They cannot afford to miss a day's work, because this would mean hunger for their families, and no food for the new baby. I saw two women having a miscarriage in the factory. Both women lost their babies. Neither of them received a single Naira of compensation. Due to the lack of any Trade Union organization or rights, no one could do anything.

We tried to form a Union, but the boss manoeuvred as usual with his own relatives as supervisors.

Work started at 7 am and finished at 9 pm, with a thirty-minute break. And if you didn't meet your quota for the day the supervisor would declare that you had not worked for that day."

What are the living conditions like?

"The workers all live in the same areas in shanties. They live in one-room apartments, unfit for human beings. The roofs leak, so during the day, there is intense heat and at night the cold comes in. The floors are not cemented but are just soil. When it rains the houses are flooded out and the workers have to leave until they dry out. The impression upon entering these districts is one of entering a war zone with row upon row of crumbling houses. The walls have big cracks in them, the plaster is falling away and quite often bits of the roof have been blown away by the wind.

In these one-room apartments, it is not uncommon to find a family of ten.

There is no water, no proper sanitation. Sewage spills down the roads. There are no medical facilities in these districts, no hospitals or clinics. Due to the unsanitary conditions and the overcrowded nature of these areas, diseases are on the rise, such as cholera, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, yellow fever. Last year there was an epidemic of cholera and cerebral spinal meningitis.

The areas of Lagos we are talking about are Ajegunle, Mushin, Agege, Ijora-Badiya, Orile, Amukoko, Tolu, Okoko-Maiko, Maroko. These are all high-density areas. Possibly, more than five million people live in them.

Women and children have to dedicate a large part of their day fetching water, as in most cases the water supply can be as far away as three or four streets, but often due to the scarcity of water they may have to walk even further to get their water.

There is no such thing as a "bathroom". Usually this will consist of four metal sheets tied together to make a makeshift shower. There is hardly any privacy as most often the person bathing is in full view of the public.

Often these shanties may be bulldozed. A case in point is Maroko, where the poor were driven out without any alternative arrangement. The government justified this by saying the area is a security risk. In reality it is because it is on Victoria Island right next to where the rich live in huge mansions or modern high rise buildings."

What about the education system?

"The level of illiteracy is extremely high, as more often than not the children are withdrawn from school to be sent to earn a few Naira on the streets. The extremely high level of poverty forces many young teenage girls into prostitution. Sometimes they will prostitute themselves simply for a meal, or the miserly sum of 20 Naira (13 pence).

Added to this there is the further burden of having to pay such taxes as tenement rates, water rates, TV and radio tax. TV and radio tax costs 100 Naira monthly. Water rates can be 500 Naira for one house. Tenement rates can be 200 Naira. School fees are disguised as 'examination levies'. One school exam can cost 500 Naira, and for each subject students have to do four tests, at the cost of 50 Naira per test. Added to this the teachers often force students to do compulsory after-school lessons, for which a monthly fee of 300 Naira is charged. That explains why so many families are forced to remove their children from school.

It is a never-ending vicious circle of poverty. We have had enough. The workers and poor cannot go on living like this any longer. It is about time something changed."