By Funmi Komolafe & Victor Ahiuma-Young
It’s May Day, a day that workers, all over the world, in solidarity, express their views on factors that influence their lives . It is a day to speak loud about working conditions, employer-employee relationship, the economy, etc.
Today, Nigerian workers will join their counterparts all over the world to mark Workers Day.
Sunday Vanguard takes a look at the new challenges before the labour movement in Nigeria.
For over a decade, Nigeria has been confronted with massive unemployment, especially among youths. Thousands of university graduates are roaming the streets without jobs. Also, within the last year, thousands of bankers have lost their jobs. No thanks to banking reforms.
Even for those at work, pay inequality has become a major challenge . In the current pay structure , councillors of local governments earn more than university vice-chancellors.
The economy has also not fared better. Interest rates are beyond the reach of potential borrowers.
Power has remained a major challenge to the formal and informal sectors.
All of these are issues which successive governments in Nigeria have failed to address.
Whose May Day? In the last few years, May Day in Nigeria seems to have lost focus. It has become a forum for union leaders to establish personal relationship with politicians rather that use the day to focus on issues of importance to workers and the working class. Union leaders are too pleased to be seen cutting May Day cakes on a day that should be used to remember workers who have lost their lives in the struggle.
The National Union of Food, Beverage and Tobacco Employees views May Day this way, “ Contrary to our usual practice in Nigeria, Workers’ Day is historically believed and dialectically correct to say that workers celebration is not purely for merry making . Rather, a retrospecting account for the past vis -a- vis remembering past leaders and their contributions to the liberation of workers but equally as a rallying point to further strengthen workers unity.
To this end, it would be proper to know and ask ourselves whether those conditions have improved or retrogressively getting worse by the day.
This year, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) have given the day the theme, “ Growing the National Economy for Job Creation and Peoples Welfare”.
Beyond the speeches, workers would like to hear of concrete steps to be taken by their movement to improve their welfare.
Association of Banks, Insurance and Financial Institution ( ASSBIFI), in its appraisal of the economy, stated, “In less than two decades, the banking sector has witnessed two major reforms but there seems to be no enduring solutions at sight. The “consolidation reforms under Prof. Charles Soludo in 2005, streamlined banks in the country to just twenty five with strong capital base and high expectations that the industry would take its driver’s seat in growing the economy. Alas! This dream was shattered by poor corporate governance, credit indiscipline and financial recklessness. In 2009, Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the new helmsman of the apex bank, had to spend over nine hundred billion tax payers’ money to bail out some of the banks who were declared weak. Yet, major sectors of the economy like the aviation, real estate, manufacturing, the textile industries, energy and basic Infrastructures continue to suffer.
“Since 2009, however, both the weak and the seemingly strong banks have not demonstrated requisite capacity to drive the national economy. More-importantly, despite the bail-out with public funds and the intervention of Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON), virtually all the banks, insurance and financial institutions have entrenched policies that are definitely antithetical to security of jobs and its creation, and, welfare of the people. A clear example is the perennial laying off of workers as redundant.”
Job insecurity and unemployment have become a major threat to the future of trade unions. Members continue to lose jobs and employers do not engage new employees.
In some companies, new employees are made to sign a bond that they would not belong to trade unions. This has not been challenged because new employees would rather protect their jobs than belong to trade unions.
The National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers ( NUPENG) noted, “The oil and gas industry is presently undergoing some reforms and the harsh economic climate has not been favourable to our members. We have had cause to negotiate retrenchments and redundancies , because of the downturn in business activities”.
NUPENG, like many other unions in the private sector, had to contend with casualisation which leaves the employees vulnerable to all sorts of abuses in the work place.
The union stated, “Most oil multi nationals are guilty of it while indigenous oil companies are the greatest culprits”.
Minimum Wage- In the last two years, the negotiation of a new national minimum wage has been in focus. Although, negotiation has been concluded and the National Minimum Wage Act signed into law by President Jonathan, its implementation has thrown up a constitutional issue. Governors have called for a review of the revenue formula to reflect an increase in the allocation of state governments to enable them pay the N18,000 national minimum wage. At the height of the political campaign, the NLC urged workers not to vote for governors who would not implement the national minimum wage. It is doubtful if the threat had any impact . Governors, at the end of the day, were either elected or re-elected for issues other than the national minimum wage.
To ensure the implementation of the N18,000 minimum wage, the NLC and the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria have to move beyond rhetorics. The labour centres need to support the governors in their demand for more revenue from the federal purse. There is the need to change strategy and engage the governors in dialogue rather than engage in militancy for the sake of it.
Organized labour should not be seen to the taking steps that would jeopardise the interest of its members in the workplace.
Jobs! Jobs! The labour movement needs to show more interest in the creation of job opportunities. What is it that needs to be done to create job opportunities for thousands of well educated youths who have been unable to find jobs especially in the formal sector.
It is time for the labour centres to partner with government to take concrete steps to create jobs.
For instance, why is it that only those whose parents are connected that secure jobs? One would have liked to see labour call for active use of existing labour exchanges and creation of new ones such that employers use such exchanges to recruit workers.
This way, children of the less privileged would have an opportunity to get employed.
The Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria ( PENGASSAN) takes the government to task on job creation: “ The government should also look at creation of more jobs as a way of eradicating crimes in the country. Governments at all levels should embark on core principles that can create the much-needed business environment for our indigenous companies to thrive and generate employment opportunities for the teeming Nigerian active populace”.
Pension- This is another issue that calls for urgent action. Although the pension system has been reformed in 2004, how informed are union members about their rights and obligations under the new system? The labour centres and the trade unions need to educate their members on their pension rights.
Trade Unions/ Employees - Another issue that trade unionists would rather not discuss is working condition of trade union employees. It is popularly said that “ trade unions are the worst employers of labour” . Union bureaucrats hire and fire at will. They violate working conditions of their staff at will.
There has been a pension reform but how many trade union employees are contributors to the new pension scheme? The record is not significant.
Security of lives – Many trade unions have lost members to kidnappers or armed robbery and the government seems helpless. PENGASSAN noted: “The security situation in the country, especially at this critical period, poses a great threat to the unity and development of this nation”.
Beyond the rallies of today, Nigerian workers demand action not just from government but also from trade unions. Workers want to see unions that act in their interest as different from one that only creates of class of labour aristocrats.
Happy May Day!