RETHINKING SUSTAINABLE LABOUR ACTIVITIES IN URBAN CENTERS: FALLOUTS FROM THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
Oluwabunmi O. ADEJUMO
Institute for Entrepreneurship and Development Studies, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria.
The lockdown policy implemented to check the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has altered working patterns, which has resulted in different effects across different professions and livelihoods especially in urban centers. For instance, in the teaching and research circle, adaptive strategies to what is described as a new normal, include remote learning and online teaching activities. This evolving approach within the academic community is not without its own outcomes. Therefore, this piece explores the positive and negative dimensions of working conditions in the ‘new normal’ for researchers/academics specifically in urban centers. This is with a view to rethinking the tedious work landscape of urban researchers and proffers policy directions on flexible work options for the future of work in urban centers.
A Brief Overview of the Urban Work Landscape in Nigeria
The report of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) captures the phenomenal growth of towns and cities in Nigeria (UNDESA, 2019)[i]. With a yearly growth rate of close to 3%, the infographics from Nigeria’s Urbanet reports that over a period of 8 years (that is between 2010 and 2018), the urban population of Nigeria grew approximately from 60 million to 300 million persons between 2010 and 2018[ii]. Owing to the perceived opportunities and infrastructural set-ups, the urban centers remain a standing option for migrant rural persons and new settlers. As a result of this, urban development and sustainability remains a major issue in the national development plan in Nigeria. Apart from the challenge that cities in Nigeria are evolving via no or non-conformity to preplanned or an organized blueprint as it were[iii], a number of studies have also highlighted the stressors in these urban areas to include heat from overpopulation and degradation activities, noise and air pollution from indoor cooking activities to industrial smoke and effluent discharge, congestion from vehicular activities and housing systems, as well as price hikes of food and other household products unplanned and that people in urban areas[iv].
Presently, the health shocks from the Coronavirus pandemic have resulted in an initial shut-down and more recently a slowdown in socio-economic activities, which have left urban centers obviously stunned with the challenge of sustaining lives and livelihoods. Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19 pandemic, is a global health crisis which according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) as at the time of this writing has recorded over 13,338,364 confirmed cases and claimed over 579,319 lives[v]; with more than 34,259 cases and over 780 deaths reported for Nigeria[vi]. Preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, unlike the rural areas, most urban centers in Nigeria are largely characterized by non-farm socio-economic activities cutting across the formal and informal sectors alike. While activities in the informal systems are largely unregulated, which makes the effects of Covid-19 difficult to track, formal organizations are well- structured and traceable, however belaboured with protocols, procedures and etiquettes. The proprieties of structured corporations and organizations have resulted in a repetitive, monotonous and routine work-life such as waking up very early in the morning, struggling to meet up with resumption time, vehicular hold-ups or unpredictable traffic as well as and returning home very late after daily work which has not really been palatable among urban employees and needs attention within knowledge bodies and reshaping in policy circles.
Rationale for Labour Strategies: The COVID-19 Pandemic Intermission
Just like there are two sides to a coin, the same can be attributed to the fallouts from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, there is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has left in its wake a growing number of global and local morbid and mortal cases in Nigeria; which has spurred the Nigeria Federal and State governments, especially those with large urban populations, to evolve adaptive and mitigating strategies such as social distancing, sanitizing and handwashing, stay-at-home order, border closure, halt in non-essential economic and schooling activities, work-from-home orders especially for information and communication technologies (ICT) online-compliant workers; and most recently, a gradual opening-up of economic activities.
While it is understood that a number of jobs in urban areas are not ICT-compliant or cannot be rendered without personal contacts (such as transport services, health care delivery, buying and selling of essential household goods etc), a number of some other jobs are ICT-compliant and have been realized in recent times to be work-from-home friendly (such as online banking activities, e-conferences and cloud meetings which are currently held through social networks, research and evolving online teaching activities, e-marketing, etc). Therefore, a positive labour spillover of government policies vis-à-vis the COVID-19 pandemic could occur when workers can retain and possibly improve their productivity and income as well as maximize leisure from the economic activities they can engage in by remotely working from home through online ICT options. Meanwhile, some negative labour spillovers from the government policy-pandemonium nexus could include job losses, reduction in income, labour somersaults and job transitions just to attain survival.
The literature on labour issues have shown that workers in urban centers are largely engaged by different work motives ranging from work flexibility and stability, job security, need for autonomy, personal desires of basic needs and wellbeing, self-fulfillments and societal commitments to reducing rural poverty (by remittances back to the countryside), unemployment, low paid jobs and dependency burden[vii]. Irrespective of the motive and agitations for labour supply, one prominent peculiarity for labour sustainability in urban centers that the COVID-19 intermission appears to manifest is the plausibility of embracing flexible work systems. Owing to the change in work patterns caused by COVID-19 lockdown such as work-from-home possibilities and ICT-online options for some job types, some longer-term benefits can be embraced for the future of workers in the urban centre. Specifically, labour policies can be redirected to adopt flexible working conditions by re-adjusting current work positions and norms (for instance 8-hour work times, Monday-Friday schedules) in Nigeria. This thought stems from the peculiarity of the work climate in Nigeria’s urban centers that has been often bedeviled with unsuitable work conditions, ineffective wage system and harrowing transport systems which continuously hampers punctuality, productivity, health, ease in workers’ planning activities and personal/family welfare[viii].
Reflections from the Research Community in Nigeria: The COVID-19 Pandemic Intermission
The thoughts in this article simply reflect on the fallouts of a new-normal espoused via the pandemic among urban researchers. This is achieved by articulating the sustainable opportunities provided via Information and Communications Technology (ICT) as an adaptive option and dynamic mechanism for sustaining work despite the lockdowns from COVID-19. This adaptive strategy incidentally gives a break from labour norms and traps that most urban researchers in the structured sector of the urban centers have found themselves. As noted earlier, the remote working option appears consistent with the submissions for improvement in work conditions and workers welfare which include good working environments, work sharing, shorter work hours but intensive labour input, flexible working options (job switches, maternity leave, leave with pay, etc), work bonuses and timely remunerations, promotions and good reward systems[ix].
In consonance with promoting flexible work systems the work-from-home order adopted by the Nigerian government, due to the COVID-19 intrusion, is to a large-extent ICT-compliant for urban researchers in Nigeria. Although some online activities have been on-going before the Covid-19 pandemic, these events have become more prominent with the intermission of the Pandemic. Table 1 presents an overview of research and teaching activities as well as some of spillovers (that is the pros and cons) of these adaptive approaches within urban centers in Nigeria.
Going by the intermission of COVID-19 and the work-from-home order, the inferences from Table 1 indicate some submissions for sustainable labour outcomes in research and teaching activities in Nigerian urban centers. First, the new adaptive practices to research activities as well as teaching that have evolved under COVID-19 could enable workers to reduce or avoid some of the worst aspects of urban life. For instance, reduction of stressors such as congestion and traffic jams when commuting to work could increasingly result in high productivity and even improve the health of urban workers. However, the contingence for interpersonal relationships where workers can optimize social relationships is another positive dimension for stabilizing and improving productivity of urban workers. Therefore, a mix of online and onsite options will become increasingly relevant for the post-COVID-19 situations in urban centers in Nigeria. Meanwhile, it has also become imperative for government and institutions of learning to remain pro-ICT via investments, innovations, diffusions and adaptations.
Again, while it is understood that the work-from-home order assists urban researchers to save and gain more time for their work, a gendered lens to this work pattern could foster different kinds of inequality. A cursory observation of the fallouts of the lockdown vis-à-vis the need to function as researchers has been largely negative for gender equality. This is because of the expectation that women take larger roles in childcare and social reproduction increases the duty of women, and in turn limit their capacity to be as ‘productive’ as men in their paid labour.
In all, the reflections so far suggest a pay-off and trade-off scenarios for the online work-from-home options for the research community in urban centers of Nigeria. However, further surveys on the discourse could assist in harnessing further thoughts. Also, the extent or magnitude of these effects need to be subject to further investigation for more informed policy directions.
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[i] UNDESA (2019). World Urbanization Prospects 2018: Highlights. UN DESA. https://population.un.org/wup/Publications/Files/WUP2018-Highlights.pdf
[ii]https://www.urbanet.info/urban-development-nigeria infographics/– Forty of Nigeria‘s cities have a population between 300,000 and 1 million inhabitants in 2018. There are nine medium-sized cities of a population ranging between one and five million, and only one urban settlement with 10 million or more inhabitants.
[iii] Wapwera, S. D. (2018). Non Implementation of the Greater Jos Urban Master Plan: Options and Strategies. Urban Studies and Public Administration 1(2), 263-290
[iv] Onibokun, A., & Faniran, A. (2013). Urban research in Nigeria. IFRA-Nigeria
[vii] See: Sapsford & Tzannatos, 1993; Van Wel & Knijn, 2007; Banks & Humphreys, 2008; Huang, Zhang & Xue, 2018
[viii] See: Aluko, 2000; Atubi, 2010; Agunloye, 2011; Ibitayo, 2012; Nwude, 2013
[ix] See: Askenazy, 2004; Wilthagen & Tros, 2004; Kramarz et al., 2008
No 3 – This blog article is written under the auspices of the British Academy supported Critical Thinking and Writing Workshop for Urban Studies Researchers in Nigeria.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Centre for Housing and Sustainable Development or the University of Lagos, Nigeria.