• Recession, foreigners cripple business
By Romanus Ugwu
It has become common sight in Abuja to see artisans and labourers competing to outsmart and outdo one other to win customers looking for their services. Passers-by might mistake the modus operandi of the masons, plumbers, tillers, carpenters, POP specialists, diggers among many other skilled and non-skilled artisans for motor park scene where touts usually besiege vrhicles that come around as prospective customers.
Stopping by at any of their outlets usually by the roadside littered all over Abuja, these artisans would swoop on one, deploying all manners of antics to inform and advertise their skills with intent to woo and win the attention and favour of the would-be customers.
However, ignoring them comes with the high risk of missing the trusted competent skilled hands behind the beautifully built buildings and interiors in many Abuja homes. Undoubtedly, these roadside labourers are the unsung heroes behind the architectural masterpieces and edifices donning the high and lowbrow areas of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and even beyond.
The ever increasing number of roadside labourers, skilled and unskilled artisans around the FCT is a confirmation that Nigerians are never in short supply of talents and skills that can compete favourably with their counterparts elsewhere in the world.
Many of them have weathered the challenging storm and tidal waves confronting the job to make indelible marks, switching from standing roadside artisans to joining construction companies and even Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs).
With the biting effects of recession in the country, it is so bad that even those who have spent decades on the job and the new entrants are now gasping for breath to curtail the threats and fierce competition from the influx of foreign artisans into the country.
Welcome to the mixed world of the skilled and unskilled artisans and labourers in the FCT. It is now a world where things have fallen apart and a camp where things are no longer at ease. If they are not battling recession they are nursing the pain of abandonment from government.
Ranging from failed efforts to certify them, platforms to seek solution to the myriad of challenges facing them like constant raid from security agency and the FCT administration, the artisans are really facing hard times. None of these, according to former chairman of the labourers and artisans union, Chris Eze, is more hurting than the influx of foreigners competing with them and the recession.
Challenges of influx of foreigners
Oblivion of the dangers in many Nigerians preferring foreigner artisans to their Nigerian counterpart, the Federal Government promised to map out plans to regularise and check the situation towards ensuring that foreigners are not given undue advantage over Nigerians in the handling of certain menial jobs.
Eze admitted: “The foreigners are really a big threat to all of us. They have made their marks in the minds of many Nigerians who now prefer them especially in the aspect of casting of POP. The threat from the foreigners and the effects of recession have really made lives unbearable to us.
“We have tried to bring our plights to the attention of Nigerians and the governments but we don’t even know the appropriate authority to direct our complaints. Government does not give us attention. Government officials, police, military patronise us but they were only interested in our services. The FCT administration we would have for instance complained to, was rather more interested in chasing us around.
“Can you believe it that many of us would spend more than two to three weeks without any job despite spending so much on transport coming to the city centres from our suburbs? Some are coming from Gwagwalada, Kuje, Mararaba, Suleja and other far places as the nature of the job demands. I have put in over 30 years in this labourer job, but I can tell you that this is the worst situation we have ever faced.
“Previously, there were jobs everywhere that one could get more than three jobs in a day morning, afternoon and evening, smiling home with heavy pockets. It was so good then that many of our colleagues even rejected offers from big construction companies, ministries and hotels because they earned higher than what the company, government or hotel could pay them.
“The situation has worsened now particularly since this present regime came to power that we stay out of job for more than three weeks. We have even slashed the charges for day pay yet nothing has changed. The labour is far cheaper now because instead of the N4000 we previously charge as day pay we now collect even N2000.”
However, Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige, promised that the situation will soon be a thing of the past: “We are establishing a liaison with other skill centres to synchronize and standardize the operations of the artisans. We are working to institutionalize them as training centres whose certificates – Trade Test 1, Trade Test 2 & Trade Test 3 can be recognized internationally just like the City and Guild certificate of the old.
“Trained graduates of these centres such as in tiling, mechatronics, metal works, welding, plumbing, mason, POP production and laying, Info-technology technics among others will primarily find opportunities in the formal and informal sectors to arrest the situation where a dominant percentage of such low cadre skills are provided for us by Ghanaians, Togolese and citizens of other West African countries.
“Besides, our liaison with the International labour Migration of the European Union will soon enable this category of Nigerians export their skills as legal migrants to other countries. Our target is to train not less than 300,000 per year and trainings are already on-going in most of our centres.”
The labourers still express scepticism over the plans to certify them, Eze again: “Truth be told, government did not actually provide the platform to register artisans for certification. The only government presence we feel is when their officials most times come to extort money from us. Police and the FCT administration sometimes raid us with all manners of allegations just to ensure that we settle them for peace to reign.
“In our several decades of operation in FCT, the only time we benefited from government was when the Industrial Training Fund (ITF) in collaboration with the Cement Technology Institute organised a five-day training programme for us. But they managed to give us only N10,000, caps and some simple tools like trowels, wood saw for carpenters.”
Labourers robbing customers’ households and involvement in mysterious deaths
Although most people hinged the reluctance in hiring the roadside labourers on cases of some of them involving or conniving with robbers to attack houses of their customers, they, however, admitted such incidences were only prevalent in the past, arguing that it was not as bad as many magnified it.
Forunso Alabi, an artisan said: “I won’t deny that such incidents like the involvement of some of us in robbing the homes of customers don’t happen but there are mechanisms we put in place to checkmate such.
“If we receive such complaint like we had three or four cases this year, we will always expel the person. Only recently, a customer gaqve one of us N20,000 to do a job for him, but he collected the money and defaulted. Luck ran out of him when the man saw him while passing by and dragged him to the leadership. We expelled him.
“There have been very few cases of our members stealing from the customers. It is bad for people to tag us as robbers because no robber can stand under the sun for several hours everyday seeking for job as we do.
“On the mysterious deaths of labourers for alleged rituals, I can say that it has been long such incident happened. Before now there were rampart cases of our members dying mysteriously at the homes of customers. Unfortunately we were not organised then to search and try to rescue them or know what becomes of them. The good thing is that we have not recorded such cases again most recently.”
Shabby treatment melted on the labourers
One of the labourers said: “The relationship between the customers and labourers varies from one individual to the other. There are some that would give you water with the cups their dogs drink with. There are also some of them that would unleash their dogs on us after completing their work just to evade the payment of the agreed amount.
“However, there are some customers that have changed the lives of our members by either taking them out of this place for a better employment or even giving us or our household bags of rice, clothes and shoes. These are the ones that will go extra length to make you feel good and at home but they are in the minority.”