By VICTOR AHIUMA-YOUNG
THERE are fears that the relationship between the Federal Government and Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, may be heading for the rocks over the Minister of Labour and Productivity, Chief Emeka Wogu’s alleged anti-labour activities.
Though reports claimed the Minister’s alleged anti-labour activities especially public sector unions have been on for some times, but the perceived belligerent attitude towards unions in the power sector appeared to have been the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Lamenting NLC’s grouse against the Minister of Labour, its President, Comrade Abdulwaheed Omar, in a communiqué reached at the end of its National Executive Council, NEC, meeting in Benin City, Edo State, said “NEC condemns the style and manner of intervention in the PHCN imbroglio by the Minister of Labour.
His bye-passing of the unions and attempting to deal directly with workers, which appears to be a regular occurrence, portrays him as a minister always seeking to take the side of employers, instead of the expected role of arbiter. NEC believes the Minister of Labour for effective performance ought to enjoy the confidence of the social partners.
NEC warns if the Minister carries on like this, Congress will be compelled to boycott all government activities involving him. Congress also warns that any attempt to disregard the clear provisions of the law by any government functionary, no matter how highly placed, will be massively resisted in the best traditions of trade.” As if the above was not enough, Omar in an interview with Labour Vanguard gave insight into how congress believes the Presidency is plotting to break it. Excerpts.
THERE is this argument that every successive government tries to undermine labour movement. Why is it so?
Successive governments have been characterised by selfish ends. Labour movement has been characterised by struggles. So, it has become the norm in this country that workers will get nothing on a platter of gold until they rise and struggle. Luckily, workers have been able to rise up for their rights. Successive governments have always seen labour movement as a threat, so they always fight back to undermine the labour movement.
But the good news is that all these years, they have been unable to break the might of labour movement. I once made a statement in 2007 that I pray labour movement struggle would end some day because there would not be need for it. But I was misinterpreted.
What I meant then was that labour struggle has been characterised by fights against oppression and injustice. The day government will settle down and work for the welfare of the citizens, and where the rights of its citizens are respected, I think that is the only government that will make labour movement go to sleep.
What about alleged government plots to break up NLC, how real is it?
It is no longer news that government is not happy with what happened in January over the issue of fuel subsidy. So there is so much concern and their major concern is that the major culprit is NLC. So they intend to weaken NLC. The first move visibly made was when a Senator tried to sponsor a bill called ‘Democratisation of Labour Union.’ The bill is to amend the law that from now on, any union that wants to go on strike must obtain express permission from all the members through the ballot.
That means 50 per cent of the entire membership is to vote. For instance, if NLC has to go on strike, and it has over one million members, over five hundred thousand has to vote ‘yes’ before the strike is embarked upon. We got wind of that and worked with progressive members of the National Assembly to scuttle the bill.
We sensitized Nigerians on the short fallings of the bill. For instance, if they vote ‘yes’ for the strike to begin, then after negotiation have been reached, you need to get them to vote to end the strike again. And if the leadership agrees with negotiations, they still have to go round to make sure members vote in agreement too.
If you make the law, will you also make laws that will compose an independent electoral umpire to oversee that also? That is a very big question.
How has NLC responded to this threat?
We have progressive members in the National Assembly who kicked against it. We are also lobbying to make sure it does not come to limelight. We are also enlightening the public on the risk of this. However, they are still attempting to break NLC by using some of the aggrieved members who lost during our last election by telling them they can form their own labour centre.
I heard they are holding clandestine meetings. We are also aware that a former Registrar of trade unions is commissioned to do the job. We have been told that the Minister has been holding meetings with some of these trade unions to form a new trade centre.
But some of our members that have been approached are saying it is not possible to register a new centre because some of the unions are already affiliated to existing labour union.
They said, they registrar came to them and said he wanted to use the trade unions he registered to form a new trade centre. That means every registrar can now come and pick every union they register in their time to form a new labour centre. But our affiliates acted promptly and said no. We got information that the Minister is holding meeting with some people that they have the required members of trade union to register as a new labour centre.
But the professionals in the ministry have told the Minister that it is not possible and they have said no. They made it clear that if you want to come out from a labour centre, it is not a decision of any other organ of that union or some leaders, but a resolution of the delegates at the union’s delegate’s conference. But maybe be one or two affiliate unions of NLC have expressly shown that they are aggrieved with NLC.
Has there been any effort by NLC to reconcile with these aggrieved unions?
We are never aggrieved with them. Initially, they were attending our meetings, but later they stopped attending our meetings. We thought their absence was because they were busy, but we later discovered it was an apparent attempt. Even then, we didn’t think it was so terrible until recently when they made a press statement.
We did not intend to take into the public domain any internal rumbling we have in labour movement. The labour movement is too big and sensitive for us to begin to carry these things to the public. Government will instantly capitalize on that.
We resolved that if that is the case, the labour movement cannot afford this kind of division. We then decided to see a way we can reconcile. NEC then formed an elder’s committee, which is a five man committee. We have made very frantic move to make sure that the unity of labour movement is ensured.