May Day, Workers Day, Nigerian Women in the Workplace

Its the 1st of May 2012 and female workers in Nigeria still lack on the job protection from sexual harassment and victimisation. What a great day to blog about it. May day is also a distress signal at sea. Nigeria women workers sure do seem to be at sea. Are their May Day’s being drowned out by more dominant and privileged voices?

Where is the female Nigerian worker? What’s her story? What are her primary concerns? Are her concerns represented and addressed in a broader male dominated labour agenda?

What were my concerns as a female worker? Child care. Protection from sexual harassment and victimisation. Equal pay. Equitable access to capacity building and professional development opportunities. I’m no longer a worker but I am still affected.

Meanwhile, my role is changing from a worker to an employer of labour. What should I do to protect my female workers? What am I required to do by law, statute and policy? Paid maternity leave. Breast feeding breaks. Sick leave to care for dependants. What else?

I’m not required to have a sexual harassment policy or grievance procedures. I’m not required to educate my staff about what behaviour is allowed and what type is not allowed or what is considered ‘sexual harassment’. As a small business owner can I afford the investment of time and money?

When I was a working single mother I marvelled at the women who claimed great success at juggling domestic and work responsibilities. How did they do it? Their stories were the stories of privileged Nigerian women. Are they relevant to or tell the stories of the bank worker, the low rank civil servant, the poorly paid private sector secretarial and clerical staff?

I fear much of the narrative of the women’s movement in Nigeria has been dominated by privileged Nigerian women who have an uncanny resemblance in their attitude towards their less privileged sisters to the ‘white saviours’ they so vocally and passionately criticise.

Our campaigns focus on the most dramatic problems and stories. Widowhood practices. FGM. VVF. Child marriage. Girl education. HIV/AIDS, VAW. Domestic violence.

We fight for the right to participate in political, economic and social affairs yet we seem to be less vocal on behalf of the female workers who are participating and who are vulnerable and under served in an already challenging environment.

I’ve been watching the local TV channels most of the day (an excruciating experience BTW) and while there are a few May Day and worker stories non of them are about women workers.

There was no statement by any women’s labour groups. No press conference, no announcement, no demands, not a whimper. Does this mean they have nothing to say? And nothing to celebrate?

The campaign for the domestication of the Africa Union Women’s Protocol is supposed to provide the a new framework for action but what action can be taken by women’s organized labour groups to improve working conditions and protection for women now?

Female bank workers speak of a litany of unfair labour practices that include unreasonable work conditions to restrictions on when they can get married and have children. Female civil servants speak of sexual exploitation by bosses in for promotions and training opportunities.
Female secretaries and junior cadre workers in the private sector have come to accept sexual demands from male bosses and small business owners as normal. In the citizen sector stories of expatriate bosses taking advantage of weak and non existent local sexual harassment and exploitation laws to wrongfully dismiss local female workers hired under Nigerian law grow daily.

I’m sure the female journalists, nurses, doctors and teachers all have their own stories about the challenges of being a working woman in Nigeria. Yet no one came out with any sort of statement or declaration or strategy for action on May Day, Workers Day. And no ‘women’s leader’ came out to speak for them (unless I missed something in which case tell me about it quick).

Women’s leaders seem to only speak out when there is a political or welfare issue that affects women. Even though exactly how it affects women is not always really well articulated.

For example during the Occupy Nigeria and Labour protests against fuel subsidy removal in January women’s leaders were visible but failed to critique how women were affected by fuel prices or by the protests.

The few women that had access to media during the protests and were able to speak represented a privileged point of view. With the exception of the Kano women, they were almost exclusively urban, salaried, professionals and rich party cheerleaders.

The women traders of the south west, south east, and south south, a significant and unique demographic were not visible. The Market Women’s Associations would appear a natural ally for women led and women focused NGOs.

They have significant social capital and resources women’s NGOs could leverage for their programs but that could mean dancing to the tune of a new master. It could mean realigning our programs with priorities of these women instead of the aid industries.

This group does not fit the preferred media profile of women showing them overwhelmed by children and poverty. They may be but that’s not the whole picture.

Nigerian women especially from the Christian south are primarily traders. The size of their trade ranges from micro-enterprises in front of their homes to organised inter and intra state trade and regional and international trade.

They’re ubiquitous at the markets, at the airports and the trade route road stops and the borders. They work real hard to meet the demands of their local market, to build capital and provide value.

Their associations are their networks and their protection, they pay dues. I’m sure they could tell us a lot about how to make their trade safer, easier and more profitable if we empower them to speak and share our spaces and platforms with them instead speaking for them.

Like Nigeria’s male leaders and the white man before them we’re looking down from the lofty heights of our well guarded privilege and doling out mercy instead of fixing the systemic problems that affect everybody equally.

Systemic problems like unfavourable labour laws and trade laws as well as domestic violence and matrimonial laws that affect both men and women irrespective of class etc but affect men and women differently.

May Day is a good time to remember all the other women that contribute to the cohesion and growth of our nation and enrich the diversity of women’s voices through their work.

May Day in a context of the African Women’s Decade takes on an even deeper significance. It is a good time for the Nigerian women’s movement to indulge in some critical self assessment, identify and name its privilege and the biases of that privilege and consider how it may be silencing other women’s voices.

Posted by MzAgams with WordPress for BlackBerry.

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