Nigeria had an estimated labor force of 42.844 million in 1999. Women comprised 36 percent of that force, which included talented and well-educated entrepreneurs. The estimated unemployment rate in 1992 was 28 percent. In 2000 the estimated unemployment rate increased to 32 percent. Secondary school graduates and women make up the largest proportion of the unemployed. The unemployment rate among the urban youth had hovered around 40 percent since the 1990s. Many college graduates have remained without full employment since the late 1980s. The government, including federal, state, and local units, is the largest employer outside the agricultural sector.
With the exception of employees classified as essential—members of the armed services, the police force, firefighters, Central Bank employees, and customs and excise staff—Nigerian workers may form or join trade or labor unions. They may strike to obtain improved working conditions and benefits and bargain collectively for higher wages. In 1999 about 3.5 million non-agricultural workers belonged to 42 recognized trade unions under a single national labor federation.
The first labor union—the civil service union— emerged in 1912. By 1950 the number had grown to 144 with more than 144,000 members, and 300,000 in 1963 affiliated with 5 central labor associations. Because of a series of labor problems and the meddling of politicians between 1963 and 1975, the military government dissolved the central unions and decreed only 1 central unit, the Nigerian Labor Congress, in 1976. In 1977 11 labor union leaders were banned from further union activity. A 1978 labor decree amendment reorganized more than 1,000 previously existing unions into 70 registered industrial unions under the Nigerian Labor Congress. In addition to the recognized trade unions, women's organizations, mostly professional and social clubs, collectively seek to improve women's conditions and participation in the economic and political life of the nation. Journalists, university professors, and students have their own organizations also as interest groups.
Nigerian labor laws prohibit forced or compulsory labor. They also prohibit the employment of children under 15 years of age in commerce and industry and restrict other child labor to domestic or agricultural work. Many children, however, hawk goods in markets and junctions of major roads and streets in the cities and assist their parents in trade and commerce. In 1974 the military government changed the work week from 35 to 40 hours by decree and stipulated payment for extra work done over the legal limit. Employers are required by law to compensate employees injured at work and dependent survivors of those who died in industrial accidents.
Strikes or industrial actions by workers tend to be frequent in Nigeria. Although plagued by leadership struggles, ideological differences, and regional ethnic conflicts, the Nigerian Labor Congress has been able to organize or threaten nationwide workers' strikes, demanding the retention of government subsidies on petroleum products, minimum wages, and improved working conditions. Public health doctors organized in 1985; several labor unions in 1998 protested the austerity measures of the Structural Adjustment Program. Similar actions were taken by the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities (1986, 1988), the National Union of Nigerian Students (1986, 1989, 1990s), and the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (1997).
Conditions for workers in Nigeria are far from ideal. Civil servants and employees of private companies (foreign) have relatively good offices and facilities, health care, and wages, but that is not the case for most of the others. Conditions in the pre-collegiate schools and the universities have deteriorated markedly because of repression, underfunding, and irregular payment of salaries. Protests or industrial actions by trade union leaders often resulted in detention. A number of university students were killed by the police, and the universities shut down following students' protests and riots. Some doctors and professors lost their jobs because of industrial action. In addition, income inequalities between the rulers and bureaucrats on the one hand and masses of workers on the other, poor wages, and late payment of salaries demoralize workers. Furthermore, they adversely affect their standard of living, health, and work productivity. The poor conditions contribute to the pervasive corruption in Nigeria and the use of the country as a conduit for drug trafficking.