Over in the oil-rich southeastern Bayelsa state, which former president Goodluck Jonathan governed from 2005 to 2007, the government hasn’t paid local civil servants for 10 months. The locals find this particularly galling given its relatively small population and large oil wealth which probably should mean paying workers shouldn’t really be a problem.

Of course the situation with public workers has been exacerbated by the fact Nigeria’s states are dependent on the national government for revenue which is in turn reliant on oil exports as its biggest source of revenue. This means when there’s a global dip in oil prices, like there is right now, there is a negative domino effect on Nigeria’s economy. With less cash coming from the federal government, state governments–and their bloated workforces—faced the stark prospect of not being able to afford salaries even if they wanted to pay them.

For many Nigerians, corruption is the most obvious answer to an endemic problem in the country’s various state governments. Unpaid workers are the other side of the coin to Nigeria’s notorious ‘ghost worker’ problem. That’s where, typically, a new governor or civil service chief discovers thousands of government ’employees’ being paid regularly in the names of long retired or dead civil servants. In some cases the names have been made up altogether but millions of naira are paid out to these workers until the jig is up.

But it’s not as simple as just government corruption.

As with many things in Nigeria the behavior of the public sector is replicated by private businesses. But private sector employees are rarely featured in the news. Their plight is considered part and parcel of working life in a country where finding steady employment is difficult.

Tough landlords, bad employers

When Yusuf, who asked for his real name not to be published, left the conflict ridden north-east of the country for Lagos, he was full of optimism. He sold everything he had (except his beloved car) and looked forward to moving back to the commercial capital, which he’d left ten years ago. He had a new job and a new apartment, it was a new start.

There is little trace of that optimism now.

“I regret it, ” he says . “I regret it so much. If I knew that something like this was going to happen, I would never have left. Even if Boko Haram is going to kill me there I wouldn’t mind.”

Yusuf, works a regular 9 to 5 job as a software consultant but hasn’t been paid for months. His landlady has been calling him repeatedly about the rent money he owes. He doesn’t have savings and he owes his friends money too, their generosity is how he’s been able to eat, to survive, he has no idea when he’ll be able to pay any of them back.

“You can’t even feed yourself,” he says. “You can’t help anybody, you can’t pay your house rent, you can’t do anything. It’s very difficult for you to even come to work. You can imagine somebody in Lagos without a salary for three months, how do you want to survive?”

The exact unemployment rate in Nigeria is often disputed. In the fourth quarter of 2015 the National Bureau of Statistics estimated the unemployment rate was 10.4%, while underemployment was 18.7%. However, some statisticians argue the true unemployment rate figure could be as high as 34%. Jobs are scarce and hard to secure so people are desperate to hold on to whatever work they can find, so rather than resign when conditions are poor, they stay put. 

“It’s better for you to work in a company, even though they’re not paying you salary,” Yusuf continues. “If you leave now where will you start from? How do you get another job? If you work in a company and they’re owing you salary for three months, at least you know they’re owing you and any time they can pay you. That’s why all of us are still there, all of us are searching and looking for another job, but we cannot afford to just resign and stay at home.”

Lekan Oluwale, 29, has been working as a credit control Officer in Lagos for just under a year and like Yusuf his employer has been owing him his salary for months. “I received August salary on the 7th of December,” he says. “I planned on getting a new accommodation and starting my ACCA [Association of Chartered Certified Accountants], none of this could be achieved due to lack of finance.”

Salary delay has become typical to the point where it has more or less become an accepted culture. Borrowing from friends and family to supplement the absence of salary is commonplace but it has a knock on effect that reverberates throughout society. Debts mount up until they can be cleared, at times much later than planned, which can lead to the lender coming up short and as a result– needing to borrow.

“I live on borrowing,” Yusuf admits. “I keep borrowing from friends. I have to borrow to survive until my salary is paid, then when the salary is paid I have to use the money to settle my debts. So I will not have anything left and then I have to borrow again.”

Oluwole is in the same boat. “I have to resort to borrowing from my family and close friends,” he says. “I also do some painting at the weekends [to make ends meet] It’s so frustrating and my employer is indifferent to our plight.”

The legal option

Despite his company holding two town hall meetings, promising to pay staff as soon as they can and devising a payment plan, Oluwole has still not been paid.

“The real issue here is that there are no jobs and this gives the employer the effrontery to treat workers with contempt.  Business owners are very greedy, some do it [withhold salary] intentionally and others are constrained to owe salary due to bad planning. We’ve seen it, where the employer lives in wealth and allows the workers to live in abject poverty. It is such wickedness, it should be regarded as a criminal offence. ”

The Labour Act specifies that employers must pay wages at the end of the period agreed by both parties in an employment contract but according to employment lawyer, Jude Osuji the law is not doing enough to protect Nigerians.

“Yes, the laws are there,” he says. “But in my opinion the labour law needs to be reviewed to make room for more stringent measures, even criminalizing this issue of the non-payment of salaries. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s an attitude problem, because the employer assumes there’s nothing anybody can do, the person [employee] will just make noise and that’s all.”

Complicating things further is the fact in many ways the government is a bigger offender than employers in the private sector. Apart from the government’s official capacity, some government officials have private businesses where such practices exist,  so introducing penalties to sanction such violations may never happen.

“The unfortunate thing is that most of these people are in the House of Assembly are even guilty of this same practice, so they will not want to make laws that will in the long run affect them,” he says. “ Except we have a government, and I hope we have a government now, that is sincere in the anti-corruption crusade, hopefully they will also look into that area [salary delay] too,  because a lot of people are suffering so much.”

For Yusuf and Oluwole any substantial change is a distant dream, a more realistic one is to resign and find another job, even if it means leaving months of arrears behind,. “I can forget about the money [owed]” says Yusuf. “I don’t mind as long as I get a good job and  they pay me consistently. I’ve been applying for so many job positions… you just have to be struggling like that until God finds another way for you. It’s not good to get used to sufferness  but for now I don’t have any choice.”

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