The Voice of Coloured Labour. George Padmore (editor) 1945

9. Nigerian Labour on the Move

By T. A. Bankole (President, Trade Unions Congress of Nigeria)

Shortly after the outbreak of the general strike in Nigeria, which started on June 21, 1945, Mr. Bankole was released from the office of President of the Trades Union Congress of Nigeria – Editor.

Nigeria, with an area of approximately 372,000 square miles and a population probably not far short of 30,000,000, ranks next to India in the British. Commonwealth, and possesses immense economic resources. Every Nigerian tribe has a form of culture all its own (founded on its traditional code of morals), which the impact of European civilisation has to be prevented from injudiciously upsetting.

In spite of her 84 years of British rule, Nigeria still suffers from grave social, political and economic disabilities. There are clear evidences of overcrowding and bad housing, malnutrition, underpayment, disease, and restricted citizenship-a rather unhappy condition.

The great bulk of the peasantry, comprising some 80 percent of the entire population, still depends generally on subsistence farming. The working population is employed in the civil service, in the mercantile houses (which are, in the main, establishments owned and controlled by foreign monopolies), and in the coal tin and gold mines, generally earning a pittance. Among the educated class are to be found professionals and graduates of British and American universities.

A few trade unions had existed for the protection of workers of certain categories (e.g., the Nigeria Civil Service Union) before trade unionism became legalised in 1938. Since then no less than 85 trade unions have been registered, with an aggregate active membership of about 30,000, besides occasional members placed at about fifteen times that figure. These unions are, most of them, organised vertically and are protective of the collective interests of all the workers connected with the respective establishments in which they are employed.

The Government proposal – about October, 1942 – to enact the Essential Works Order served as a signal for concerting trade union activities; and steps primarily intended to counteract that proposal, on the ground that only employers of labour stood to benefit thereby, resulted a month later in the formation of the Federated Trades Union of Nigeria (renamed the Trades Union Congress about nine months later). This organisation is waxing strong and is capable of great achievements for the workers.

Workers’ needs.

The needs of the workers of Nigeria, thoroughly examined by the T.U.C. at its Conference held in Lagos in August, 1944, and duly represented to the Nigerian Government in a number of resolutions, call for urgent attention. In that connection the following important points are to be noted:

(a) The problem of resettlement and rehabilitation of demobilised soldiers, and war workers is of immediate importance. It is imperative that those of our men who return from the war front still able-bodied shall be resettled in their pre-war jobs and paid decent wages, or else assisted to work on their own under an “Assisted Industrial Development Scheme.” Those of them who return disabled ought to be fully compensated and granted reasonable pension. It still has to be driven home to our Government that our soldiers and war workers who have been making great sacrifices in defence of democratic principles deserve to be restored to a really happy life at the end of the war.

(b) Nigeria, with her vast potential wealth, is at present under-developed. There is great need for industrial scholarships (side by side with the existing social science scholarships) for the training of candidates to act as the spearhead of the country’s industrial drive. Candidature should not, as hitherto, be confined to Government servants. Methods of selection need to be revised; and the necessary qualifications need include natural aptitude and public spirit. The establishment on a large scale of such industries as fishing, fish and meat curing, building, cement, glazed pottery and tile-making, spinning, textile and shoe-making, to mention only a few, should benefit Nigeria greatly, provided they are developed for the economic well-being of the indigenous population by effectively checking monopolistic influences now so firmly established all over the country. The agricultural and mineral possibilities of the soil have also to be further explored and the use of appropriate modern machinery duly taught with a view to improving productivity and introducing processing to supply part of our local needs.

(c) It is believed that the time has arrived for a comprehensive social security scheme to be made to cover such adverse circumstances of life as unemployment, sickness, accident, old age, etc. This important matter has recently been brought to the notice of the Government, which has not yet declared its attitude.

(d) A point of great Import to the Nigerian T.U.C. is the securing of trade union representation on Government Labour Committees against wanton interference on the part of influential employers. It is necessary to ensure that there shall be no recurrence of a recent episode in which the T.U.C. found itself up against the head of a Government department, who rigidly objected to a trade unionist (incidentally an official in his own department) being nominated to the Labour Advisory Board for Lagos and Colony.

(e) The existing policy of low wages for labour in Nigeria must be reversed. The minimum wage of a mine-worker on the Plateau is 9d. a day; the average minimum wage for unskilled labour is 1s. a day; and that for clerical or technical labour, 3s. a day. It is definitely humanly impossible for most wage-earners to maintain a decent living standard with such a wage level In consideration of this fact, the T.U.C. has been advocating a thorough investigation by the Government of the wages question, and the nationalisation of such industries as mining, transport, timber, etc, to check labour exploitation. There is now a minimum wage-fixing machinery; but it operates rather slowly and, to all appearance, favours the existing order. It could here be mentioned that the Nigerian worker draws no family allowance, nor are his children educated by the State: he therefore labours continually under a great financial strain.

(f) The housing problem is grave. Urgent attention must be given to: (i) provision of adequate dwelling houses for workers (preferably near their work-places); (ii) slum clearing, and (iii) effective rent control. It is most insanitary for six or more people (in many cases including married couples) to live in a room containing 100 square feet of floor space. Most of the tenements occupied by workers are hovels for which high rents are demanded. The bearing of these conditions on health and mortality are too obvious to be stressed here,

(g) The attention of the Government has recently been invited to the need for revising the Workmen’s Compensation Ordinance-(i) to provide improved rates of compensation for industrial and occupational accidents, and (ii) to cover cases of industrial and occupational diseases at present outside its scope. It is shocking that under section 6 (a) of the Workmen’s Compensation Ordinance, 1941, the dependants of a fatally wounded worker should receive only thirty months’ earnings of the deceased worker (working out at 90 with an income of 36 p.a.), and that such compensation should in no case exceed 600. These are progressively reduced under sub-sections (b) and (c). In case of permanent total incapacity from injury, section 7 stipulates that compensation should equal the wounded worker’s wages for forty-two months (i.e., 126 with an income of 36 per annum), but in no case exceed 750. In both cases, the amounts of compensation are meagre and absolutely inadequate. The Government must ameliorate this indefensible position.

Demand for Civil Rights

The continued restriction of the personal liberty of Mr. M. A. O. Imoudu*, President of the Railway Workers’ Union, is regarded by the entire labour force of Nigeria as a specimen of the exercise of arbitrary power by the Government. No tangible reason has been given to justify the rather uncompromising attitude being maintained by the Government in this matter. One thing is clear: Mr. Imoudu is a British-protected person whose only desire is to free his fellow-workers from exploitation, poverty and want. Should trade union leadership be thus menaced?

Another specimen of arbitrary use of governmental power is the placing of the Nigerian Worker (the organ of the Congress) under censorship by an order of the Governor dated the 1st July, 1944. This order, served as it was on the Congress without any previous warning, is regarded by the workers as constituting an unwarranted attack on the freedom of the press-acknowledged throughout the free world as a precious heritage of democracy. The Nigerian Worker is avowedly anti-capitalist in outlook, being unreservedly dedicated to the cause of the workers of Nigeria.

In Nigeria, the Department of Labour serves as the only venue for examining all labour matters, and undertakes preliminary enquiries and conciliation in respect of reported or apprehended trade disputes. It was in connection with its latter function that it was sharply criticised by the Congress-in-Session recently for suspected bias towards employers of labour, and on account of the victimisation of principal trade union spokesmen which had often resulted from its conciliation methods. There have occasionally been cases of mass dismissals of trade unionists as reprisals for daring to lead agitations for improved working conditions. The workers are therefore demanding the introduction of the Industrial Courts system as a much more satisfactory machinery for settling trade disputes.

Nigerians Want Political Democracy

Politically, the workers of Nigeria are at the moment sadly at a disadvantage. The limited franchise granted to Nigeria over twenty years ago, by its income qualification of 100 p.a., has deprived most of them of one of their elementary civil rights by excluding them from the electorate. The indigenous population of Nigeria, by having four elected members on the Legislative Council (roughly one-eleventh of its membership), maintains minority representation of a privileged minority. The Executive Council admits of no indigenous elective representation whatsoever. It is clear, then, that in the absence of adult suffrage the workers of Nigeria who are giving their services in developing the country can hardly have any voice in its administration. This untenable position must be reversed, and the workers must be enfranchised and endowed as full citizens of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

The workers feel strongly that the existing Constitution of Nigeria – almost a quarter of a century old – has already served its time and must be replaced, without delay, with a new one based entirely on sound democratic ideals and reducing that much-proclaimed doctrine of partnership into practical terms. British workers should deplore and protest against all platitudes designed to insult the intelligence of Nigerians and to traduce the good name of their great, beloved, but much-neglected, country. British administrators in Nigeria would be doing a great national service to Great Britain if they stopped stultifying the reasonable and legitimate aspirations of the people and, by pointing in less disparaging terms to the now visible signs of growth and progress, help to place Nigeria on her feet in the democratic world. They must acknowledge her great advance in recent years.

The Nigerian workers are fully convinced that their immediate task is to ensure that their working conditions are improved; that their living and social standards are elevated; that their civil rights are conceded; and that their country – Nigeria – is, for the time being, granted Internal Self-Government. Peace will abound in the long-contested plums of war for all the world to share! And Nigeria shall not be forgotten!!

* Mr. Imoudu was released on June 2, 1945, and on the outbreak of the general strike was elected to the presidency of the Nigeria T.U.C in the place of Mr. Bankole.