If you are a salary earner in Nigeria, you’re losing by going to work

VENTURES AFRICA – “No one fetches water from the well to store in a basket,” except you’re a Nigerian salary earner going to work in the midst of the current fuel scarcity. It is not as if you have a choice though, if you did not go to work you could be fired. But that shouldn’t stop me from counting your losses. Especially for the sake of my colleague who, after a month of depending on the black market to fuel his car, is now in a debt that is higher than the pay he is expecting at the end of the month. If he had not come to work, at least, he would not have been in debt. He’s right next to me in the office as I write this, working up his debt portfolio.

My colleague is not the only person in this mess; I am also in it, and so too are majority of the nearly 45 percent of Nigerians who make up the labour force. A large chunk of the 68.2 million fully employed or underemployed Nigerians depend–and carry dependents–on a fixed, mostly insufficient, salary. But i’ll focus on my colleague Emanuel (not his real name). His story typifies the struggles of salary earners in Nigeria who have been denied the very living that they go to work to earn. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial nerve centre and the state worst hit by the fuel scarcity. Here, the black market has been the only alternative to shut petrol stations and endless queues, but it sells at an alarming N400 to N500 per litre, more than four times the original price. The hiked fuel cost has led virtually everyone on the micro-economic value-chain to double the price of their services–from transporters to retailers. Everyone but my colleague, myself and the millions of fixed salary earners.

As a salary earner locked to a fixed monthly take home pay, Emanuel lacks the freedom to also hike the price of his services as everyone around him has done. Therefore he bears the full weight of the fuel crisis with no supporting cast, unlike the bus “danfo” and tricycle “keke” operators who have doubled their fares to cushion their costs. He earns N100,000 monthly, and his last alert came in on the 30th of April. That money is supposed last him till the 31st of May, just a few days time, but it is already finished. Actually, Emanuel exhausted his monthly pay before the 20th of May; he has been living off IOU (I owe you) since then. Here’s how it happened.

Emanuel normally budgets N40,000 for feeding, N20,000 for transport, N10,000 for personal upkeep (toiletries and all) and the remaining N20,000 he tries to save. However the fuel crisis ruined his economics. With the prices of foodstuffs shooting up, his favourite buka, as local Nigerian restaurants are called, also reviewed upward their price of food. By the 20th, my colleague had already exhausted his whole feeding budget for the month of May. That was not the worst that happened to him. The petrol crisis directly delivered the knockout punch. It dragged Emanuel from spending N5000 a week on petrol for his car to spending double of that in the same period. When it finally dumped him in spending that same N5000 a day, Emanuel knew it was time to dump his car. His Toyota Corolla (sport) that used to be his symbol of a high-flying bachelor is now a steady reminder of how grounded in debt he has become.

So, my logic is this; wouldn’t Emanuel have been better off without going to work? If he stayed off from work, he would have saved over N50,000 that he has spent on transport this month, and perhaps used that money to make up for his feeding and upkeep cost that has doubled. And what would have been the consequence? Let’s say his office decides to fine him a day’s wage for every day he didn’t show up. Given that we have around 22 working days this month, he would have been losing N4,500 of his salary per day. That is N500 less than the amount that he currently wastes on fuel everyday, feeding excluded. And if he is not paid at all by the end of the month, that is bad. But what is worse is that his end of the month salary is already dead before arrival, because it is going to service debts accrued from financing his going to work.

Okay, let’s be realistic, neither Emanuel nor myself or the millions of fixed salary earners could avoid not going to work. Our work needs us, as we need it. Perhaps, what is realistic then is that we should also get salary facelift when scarred by a barrage of hiked costs. Unfortunately we don’t have strong labour unions that can ensure such benefits. Our sole consolation is that the present fuel crisis may be on its way down, even if our debts, like Emanuel’s, are going to take a while to clear out.