A Sociological Overview
What did we find about the world of Abeokuta? How is it structured? First, absentee Nigerian landlords own and rent out patches of land rich in the gravel that is ideal for use in the construction industry. Second, Nigerian gravel dealers lease this land from those landlords and have contracts with them which date back two or three generations. These women (and, interestingly, they are almost all women) represent the linchpin in this complex socio-economic world. They have come together to form a gravel dealers’ union and contract with a third class—lorry owners/driv- ers, who themselves operate under the auspices of a union—in order to have the extracted gravel transported to a fourth class, the gravel purchasers in Lagos. Gravel prices and prices for the services rendered by each of the links in this chain are predominantly set through negotiation between the unions representing these latter three classes.
The gravel dealers also contract with a fifth group, however—Beninese ‘bosses’ who provide the (migrant) labour used to extract that gravel. These patrons are all men from the Zou departement and come predominantly from Za-Kpota and Zogbodomey comunes. They have themselves all worked six-year apprenticeships under their own patron until eventually they were ‘liberated’ and given licence by the hierarchy of the Beninese expatriate community providing and managing the labour force in Abeokuta to hire their own gangs of labourers, for whom the task is to work according to the directions of their bosses in extracting the gravel. As may be imagined, it is the teenage migrant labourers identified by the anti-trafficking establishment as victims of trafficking who constitute these gangs of labourers.
Each young worker is hired on a two-year contract and is expected to work six days a week for his patron. In return, the patron houses, clothes and feeds the young worker and ultimately pays him 140,000 FCFA (about $260, or an equivalent sum in material terms—for instance, a motorbike) upon completion of the contract. The boys (and it is important to emphasise that they are all boys, in contrast to what is implied by the subtly sexualised image of Irenee given earlier) are free to work ‘on their own account’ on their day off or when they have already loaded the lorry that is their day’s work for their boss. When they do, they earn relatively well and so are often able to save up. If the boy is younger and aged up to around 14 or 15, it is possible that some of his money will have been advanced to his parents before he departed for the work, since younger boys’ income is treated as family income much more freely than that of older boys. It should be underlined, however, that this is very different from what the discursive establishment characterises as the sale of children into bondage. It simply reflects the monetisation of what are still relatively collectivised social relations and so is not perceived as either hardship or injustice.