Lagos, Nigeria—— For Basit, the rise in the ranking of Nigerian commercial banks has been frustrating.
The 28-year-old changed his name to protect his identity and has been working as a cashier at Fidelity Bank in Nigeria since 2015.
Six years later, he worked in the same branch and in the same junior position, and his monthly salary was only 68,000 naira (US$165).
What is missing is not Basit’s professional ethics, but his work arrangements. Technically, he is not a full-time employee of Fidelity. Throughout his work there, he has been a contract worker employed by an employment agency, and he has never dealt directly with it.
Being a contractor means Buster has no career path in the bank, and no benefits such as insurance, pension or severance pay if he is fired. If Fidelity’s management is not satisfied with his service, or they just want to cut expenses, they can let him leave when the contract is renewed every two years.
At the same time, the employment agency draws part of his salary every month as a “commission.”
Fidelity Bank did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment. But Buster’s story is far from unique.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, as of the third quarter of last year, more than 42% of bank staff in Nigeria were contract workers. The rest are full-time bank employees-about one-third of them are senior staff.
Although union members and government officials stated that they are solving problems surrounding contract bank employees, no solution has emerged. Before they did so, the main young contractors in the banking industry had few employment options to explore.
Profit before workers
Basit often thinks of quitting his job as a bank teller. But his prospects in Africa’s largest economy are not optimistic.
The official unemployment rate in Nigeria soared to 33.3% in the last three months of last year, a record high and one of the highest unemployment rates in the world.
More than half of the country’s approximately 70 million labor force were either unemployed at the end of last year or were not in full-time work.
The job shortage has made it a market for employers, leaving workers almost incapable of negotiating — let alone demanding — better conditions.
In Basit’s case, this meant a penalty of 10 hours a day, leaving him little time to explore the few opportunities that might provide him.
“The challenge is that you have almost no time to find a job elsewhere,” he told Al Jazeera. “You leave the house at 5 or 6 in the morning at the earliest and come back around 6 in the afternoon. When I knew there were few job opportunities, how could I return to such a tired state and I still started looking for jobs?”
Contract labor has been a feature of the Nigerian labor market for decades, but it is particularly common in the banking and oil sectors.
For unionists in Nigeria, the so-called “temporization” of these workers is the result of financial institutions gaining greater profits at the expense of labor rights.
“In general, outsourcing is a system of exploitation in terms of labor,” said Sheikh Mohamed, the national secretary of the National Union of Bancassurance and Financial Institution Employees (NUBIFIE).
Retired bank manager Abolarian Aderemi has worked in the banking industry for more than 30 years. He said that the plight of contract workers is the result of poor government supervision.
“They are taking advantage of Nigeria’s poor leadership,” he said. “The union has been opposed to it, but no one listens.”
Mohamed said that contractors face serious obstacles in joining or forming a union, where they can collectively negotiate for better wages and conditions.
“[Banks] Accepting temporary workers is also to ensure that they confuse the identity and status of workers so that they cannot exercise their rights that belong to anyone,” he told Al Jazeera.
The government set up a committee to review the myriad issues surrounding contract labor in the country’s banking industry. But Festus Keyamo, Nigeria’s Minister of State for Labour and Employment, told Al Jazeera that its efforts were interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We want to review the entire issue of temporary labor for bank employees, and we are now also reviewing all labor laws,” he said.
Mohamed said that censorship should help combat labor abuse.
“When the review is signed as a working document, it will not be outsourced [in the banking and insurance sector] There is no consultation with the labor union, and no understanding of the workers as reflected in the Labor Law,” he said.
Young and exploited
Although Nigeria has established rules governing the working conditions of full-time employees, the law does not specifically address “triangular employment” covering workers hired through employment agencies.
“From a legal point of view, hiring contract workers is not illegal; this is a function of the contract,” said Waleey Fatai, a labor lawyer in Lagos.
“From a moral point of view, [it is an issue of] Half a loaf is better than nothing,” he told Al Jazeera.
Muhammed of NUBIFIE said that the problem is not the wording of the current law, but the conflict with the employment agency.
“The labor law that regulates this relationship does not exempt you because you are a secondary provider of employment,” he said. “This is part of the memorandum of agreement we just made.”
But not all contractors know their rights. Many employment agencies look for entry-level candidates in their early 20s who have an Ordinary National Diploma (OND), which is the lowest higher education degree awarded by the Nigerian Institute of Technology after two years of courses.
Higher degrees may even be detrimental to job seekers.
Between 2008 and 2014, 38-year-old Ukamaka Olisakwe worked as a contract worker for two banks in eastern Nigeria.
She told Al Jazeera that the first bank that hired her told her to list her OND in her application, but omitted her more prestigious Higher National Diploma (HND)-a four-year degree equivalent to a bachelor’s degree.
“I think they found a loophole in the academic system,” Olisakwe told Al Jazeera.
She said that her first bank paid her a monthly basic salary of only 25,000 naira [$61] Add the commission and allocate it to her job in the sales department, where she achieved performance goals, including opening 5 to 6 new accounts every day, and the total monthly cash deposits usually amount to millions of nairas.
“The goals piled on the workers’ backs are disgusting, unbelievable, [and] Puzzling, if you can’t meet [the performance targets], You won’t get your commission,” she said.
Olisakwe left that job and took a contract position at another bank, where she worked in the customer service office with full-time core staff.
“This is the same as my job function for core employees, except that I can’t approve account opening,” she said.
But the chance of her being on par with full-time employees is slim.
In order to convert a contract job into a full-time employee position, the worker must take a conversion exam. But few people are invited to take the exam.
”Conversions rarely happen. They will only pick some people,” she said.
Olisakwe eventually quit the industry, worrying that even if she manages to convert her contract job to a full-time job, she will eventually become a victim of age discrimination.
“You know that polytechnics lose young people every year, and when they come for training, the bank will retain them to replace older employees,” she said. “It’s cheaper.”