We work so hard but earn little wages: Tales of Nigerian labourers with many dependants

BY AGNES NWORIE, ABAKALIKI

They cluster in strategic locations, often close to roads across Nigeria as they wait for people that would engage in their unskilled services. These labourers, both men and women, including the elderly, come out daily as early as 5:30am with the hope of being picked by clients who need labourers to work on their construction sites, among other jobs.

Some of these labourers clutch pans, cutlasses, bunches of broom, digger, rake, shovel among other working tools while they struggle and fight sometimes to gain attention of their potential clients. With some being lucky to be picked for one labour or the other, many go back home empty-handed at dusk.

Despite the strenuous nature of their works, some of these labourers lamented what they termed poor payments from their clients after many hours of hard labour, adding that government had not done anything in pulling them out of their misery.

In Abakaliki, the Ebonyi State capital, some of these labourers are semi-skilled, while the few who are skilled in jobs such as carpentry, radio repairing, shoe making, among others, had abandoned their jobs, owing to low patronage. Even in the rain, these individuals struggle to be picked out of many.

At Pa Ngele Oruta Stadium, Ukwansi junction, Ebebe Junction, Vanco junction and Tipper Garage, all in Abakaliki, these labourers clustered around our correspondent, while persuading her to hire them. Some were disappointed that she would not be needing their services.

Many of them expressed displeasure over their neglect by successive governments in Ebonyi State, particularly politicians whom they accused of only remembering them during elections. Some of them disclosed that they were not keen about participating in the just concluded general elections because of the neglect they had suffered over the years.

The menial workers said life had been tough for them, as several of them could only survive through hard labour even when they had many dependants to feed and cater for.

They disclosed that what they earned as wages were not commensurate with the stress and risk associated with the labour they engaged in. Some of them also engage in subsistence farming to support whatever they earn.

A former restaurant operator, Kingdom Nweke, who has been digging pit toilets for over 17 years, said he joined the labourers in 2004 after his shop and all the valuables therein were damaged during the demolition of illegal structures by the administration of that period.

Nweke said, “After I had encountered the problem, coupled with other family issues, I resorted to digging of soakaway, foundations of buildings and other related work to enable me take care of my children and wife. Because of the usual neglect and abandonment by government, we don’t bother wasting our precious time going to cast vote for any politician.

“Even in the last general election, we only managed to go out and vote for Peter Obi of Labour Party. Other days, we were at our personal farms working and at our homes resting. What is the need going to vote since they only focus on their families after being voted into power?”

The 36-year-old father of five children disclosed that his situation had been hellish as he found it difficult to cope with his family requirements, including paying for the educational pursuits of his younger siblings.

Nweke added that, because of the harsh economy in the country, he hardly got jobs and in most cases, in order not to go home empty handed, he would engage in some jobs where payment was not worth the service.

“You can imagine where an able-bodied man of my type would dig pits from morning till evening and, at the end of the day, I go home with N2,500,” he said, adding that if given a grant by government, he could go back to his fast-food business.

A bricklayer, Imo Iteshi, also said making ends meet had not been easy for him. The father of eight disclosed that he had managed to see one of his children through senior secondary school through menial jobs.

“Any day that I get a job, at times, I would go home with about N4,000 or N5,000; but my major challenge is that the activity usually comes either once or twice in a week. That is where the problem lies and our politicians are not helping matters as they only empower their immediate family members rather than the downtrodden who deserve the gesture.

“Politicians normally use and dump us; they use us as voting instrument, which can only be remembered during election period, and thereafter, no one will think about us any longer,” Iteshi lamented.

He added that, before now, many of them had undergone series of empowerment tests and exercises, all to no avail, as they could not benefit from such opportunities.

A mason, Eze Raymond, who holds a National Certificate of Education (NCE) in English Language and Political Science from Ebonyi State College of Education, Ikwo, disclosed that he resorted to daily labour because he was not able to secure any white-collar job after he graduated from the institution in 2011.

At Ebebe Junction, Elom Godson, 65 years, from Onueke in Ezza South Local Government Area of the state, said he operated a tools rental service in the area. He also lamented that the economic crunch was not allowing people to build new structures, so it had become difficult for people to hire their services.

Explaining how he got involved in labour, Elom said, “I am into hiring of tools such as hammer, shovel, spade, digger, pickaxe, head pan and other materials. Through the trade, I have been caring for my family for over two years. Though my problem presently is scarcity of job. Based on the situation, artisans do not patronise me as before. I believe that the condition was caused by the high cost of building materials, which has discouraged many people from embarking on building projects.”

At the Ukwansi cluster along Water Works Road, Abakaliki, Mrs. Nchionu Nwokeji, a mother of four children from Okpuitumo in Ikwo LGA, said the little support she used to give her husband for the upkeep of the home was almost gone.

“I did not attend school and I don’t have any skill; this is why, since 2016, I joined other women who come out in search of menial work to provide for my children,” she said.

Also, Mrs. Onwe Monica, an indigene of Ngbo in Ohaukwu LGA, said it was through her daily earnings, in addition to her husband’s efforts that their 12 children were being catered for.

The woman, who has been a daily labourer for over 10 years, said, with experience, she could mix cement and concrete appropriately without being supervised.

“Mixing of aggregates for casting of pillars is no longer a new thing to me. At times, after mixing, I would still serve a mason at the third, fourth or fifth floor of a building. However, after each day’s work, I usually face the pains associated with the hard labour. I do not look my real age, I have grown old quickly because of hard labour,” she said.

The woman also requested for financial help of N200,000 to enable her venture into garri and donkey meat business or any other less tedious commercial activity in her hometown.

A 65-year-old woman, Mrs. Evelyn Ogbaga, from Nkaleke in Ebonyi LGA, said she started the work almost four decades ago shortly after she lost her husband.

The widow said menial work was her only hope because she did not go to school, adding that from the activities, she had been able to train her children in various skills. Ogbaga said her bones were beginning to fail her, and for that reason, she would appreciate an opportunity of starting a business.

An octogenarian, Mr. Abraham Edeh, a building contractor who hails from Ezeagu Local Government Area of Enugu State told our correspondent that he had been into labour before the civil war when he joined the Biafran Army and was eventually elevated to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

He explained that he returned to civil work after the war and had been involved in the construction sector for over five decades.

“My reason for coming out is because I don’t want to be a liability to my children and also to avoid some problems usually associated with staying at home. Irrespective of my age, I can still read building plans and detect some mistakes during construction work. Supervision is my area of concern since I do not have the strength to be carrying nine-inch blocks or other heavy objects any longer and because of low patronage,” he said.