By Victor Young, Johnbosco Agbakwuru & Maryann Michael
ABUJA—Organised Labour, yesterday, asked the Federal Government to address federal and states’ debts, rising inflation, insecurity and infrastructure deficit confronting the nation.
It also sought an immediate review of power sector privatisation. The demands were made at the commemoration of Workers’ Day in Abuja.
Speaking on behalf of Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, and Trade Union Congress of Nigeria, during the National May Day rally in Abuja, President of NLC, Ayuba Wabba, said: “We are concerned over the increasing debt accumulation by governments at all levels. The Debt Management Office (DMO) disclosed that as at December 31, 2018, Nigeria’s debt burden stood at N24.387 trillion.
‘’A breakdown of the debt stock revealed that the Federal Government of Nigeria’s (FGN) external debt increased by 42.69%, from N4.527 trillion in 2017 to N6.460 trillion in 2018. About two-thirds of the government’s revenues go into servicing interest payments, with the principal still waiting for redemption at maturity.
‘’ Even the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, through the Monetary Policy Committee recently cautioned the Federal Government against Nigeria’s rising debt level. The committee warned that except the Federal Government came up with measures to address the situation, Nigeria’s debt might rise up to the pre-2005 Paris Club level.
‘’Nigerians would recall that in October 2005, Nigeria and the Paris Club announced a final agreement for debt relief worth $18bn and an overall reduction of Nigeria’s debt stock by $30bn. The deal was completed on April 21, 2006, when Nigeria made its final payment and its books were cleared of any Paris Club debt.
‘’While noting that there is nothing wrong in borrowing in order to invest in physical infrastructure with the capacity of enlarging the public revenue base, Organized Labour cautions government to ensure that our debt profile does not get toxic and return Nigeria to another milieu of debt trap. Once bitten, we must be twice shy.
“Despite the promising nature of Nigeria’s economy, our economy is yet to be weaned from import dependency. Our economy remains essentially rent seeking, subsistence, non-inclusive, vulnerable to shocks from the global commodities market, fraught to unwieldy inflationary trends and unable to create sustainable mass jobs.
‘’Despite the best efforts of government to diversify the economy, attract foreign direct investment, increase our foreign exchange revenue and create more jobs, these efforts are being frustrated by systemic challenges.
‘’These challenges include endemic corruption, institutional chaos, crises in our social sector, and disabling physical infrastructure – electricity supply, water, rail system, road network, inland waterways transportation etc.”
He lamented the rising inflation in the country, saying “official data from the Central Bank of Nigeria indicates that inflation on all items (year on change) had dropped from 11.44% in December 2018 to around 11.25% in March 2019.
‘’Yet, the unofficial reality shows that life is becoming increasingly excruciating today for the average worker and citizens. The phenomenal hike in the price of Premium Motor Spirit (PMS) otherwise known as ‘fuel’, or ‘petrol’ in 2016, the devaluation of the Naira in the same year and increase in the cost of electricity in the past five years have sustained high inflationary rates.
‘’The persistence of double-digit inflation and stagnant remuneration for workers have almost wiped off the purchasing power of Nigerian workers.
‘’The impact of the prevailing hyper-inflation on our pensioners and workers is better imagined than experienced. Working families are unable to meet up with the basic costs of living especially feeding and decent accommodation thus plummeting living standards to an all-time low.
‘’The worse is that most Nigerians are not even enjoying utility services such as public power supply, potable water, public education and healthcare despite very high user access charges. In the absence of cushioning palliatives, it appears that workers have become the sacrificial lamb on the slab of all that is not working in Nigeria. This is indeed very unfortunate.”
Wabba also decried rising employment crisis, saying”Organized Labour notes the efforts by President Muhammadu Buhari to create mass jobs through the diversification of the economy particularly through the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP).
‘’We advise that these initiatives be anchored on a strong commitment to industrialization. We call for the revival of the intermediate and capital goods production segments of the Nigerian industrial sector, especially the auto assembly plants, the steel industry, the fertilizer and petrochemical industries in the context of a medium-term national development planning.
‘’We must develop a national consciousness and culture that frown at exporting raw materials without value addition. We call on all tiers of government in Nigeria to provide incentives to drive and sustain the growth of labour-intensive industrial sector.
‘’There are millions of jobs locked down in the untapped value chains in our agricultural, petroleum and mining sectors. Now is the time to unlock them and provide decent jobs for our youth. Now is the time to reconstruct the sour narrative of exporting jobs and prosperity to other climes and importing joblessness, poverty and misery into the motherland.
On insecurity, he said: “The gains made in the first two years of this administration are being eroded by an upsurge in armed robbery, kidnap for ransom, militancy, terrorism and other armed attacks. Boko Haram elements now operate from fall back positions to maim and kill civilians and security personnel.
‘’We must do something now to stem the tide of pastoralists-farmers clashes, attacks by armed herdsmen cum cattle rustlers and the terror of kidnappers which is clearly on the rise.
‘’The consequences of the prevailing upsurge in insecurity for communal relations, the rural economy and image of the country demands an urgent intervention by government at all levels. We call on the Federal and State Governments to urgently rejig our security architecture, structure, and management.
‘’We also call for a robust and sustainable response to renewed security concerns in Nigeria even if that means an increase in the budget for internal security so long it is judiciously and transparently used.’’
While reflecting on the state of the economy, Wabba observed: “Despite promising nature of Nigeria’s economy, our economy is yet to be weaned from import dependency.
‘’Our economy remains essentially rent seeking, subsistence, non-inclusive, vulnerable to shocks from the global commodities market, fraught with unwieldy inflationary trends and unable to create sustainable mass jobs.
‘’Despite the best efforts of government to diversify the economy, attract foreign direct investment, increase our foreign exchange revenue and create more jobs, these efforts are being frustrated by systemic challenges.”
“The persistence of double-digit inflation and stagnant remuneration for workers has almost wiped off the purchasing power of Nigerian workers,” the NLC President stressed.
In the bid to industrialise the nation’s mono-product economy and address the increasing unemployment rate which currently stands at 43%, the Labour chief also urged President Buhari’s administration to “emulate the tested and proven prototypes elsewhere in places as Singapore, Argentina, Brazil, India and China to attract relevant production lines and labour-intensive industries to Nigeria.
“This would help to engage the teeming population of our country in industrial production, build the skills of Nigerians and place Nigeria in a progressive manufacturing trajectory.
“Similarly, government should provide practical incentives and support to encourage large scale industries to develop networks of SMEs to be part of their production networks and supply chains. This is the most viable way to promote horizontal integration.”
The Labour movement also urged Buhari’s administration to scrap “service-wide votes as they encourage arbitrariness, undue discretion, and abuse of public financial management tools by dishonest public officials.
“Furthermore, the release of capital budgets should be tied to performance based on job certification. This is a fundamental way of tackling official graft and ending the regime of arbitrariness and indiscretion in public finance management.”
On his part, President of United Labour Congress of Nigeria, ULC, Joe Ajaero, called on the President to prevail on the National Salaries, Incomes and Wages Commission, NSIWC, to immediately release the circular and table of implementation of the N30,000 New Minimum Wage, NMW, without further delay.
Ajaero, who spoke while addressing affiliates and other guests at the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos, venue of ULC’s May Day rally, said the issuance of the circular and implementation table was being prolonged unnecessarily as workers had been expecting the NMW for a long time.
Ajaero said: “We want to appreciate all Nigerian workers, especially those in the ULC, for their doggedness in the struggle against the forces that wanted to deny us a new national minimum wage.
‘’Collectively, at every stage of the way, together we engaged them at the barricades and on the streets until the committee’s report became an Executive Bill which was expeditiously passed by the NASS and later given assent by the President.
‘’We doff our hats for the National Assembly for demonstrating good faith in their dealings with Nigerian workers. They stood by us and fulfilled their promises to us as the legislative processes wound its way through both chambers.
‘’They provided the required moral leadership by refusing to be cowed by the intimidation of some groups that were bent on truncating the N30,000 minimum wage as contained in the Tripartite committee’s report.
‘’We also commend the President on his decision to give assent to the Bill, despite the slight difference in figure. He has acted on the side of Nigerian workers and we plead with him to assist us as we go into the most critical phase of getting it implemented.
“ULC calls on all Nigerian workers and masses to be vigilant as we go through this critical phase of getting this law implemented. We are happy that many governors have indicated willingness to comply but it is important that others come on board or face our collective wrath.
‘’We also warn private sector employers to immediately comply to avoid unsavory consequences. All Nigerian workers must remember that we did not get to this level by charity but struggle. We can only conclude it favourably by being ready at all times to defeat the forces of wickedness that would not want Nigerian workers to earn decent wages.”
He called on the President to bring in new strategy to make life better for Nigerians, especially from May 29, when he begins a second term in office.
“Our nation sits on the brink of disunity as ethnic champions seem to have once again claimed centre stage. We need to restore unity to our nation. We need to recreate a feeling of oneness among our various peoples.
“ULC urges the President to borrow a leaf from the late President of the nation, Umar Yar’Adua who despite winning the 2007 Presidential elections, never saw anything wrong in accepting that the conduct of that election was heavily flawed.
‘’He set up an electoral review process which culminated in the 2015 watershed elections. The President must do the same and then use that as a platform to launch a campaign to purge our electoral system and bequeath to the nation an electoral process that would be more acceptable to all Nigerians in the future. That is a legacy he must seek to bequeath this nation.”
The union demanded, among others, “the review of the privatisation of the electricity sector as it is riddled with corruption and has only produced more darkness and frustration; that Ajaokuta Steel Company be completed and brought on stream for job creation and economic development. ‘’The Bill concerning its rehabilitation which the President refused assent must be reviewed and assented to; that the subsidy regime in the oil and gas sector, especially in PMS, be reviewed so that we will know the quantity of the product that Nigerians actually consume, thus the actual size of the subsidy on PMS.’’
Speaking further, Ajaero said: ‘’It is important that the federal government informs Nigerians on how much it has received from the Power Generation Companies, GENCOs, and Power Distribution Companies, DISCOs as part of its 40% ownership in these privatized entities.
‘’The over N1.3trn government has spent in funding these entities since privatization ought to be explained to Nigerians – is it subsidy to these firms or pay out?”
Buhari on Minimum Wage
Meanwhile, President Muhammadu Buhari, in his remarks at the rally in Abuja yesterday, assured Nigerian workers that the new minimum wage would be fully implemented.
Buhari, who was represented by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, said: “On assumption of office in 2015, in spite of the daunting economic challenges, which confronted us at the time, we ensured that no worker was retrenched across the country.
‘’We further kept faith with this commitment by providing bailout funds for states unable to pay salaries and other benefits in order to pay accumulated arrears. We also released the Paris Club refunds owed since 2005 to make sure workers were not owed anything.
“We also ensured the payment of outstanding benefits of retrenched Nigerian Airways workers owed for decades. We also ensured the Pension Transitional Arrangement Directorate (PTAD), also paid arrears owed to parastatals and civil service pensioners covering 101,393 civil Service pensioners on all grade levels and 76,310 parastatals pensioners across 186 agencies.
“This is in addition to arrears paid to pensioners in the Police and Customs Services in 2016 and 2018. Our administration also settled the issue of benefits of Nigerian Armed Forces and Paramilitary personnel who were dismissed and later pardoned for participating on the side of the secession in the course of the Civil War from 1967-1970. All of these veterans have now been paid their benefits.
“Our Social Investment Programme is the largest of its kind in Africa, and it is directed at ensuring that we are able to provide opportunities in both the formal and informal sectors of the economy.”
President Buhari promised to continue to commit the administration to the cause of improving the lot of every working Nigerian and provide for those who cannot work.
He added: “In this regard, the new National Minimum Wage, which Mr. President signed into law a few days ago, shall be fully implemented by the current administration.
‘’Let me once again express our deep appreciation to the leadership of the Nigerian workers for the understanding showed during and after the negotiations of the new National Minimum Wage.
‘’We shall continue to provide the enabling environment for higher productivity, industrial peace and harmony, as well as a congenial atmosphere for effective collective bargaining among trade unions and employers, while also protecting fundamental rights and other lawful rights of Nigerian people, especially people who are at work.
“At the just concluded general elections, Nigerians and, indeed, workers gave our administration another mandate to govern them. We shall reciprocate this electoral gesture by focusing on the critical issues that will advance speedily and improve the quality of lives and livelihoods of Nigerians.
“We are especially committed to changing the narrative in the power sector. Today that sector, after it was privatized, still remains challenged in delivering power to many Nigerian homes and businesses.
‘’We must work as a matter of national importance and we are committed to doing so to rework and re-engineer the sector for much more effective performance. Workers shall be called upon to play greater roles in supporting the government to attain all these goals I have stated.
‘’Industrial peace is central to economic stability. Every industrial disruption costs the national economy very dearly in money and man-hours that are lost.”