Labour Day and rights of vulnerable workers in Nigeria, By Roseline Oghenebrume

Posted by News Express | 5 May 2020 | 1,095 times

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•Roseline Oghenebrume

There is a connection between human rights and employment: Human rights will only be functional when a person’s source of livelihood is unhindered, because it affects the individual’s rights to life, movement, peaceful assembly and association, privacy, human dignity, liberty, property, etc. Even at this, unhealthy working environment and poor terms of employment can and often undermines workers’ rights. 

 May 1st of every year is set aside as the International Workers' Day, also known as Workers' Day or Labour Day to celebrate workers. This is commendable as it not only infuses dignity in labour but, also, emphasizes the need for best practices and enhances workers’ rights. While this is commendable, the question is: Where is the place of the vulnerable worker in these celebrations? Someone may ask: Who are the vulnerable workers?

 According to Lawrence Jeff Johnson of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), vulnerable employment is often characterised by inadequate earnings, low productivity and difficult conditions of work that undermine workers’ fundamental rights.

 HSE also defines vulnerable workers as those who are at risk of having their workplace entitlements denied or who lack the capacity or means to secure them. Health and safety should not be used as an excuse to justify discriminating against certain groups of workers. From these definitions, one can safely relate vulnerability to persons living with HIV (PLHIV), persons with disabilities (PWDs), women and workers displaced by insurgencies/crisis, etc. If the above is true, are these groups of workers also part of the celebrations or a footnote? 

 Over time, it can be argued that vulnerable workers are at best a footnote in the celebrations and unseen. Workers’ rights, however, do also apply to them, including the dignity of labour, given their contributions at their various places of work. Workers Day celebration must, therefore, honour this set of workers. And employers of labour (Organized Private Sector and Government) must also, in celebrating Workers’ Day, put in frameworks to protect the rights of the vulnerable workers. 

 Lawyers Alert, in September 2018, using the HIV/AIDS Anti-Discrimination Act 2014 in the National Industrial Court of Nigeria, got a groundbreaking judgment that specifically addressed the issue of termination of employment of vulnerable workers, owing to their HIV status. The court held that workers cannot be terminated on account of their HIV status.

 The court also gave vulnerable workers the right to approach courts without disclosing their identity in the likely event of stigma and discrimination (Anonymity Order). This was in the case of Mr X vs Brinks, in which Mr X was terminated based on his HIV status. He had approached Lawyers Alert over the determination of his matter.

The judgment, more than anything else, calls for reflection on the place of the vulnerable worker in Nigeria today, and the world at large. 

 The 2020 May Day celebration presents a unique opportunity to celebrate the vulnerable worker, focusing on this judgment, state of the law, compliance with these laws, including the creation of awareness on rights. 

Nigeria has signed most of the United Nations treaties, obligations, in addition to ratifying most International Labour Organisation conventions, recommendations, etc. Majority of these provisions have either been domesticated in our various laws, policies or enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution. 

The questions are: What are the positive implications on or for vulnerable workers and human rights in Nigeria? Are these provisions being practically implemented or observed? What are the measures, sanctions or enforcement mechanisms against non-implementation or infractions? 

Vulnerable workers have, over time, suffered a lot of injustice by way of unfair labour practices, including outright dismissal for no just cause. Their situation is worsened given that the labour unions are not particularly focused on the plight of their vulnerable members. 

 Laws to protect vulnerable workers are hardly complied with even when they exist. The HIV/AIDS Anti-Discrimination Act 2014 in Nigeria, for example, was passed to protect the vulnerable worker through the adoption of workplace policies by employers, but has largely not been complied with. Another example is the Discrimination of Persons with Disability Act, 2018. This Act provides for the full integration of persons with disabilities into the society; this also has largely not been complied with.

The value of Labour Force in Nigeria as of 2019 is about 70 million. According to ILO, the percentage of value for vulnerable women and men in workplaces are 84.98 per cent and 72.54 per cent respectively. Addressing issues of vulnerability in workplaces is critical as the percentage of each gender is above half, that is, above 50 per cent each. Denying vulnerable workers work-based rights is denying them their human rights, because work-based rights are intended to ensure that all categories of employees regardless of social, sexual, age, racial, economic, political, religious, cultural and ethnic status are treated equally. 

They should not be discriminated against; should have equal opportunities and access to these opportunities. In essence, nobody is excluded from optimising or accessing any of these rights, either in the work environment or in the outer society.

With the fast-rising value of the Labour Force in Nigeria, there is an increasing need for awareness creation on the rights of vulnerable workers towards enforcing their rights. 

 The general public and employers of labour should be sensitised on an adequate understanding of the rights of the vulnerable workers in the workplace. Equally, employers of labour and government need to be sensitised on their roles in the fulfilment of these rights. There is also a need to engage Labour Unions, workers advocates and other institutions/MDAs associated with enforcing employment rights to compel employers of labour and government institutions to have workplace policies which promote and respect the rights of vulnerable workers and to comply with existing laws and policies.

 The UN Declaration on human rights and the ILO Declaration on fundamental principles and rights at work contain provisions to engender and advance human rights and workers rights, enhance equality between both male and female gender and guarantee equality for disadvantaged groups like women, the disabled and minorities. 

Therefore, the celebration of May Day can only be inclusive if/when there is enhanced visibility of vulnerable workers’ rights, especially to employers (Government and Organized Private Sector); there is respect for vulnerable workers’ rights; and a strong compliance with extant laws with regard to vulnerable workers’ rights in Nigeria. Vulnerable workers’ rights are human rights!

  • Oghenebrume, director of Programme, Lawyers Alert, a human rights body that serves vulnerable groups, can be reached on

Source: News Express

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