Working Lives: The NURTW Agents aka Agberos of Lagos
The National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) is an exceptional union. Its reputation isn’t built on anything related to providing transport services. Rather, most Nigerians associate NURTW with providing politicians with the strongmen who snatch ballot boxes and act as “security” during elections. Working Lives often reveals a more complex reality. The men we spoke to seem to be ordinary Nigerians who have found themselves selling tickets for the NURTW due to circumstances; many of them can’t wait to leave to do something else. It’s a banal way to make a living for the majority, another Nigerian hustle. As one of the interviewees said, “People always see us as thugs. Well, some of us are and some of us aren’t. We really are just trying to make a living”. We have focused on how NURTW guys make a living and their dreams, rather than the wealth and grisly details of NURTW high office which some (prospective) interviewees asked to be paid to reveal. We refused to be tempted to stray away from our focus.
Working Lives: The NURTW Agent who Spends all his Money on His Parents
I was doing very well as a tailor but things went sideways when my mom fell seriously ill. I had to use all my savings to pay the hospital bills. I also had to sell my tailoring machine. I am thankful to God that she is fine now. I am hardly able to save because I constantly have to send money home to my parents and my sister.
Where are you from?
I am from Lagos State. I was born and brought up here.
When did you leave school?
I attended Model College Ijanikin. I finished in 2010.
Please, tell us about your family.
My dad is a bricklayer and my mom is a tailor. I have two siblings: an older brother and a younger sister. We grew up in a small apartment in Ijanikin. Things were really rough but my parents still tried their best. After I finished secondary school, I could not further my education because there was no money. It wasn’t a big deal for me because I wasn’t interested anyway. I was learning tailoring with my mom’s colleague. He sews men’s clothes while my mom sews for women. Their shop was close to our house, so I would immediately drop my bag after school and go there after changing my school uniform. I was learning tailoring while in school and I decided to focus on it after I finished secondary school. I branched out on my own. I had a lot of people coming to me to sew and things were going smooth. I decided to leave my parents’ house and move into my own apartment.
Where do you live and how much is the rent?
I live in a two-room apartment around Agege. I pay N6, 000:00 monthly. I split the rent with a friend who shares the apartment with me.
How did you start working for the NURTW?
I was doing very well as a tailor but things went sideways when my mom fell seriously ill. I had to use all my savings to pay the hospital bills. I also had to sell my tailoring machine. I am thankful to God that she is fine now. There was no sewing machine to work with so I was just sitting at home. My dad’s friend who is a branch chairman for one of the NURTW zones told me to come and register. That was how it all started.
For how long have you been doing this job?
I have been doing it for five years. I started in early 2015.
How does it work, what are you expected to do?
After registering, our boss gives us a bunch of tickets worth N50,000:00 or less. You sell to the bus drivers. A ticket costs N500. So whatever number of tickets you are able to sell for the day, you get a commission from it. The commission depends on whatever percentage agreement you have with your boss. It varies.
How much do you make in a day from selling the tickets?
I always try to hit my target of selling a whole bunch worth N50,000:00 ticket every day. I get N10, 000:00 as my commission. Others get more or even less, it all depends on how smart you are in hustling for buses to give the tickets and to make sure they pay.
What’s your best day like?
My best days are days when I sell the whole ticket, it’s always a full flex for me. I get to go home early and rest. It’s not like we are monthly paid salaries, our payments are based on commissions. The more tickets you sell, the higher your commission is. It’s as simple as that.
How many hours do you work in a day?
I work for 8 hours a day. I resume work mostly by 9 am and close by 5 pm.
How do your bosses check how much you have collected?
Whenever you are collecting your ticket, there’s someone in the office that takes note of how many tickets you have collected and how much it’s worth. That’s how they monitor you, so whatever amount of ticket you have given out, it must tally with the cash you are remitting later in the day.
How much do you remit to your boss daily?
Sometimes I remit N50,000:00 and sometimes I remit N20, 000:00 or less. It depends on how hard I hustle.
How much do you spend in a day?
I spend N1,000:00 at most. This includes spending on transport fare and feeding.
What rank do you hope to have attained in the NURTW in the next 5 years?
It all depends on money. If I had enough money right now, I could run for chairman or any other post. The council conducts elections every four years. Everything in Nigeria is politics. If I had enough money to bribe my ogas at the top, I can at least be a secretary or something just to use that as a starting point. I know of a guy that joined after I did and he is no longer with us on the road collecting money. He won the election and was posted to another zone to oversee things there. So it’s really not about hoping; it’s about how much you have and how many of your friends will support you during the election. Winning elections is the only way to get a promotion in this line of work.
Do you see yourself becoming the next EmCee Oluomo?
Well, one can never tell what tomorrow offers. It’s all a gradual step, even EmCee Oluomo himself struggled to get to that post. It’s not an easy thing. There’s more to it than you people see. Sometimes it causes feud and bad blood amongst chairmen.
Have you ever opened a bank account?
Yes, I have had a bank account right from time. I think it was a few months after I finished secondary school.
How much do you save in a month?
Honestly, I am hardly able to save because I constantly have to send money home to my parents and my sister. They all hope on me for food and other minor things. I am glad that I am trying my best and I am always able to help.
Are you married?
I have a daughter already but I am not married to her mother. I am really not ready for marriage right now, there are other pressing issues that need to be attended to especially my parent’s welfare and that of my sister. Maybe when God provides more money, I should be ready for marriage by then.
Any other job or business you would like to do or you prefer to stay with this if you are sure of getting ahead?
I would really like to go back to my tailoring job. I don’t plan on doing this forever. I just hope my sister gets a job soon so she can at least be helping with some of the bills. With that, I should be able to focus on saving more money to buy another tailoring machine.
How have you been protecting yourself from the Coronavirus?
I have been doing everything the government has been telling us to do. Especially washing my hands and wearing a face mask. My brother, God is the only one protecting us. I really can’t start to imagine how many people I have come in contact with today. The nature of my job does not permit me to avoid close contact with people. In fact today I have fought with a conductor who didn’t want to pay for his ticket. He had been playing me all day. I had to start a fight with him before he paid.