In 2009 when John Ola landed a job as a contract staff at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), his take-home pay was ₦15,000.
Not someone that keeps quiet when not pleased, he and his fellow domestic workers soon demanded a pay rise. They got it in 2011, and it would remain at ₦20,000 for another nine years.
Mr Ola, a father of three, and his colleagues kept pushing for more. Not only did this win him foes on the hospital’s management side, it denied him a chance to be made permanent staff. But he did not flinch.
A breakthrough came his way March this year, a day after a protest on March 13, the date on which they were paid for February.
“We are always paid the salary of the previous month in the middle of the next month,” he said.
By April 2, with the protest still fresh in mind, they got their pay for March, this time it had been upped to ₦30,000. They were very happy, Mr Ola recalled, but it would last for that month alone as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the world.
They were anticipating April pay when their employers invited them to a meeting. Mr Ola could not make the meeting, but his colleague, Chinedu Festus, 21, did.
At the meeting, Mr Festus said they were told coronavirus has diminished the hospital’s revenue due to low patient inflow caused by the closure of numerous sections of the hospital.
They were given two options: either half of them are laid off or their newly introduced ₦30,000 is cut by half. That would take them back to the 2009 rate.
“None of these was an option for us. Work hasn’t reduced, why would pay reduce?” Mr Festus said. But his objection did not matter. Their pay for April paid this month was ₦15,000.
Domestic staff like Mr Ola, about 2,000 of them, are employees of LUTH Initiative Limited, the private wing of LUTH, established by its management to give high-end medical services to patients who can pay more. The management also uses them to keep the hospital running when, for instance, permanent staff go on strike.
Ironically, while these staff work to get the nation well, they are amongst some of the poorest paid public workers in the country.
They are not listed for benefits beyond the meagre salaries and their employment terms are vague with no official accepting responsibility. The LUTH Initiative website says the unit is headed by a neurosurgeon who reports to the chief medical director of the hospital, but the CMD, when reached by PREMIUM TIMES, claimed only the board of the hospital could comment.
Interviews with several workers portrayed an exploitative arrangement in which the domestic staff are not treated as a staff of the hospital but as casual workers with little or no bargaining power to negotiate their fate.
Based on PREMIUM TIMES assessment, the least the workers have spent in the company is four years. Some have spent 13 years, yet, they have had a very sluggish pay rise: ₦15,000 in 2009; ₦20,000 in 2011; and ₦30,000 in 2020; and now, ₦15,000.
All the staff who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES said they are neither on any salary grade level nor do they get periodical pay increment, except by protests, which they hardly try.
“We are not paid leave allowance if we ever go on leave. No free medical treatment is extended to us,” said Onu Chidi, another domestic staff. “The worst is the exclusion from contributing to the national pension commission which is compulsory for all workers to rely on at old age,” another staff said.
The staff said they never received insurance, hazard allowance, health insurance or any other allowance whatsoever. But they cannot speak out because they fear retribution. Those who spoke for this report agreed their names be changed for this reason.
More risk, less pay
If it becomes law, an amendment to the Labour Act in the House of Representatives would criminalise casualisation of workers for more than six months. A maximum of ₦2 million or imprisonment of two years or both is the proposed penalty for the director of defaulting companies.
Also, the Pension Reform Act 2014 mandates public and private employers (with more than 15 workers) and the employees to respectively contribute a minimum of 10 per cent and eight per cent of employees’ salary to a pension scheme account run by the pension commission every month.
Tajudeen Olatunji, the president of the Lagos State chapter of the Joint Health Sector Unions (JOHESU), said the LUTH Initiative is capitalising on the high rate of unemployment in the country to exploit these staff. “Nobody with right thinking sense will take this kind of offers,” he added.
With the coronavirus risks, allowances promised to healthcare workers in Lagos are not extended to these workers. They feel disappointed that they are not getting any kind of recognition for what they are doing.
One of them is Shehu Yusuf, 34, who works as an oxygen attendant in the engineering department of the hospital.
The father of four had been on the job for 13 years. Despite “risking our lives every day to save people from the virus,” he said, “all we get is pittance at the time of a pandemic.”
In a recent example, Hannah Emmanuel, 40, was quarantined for two weeks after five doctors, some of whom she and seven other domestic workers had had contact with, contracted coronavirus.
“I was very afraid. It was only God that saved me,” she said, wondering how she would have coped had she had the virus with her two children to cater for.
Ms Emmanuel works in the labour ward. Her job is to clear and clean the ward. She said she was part of the team that delivered a 68-year-old mother of her baby in LUTH last month.
“They may be at the base of the power pyramid, but they’re also at COVID-19 risk,” tweeted Fisayo Soyombo, a journalist who blew the pay cut whistle at the time. “They clean the wards — all the blood & fluids in the theatre and the wards. They clear all the waste products.”
Mrs Emmanuel said despite her job prescription, she buys protective clothing like face masks herself, a claim made by five other workers. The cut on their salaries to ₦15,000 is unfair, they said.
“Things are not quite easy for us,” Ms Emmanuel said. “I buy a face mask (myself).”
Like her, Dennis Daniel, 32, said he is drowning in financial woes.
In his fourth year as a porter in the hospital, he said a pay cut at “this time is devastating.”
This is so because, on transportation alone, he spends about ₦500 daily from his Bariga residence to Idi-Araba, where LUTH is located. This means at the end of each month, he would have spent half his ₦30,000 salary on transportation.
But now that his transport fare is equal to his salary, he cannot but despair. With his 9-year-old daughter also to cater for and his debt already high, Mr Daniel said he barely feeds twice a day.
“They use us like machines. We are humans. We have not seen a single cent as an allowance,” he said.
“In the hospital, contracting the virus is easy. Some of my doctor friends have it. They have insurance but we don’t. We are done for.”
Three representatives of the LUTH Initiative eluded requests for comment. One of them whose contact is on the company’s letterhead identified as John by Truecaller responded rudely over the phone before he hung the call.
“Oga, go and call CMD. Don’t call my number again,” he said.
The chairman, medical advisory committee, Lanre Adeyemo, also declined comment. He directed all comments to the CMD.
The chief medical director of the hospital, Chris Bode, on Tuesday, said the workers are not LUTH staff and he could not comment on behalf of the company.
He added that the company works on a “hire and fire” basis, and it does not report to him but to the board of LUTH.
“They do not work for LUTH. They work in LUTH,” he said, adding that they do not also have contact with frontline health workers.
Contrary to what Mr Chris said, however, information on the company’s website shows that the coordinator of LUTH Initiatives, presently Femi Bankole, reports directly to the Chief Medical Director of LUTH.
On Thursday, Mr Chris declined further comments.
“LUTH Initiatives is shrouded in secrecy,” a LUTH resident doctor who spoke under strict anonymity, told PREMIUM TIMES.
She said the hospital’s management is “taking advantage of the unemployment in the country to hire with no rules, no regulations, no strict code of conduct. They just do as they wish.”
Meanwhile, workers like Mr Ola and Mr Yusuf have “side hustles” apart from the “pittance” they get as domestic staff. So they say they could afford to walk away from the job anytime.
But there are others who have nowhere to turn. For them, as they run from contracting the virus by doing their jobs as carefully as they can, their financial woes keep catching up with them.