Majority leader of the House of Representatives Hon Femi Gbajabiamila was on a roll last week presenting two bills around the issue of (un)employment and how we could perhaps, legislate our way out of our current quagmire. This effort would have been reassuring – our honourable members finally doing something that is not about their pockets, only that the details of the effort leaves one underwhelmed and points to an unfortunate conclusion; No work done.
The first was “A bill for an act to prohibit late payment, non-payment and underpayment of workers’ wages, pension and other related emolument in Nigeria, and prescribe penalties for violations and for other matters connected thereto” Essentially, the bill was to criminalise owing salaries/pensions in Nigeria by employers in both the public and private sectors. It is the sort of bill that would easily make one shout halleluyah especially if you’ve been owed. I have been, for several months at once actually and we (me and my colleagues back then) kept turning up for work every day, hoping things would be better. They never did.
While it was a traumatic experience, it was not lost on any of us that it was not the case of the employer not wanting to pay, they simply didn’t have the money to. Indeed at the point, they was struggling to remain afloat. Such is the reality of running a business in Nigeria. It’s even worse at this time. From registering the business all through to running operations, multiple taxes and levies, over regulation, inability to access finance, etc, entrepreneurs here go through hell. Little wonder Nigeria languishes at the bottom of the list in the Ease of Doing Business index. You find at times that very well meaning employers declare redundancies or owe many months as they battle to navigate this rocky path.
It is counterproductive therefore to subject such businesses (or their owners) to fines or other punishments for delays in payment which can literarily take them out of business, make all their staff lose their jobs, increase unemployment, deny government revenue from taxes and add to the mountain-high number of failed businesses. On the other hand, the bill also covered the public sector. One wonders, especially given the prevailing circumstance where virtually all the states owe multiple months and even the federal government workers pay is delayed, who will be held responsible and how will the law be so enforced?
Clearly this bill was not well thought through and was graciously stepped down in the House with the sponsor promising to rework and represent it. While he is at it, let me advice that it would be easier and more productive for Mr. Gbajabiamila and his colleagues to focus on laws to make the economy better, to promote and finance MSMEs, to improve the ease of doing business, to protect local businesses , to make it profitable to own a business and employ people in Nigeria. Then and only then, can there be any justification for criminalising non-payment or delays in paying salaries. Charity as they say should begin at home.
Gbajabiamila’s second bill which sought tougher measures to restrict the employment of foreign nationals by firms or organisations in the country, did not suffer the same fate in the House. It passed through second reading and seems well on its way to become law, if reason does not prevail. Titled “A bill to ‘restrict’ the issuance of work permits to foreigners by the Federal Government”, it is being promoted as the House’s response to addressing the growing unemployment in the country. Essentially Hon Gbajabiamila and his colleagues are saying foreigners are taking all the jobs and that is why Nigerians are unemployed. Now is this not just lazy thinking, it is laughable.
Reading their argument, one would think this was some kind of Nigerian version of the Brexit where huge immigration from the EU, which was putting pressure on jobs, social services and the wellbeing of British citizens informed the decision of many to vote to leave the EU. You would think, Nigeria was some awesome place to live and work and foreigners were falling over each other to come and scramble for our work permit.
Just in case the lawmakers are not aware, your own citizens are running away, some taking the dangerous route through the desert to Europe, others hiding away in containers, and yet some more willingly being trafficked, in search of a better life somewhere else. Foreigners working in Nigeria are not responsible for this. Irresponsible leadership is. The foreigners certainly do not enjoy being here either. Even among diplomats, being posted to Nigeria is seen as some kind of punishment. But that’s not even the meat of the matter. The question is, how many foreigners indeed are in Nigeria? What is the nature of the jobs they do here? Do we really have Nigerians that can fill such roles and deliver? What in real terms is the impact of expats on unemployment in Nigeria?
Nigeria, we must be sincere, needs help and cannot do without expatriates. Indeed which country can? But we are even more disadvantaged. I mean we had to get welders for the new Lekki Bridge from abroad because of the skills deficiency. The best masons in Lagos are from Benin Republic and Togo. We should be opening ourselves more to the world not being protective of ‘nothing’ and closing ourselves in with laws that make no sense. Hon Gbajabiamila and other lawmakers should be insisting on things like knowledge and skills transfer, ensuring that companies make it a policy that expats must train locals on the job in a well-structured programme. They should also be passing laws to turn around our education sector, to make our universities centers of excellence in learning with up to date libraries, laboratories and teachers, to fund research and innovation, to help this nation produce professionals with the expertise to fill the roles currently filled by foreigners; especially in the area of skills acquisition.
And for the causes of unemployment in Nigeria, Hon Gbajabiamila should please look somewhere else. Like somebody said in reaction to this news, foreigners working in Nigeria are certainly not the biggest issue keeping the people of Surulere in Lagos who he represents, awake at night. The very next meal, the perpetual darkness, the fact that they cannot afford anything in the market these days will be closer to reality and our good House leader might want to focus his energies in that direction.