Kwara Labourers: Our pains, frustration, surviving hardship on meagre pay

By Sulyman Jimoh
For those who regularly ply the Asa-Dam, Gaa-Akanbi, Akerebiata and Oja-Oba axis in Ilorin metropolis, the capital city of Kwara State, one sight that beckons daily especially in the early hours of the day is that of the labourers popularly called “birisope” in the local parlance who converged waiting for engagement that will fetch them their daily bread.

In their attempt to make ends meet, these largely informal communities usually massed at these venues waiting for manna from their employers who come to engage them for an outing that may last the whole day but for a merger amount. Before being engaged for tedious, tiring and wearying task, most of the labourers are always seen struggling to get a plate of “Koko” or rice from the food vendors that usually approach their enclave for patronage. The site of their chaotic communication in the process of getting the vendors attention is in total contrast with the epithet of Kwara as State of Harmony.
In most communities especially in Kwara State, labourers are not considered to be one of the most sought after professions people aspire to pursue; nonetheless, it is one of the most important catalysts of “laying” the very foundation of modernity. While this brings to mind the popular saying that “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, we shouldn’t however forget the toil and sacrifice of those that practically manned the building of the ancient city and the ageless splendour the world still marvel at.
This piece can be said to be a tribute or an ode to the ones on whose shoulders civilization is built, the writer refers to them as the “Foot soldiers of civilization”.
The writer caught up with them in Ilorin, as he listens to their story, pain, disappointments and challenges, up north and down south moments of their occupation which has kept many of them going and taken man out of the lower rung of the ladder. Some of the top players in the country today who call the shots have at one time or the other passed through the route of working at the lower end of the ladder, such as being labourers before in their lives but sadly nothing has been done to standardized or professionalise their activities.
A sneak peek into the life of the Kwara labourer is therefore needed to unravel their world and that is just what this piece seeks to unearth.
According to Taiye Aluko from Oja-Iya, Oke-Aluko area of Ilorin who has spent a decade on the work while speaking with Pilot Features, as labourer, he usually follows the bricklayers to site to work for them.
He said: “I have had lot of experiences in this Job, one of which is the endless queue we usually engage in every morning waiting for someone, a bricklayer to come and pick us up from the place we usually converge. And it is always frustrating when you have to wait like that for such a hard way to get one’s daily bread”.
Narrating one of his many challenges he has encountered in the cause of the job, Aluko said there are instances where they had gone to work for someone who will end up with funny antics in order shortchange us or try not to pay at all after a whole day of hard work. “Another instance is when we get to work site and we found out that they are yet to bring the sand or other essential materials we are supposed to work with. So we just have to head back home disappointed and dejected after wasting time and money coming to the said site.
Not for the unskilled
But is the vocation an all comer’s affairs one may want to ask because of the way it is structured and the porosity of “its borders” or there is need for those that may want to profit from it to learn the job especially if an emergency need for money arise, without going through a form of training like their comrades (bricklayer). Aluko vehemently denied such notion. He said “This job also has its own system of learning it from a boss, but however the duration of that learning depends on individual ability to grasp what is being taught. Some people get trained for a year, two or even five years.
Our troubles
Upon inquiring if the occupation has a body that oversees the affairs and practice of it, Aluko disclosed that “At present, we don’t have a body that coordinates our work. We all just gather at our usual spots with people from different places who are on a hunt for their sustenance. Some people come all the way from Omu-Aran and even other states to Ilorin hoping for luck perhaps someone will come and pick them up for a work. Also one of the banes of our problem is lack of rules and regulations that governs our conduct and it all boils down to the fact that we don’t have a union of our own. At a time that almost every vocation has a body that coordinates them, in our case, everybody act as he/she pleases and our conducts depends on what the bricklayer, who is our boss for the day wants. Also on their personal life and how it affects their home front, he said “This job is quite time consuming and at times it does affect our relationship with family. Our family usually wants to spend quality time with us but we don’t have that luxury of time. You know we’ll get to work by 7/8 am and some job can last up to 8pm in the evening before we can finish it. But all the same, we are trying our best to reconcile the two worlds, the work and family, both of which are important”.
According to him, “technology has not really impacted our work nor has it really felt the hands of modernity. Many of us are educated against the popular perception of the general public that we’re all stark Illiterates. As a matter of fact, we have some graduates among us. And in fact, we always advise our colleagues to further their studies because with a touch of education and exposure, one can develop his or herself. Our job is not for a long time, once old age is setting in; the probability of getting invited for work will start diminishing”. We’re just trying to survive and we are grateful to God. Although the pay is little, but we’re able to cater for ourselves and families and at present the least a labourer is earning is N1,500”.
Also sharing his thought is another labourer, Jimoh Olaiya who further lamented the meager pay they are being given to survive with. “We’re just managing the stipends, the money paid to labourers is too little, when we feed and do some other things, we hardly have money to save. That is why we’re also demanding for a rise, although our pay is hinged on the complexity of job. We have different types of labourers, we have Bricklayers, we have those that dig foundation and we have those that dig soak away and those that dig well and many more”.
Surviving COVID-19
Aluko also lamented the tough times they have endured and still continue to bear on the issue of Covid-19. “It really affected us, especially during lockdown, you know our work is based on a daily wage pay and therefore, restriction on movements really impede our work because we were unable to go to work which means we’re not getting paid. But all the same, we give gratitude to God, we’re still surviving whichever way we can”.
Just like every other occupation, an average labourer also faces danger in the course of the work. “There is a lot of danger that we normally encounter in our work. For instance, the place I went to very recently, we killed a snake at around Ajegunle, Egbejila area of Ilorin and if care was not taken, such snake or other dangerous reptiles of animals might attack someone. Also someone might get hit by a shovel, or some instances whereby labourers fall down from storey building which of course has led to the death of others and endangered the life of others with permanent disability to this day”, Aluko noted.
Gender Neutrality
During the process of this piece, it was reiterated that the job of a labourer has little or no regard for gender differences. “In our job, we have as many female labourers as we have male. In as much as you’re fit to do the job, gender is not a barrier, although at times people that come to get us do have preferences to work with male workers while some with female”. According to Jimoh, there is disparity in the pay of male labourers compared to female labourers because there are some work that are too complex for female workers to engage in. Although some people prefers to employ female because they know women receives less pay and make less demands.
He appealed to the government to assist the labourers by providing soft loans and grants for them and also include them in their empowerment programmes.
Stumbling Block
According to Jimoh, lack of coordination and unionism among the labourers is bane of their worries. He said they’re finding it hard to protect their interest because they don’t have a body to guide their practice. The government, he noted, doesn’t engage them because they don’t have a face or center of reference. “Truly, we need the help of the government, but you know government won’t even engage us without an association or union to represent us and present our demands to them. But we don’t have an association to be our face to the government and the public. The government prefers to engage the bricklayer association, because they’re well organized unlike us whereby we all just come from different places and converge at different spots waiting for people that will pick us up. What I will cite as the reason for that is our instability, because we work for different bosses every single day “.
Another labourer, Afeez Alani also opined that the reason for the lack of unionism is because of unfamiliarity of the people here. “We all come here from different places. It shouldn’t continue to be so. There should be a leadership that will be overseeing the affairs of the labourers most importantly to negotiate better pay from our employers”.
Collective aspirations
Speaking with the President of Bricklayers Association of Nigeria, Kwara State branch, Alhaji Abdulraheem Bello Ayenigba, in his office at Shao Garage area of Ilorin, the veteran bricklayer harped on the importance of labourers to their work which is building of houses.
“The labourers are very crucial to our work, they are very instrumental, without presence of labourers, there is little or nothing we can do. We always try as much as possible to be good to them. His position that was corroborated by Akeem Zulu who told Pilot Features that, “The bricklayers cannot work alone without the help of the labourers. In fact the labourers do more of the hard work than the bricklayers, but the little pay doesn’t really measure up to the efforts. All these inequalities we’re enduring won’t be in extant if we had an association to protect our interest”.

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