By Ismail Bello

SINCE the Spanish flu of 1918, nothing has distorted the global socio-economic landscape more than the COVID-19 pandemic. With the exception of a few countries, the entire world has been in a state of lockdown since March 2020. Factories, airports, hotels, schools, railway stations, worship centres, motor parks and many other centers of economic activities remain largely under lock and key. A few countries are just gradually unlocking the economy.

Nigeria recorded her index case in February 2020 and since then the rate of infections had risen to 19,808 as at Saturday, June 20 with total number of deaths recorded standing at 506. Overall, 6,718 infected individuals had recovered from COVID-19 infection. Apart from high rates of infection and mortality, the biggest impact of COVID-19 pandemic is the disruption of the global socio-economic order making it a struggle between life and livelihood. This struggle is negatively skewed against the poor and the working class.

The coronavirus pandemic according to the ILO is not just a health crisis but and an economic crisis as well. Mr. Guy Ryder, the ILO Director General stated that “this is no longer only a global health crisis, it is also a labour market and economic crisis that is having a huge impact on people”. At the onset of the pandemic, the ILO had announced that the economic lockdown was going to lead to about 25 million job losses worldwide.

The ILO predicts that the impact of contraction in productivity would ultimately increase working poverty affecting up to 35 million workers globally and that poverty was going to rise with greater impact on the informal economy. Two billion people – more than 61 per cent of the world’s employed population- work in the informal economy.

The ILO report warns of severe job contraction in the informal sector as the opportunity for people to be engaged would be restricted given the restriction of movement in many countries. ILO estimates that 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy which is half of the global workforce stand in the immediate danger of losing their livelihood. The report also forecasts huge incidence of income loss for workers, between USD 860 million and USD 3.4 trillion.

Nigeria joined the lockdown fray when President Muhammadu Buhari announced lockdown measures in Lagos and Ogun states as well as Abuja with effect from March 30, 2020. This was followed with closure of airports, businesses, markets and worship centres and ban on interstate travels. State governments also followed with their own lockdown measures. But since May 4, the Federal Government had commenced phased relaxation of some of the restrictive measures to open up the economy.

The stage is also set for further expansion of the openings with the proposed reopening of the airports and possibly interstate movements initially planned for June 21, 2020 but further pushed as aviation authorities perfect the reopening measures in line with international aviation standards. To underscore the enormous impact of the lockdown measures on livelihoods, governments (Federal, State and Local) provided all kinds of palliative measures to support families and households.

Government measures have been complemented with the massive support from the private sector with the launch of the Coalition against COVID-19, CACOVID. CACOVID had pulled together over N25 billion in support of national response against COVID-19.  Even then, the measures had proved largely inadequate in spread and reach. The Federal Government also announced stimulus packages to support businesses.

Early in March, the House of Representatives had passed an emergency economic stimulus bill that contains a cocktail of incentives and tax reliefs for companies that keep workers during the crisis. CBN had also announced US$3.5 billion stimulus package containing policy measures ranging from credit moratorium to new rounds of credits to support businesses during the crisis. However, manufacturers have called for more constant support in tax relief, forex support and patronage to keep local businesses through the crisis.

Well ahead of the lockdown measures, the NLC had in a press statement on March 23 called on governments at all levels to take swift measures to curtail the pandemic urging employers of labour, including governments, to ensure that workers worked from home as much as possible. The NLC also mobilised its civil society allies to form a Labour- civil society situation room to monitor developments and interface with relevant institutions of government to curtail the pandemic. State councils of congress had worked in similar fashion in conjunction with civil society organisations across the 36 states and the FCT to set the Labour-civil society COVID-19 situation room. These measures had positively impacted national response.

In a recent study conducted by the Research Department of the NLC, it was evident that aviation, services, informal sector and some segment of manufacturing sector were badly hit by the lockdown measures and that workers generally had suffered enormously through pay cuts, redundancies and compulsory leaves without pay.

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For members in the informal sector, it had been herculean tasks for those in the food sector to operate with severe security hindrances and excesses. Other category of informal workers in the city transportation, garment making, and other services like vulcanising, hair dressing, barbing and carpentry, among others, suffer heavy loss of income.

In a related report, National Bureau of Statistics, NBS, reported 42 per cent job losses in Nigeria. The Vice President Yemi Osinbajo committee on economic sustainability painted a more serious scenario with a possible 39.4 million job losses if preemptive macro-economic measures are not taken. The NBS report noted that the impact of COVID-19 on jobs and income had been widespread. It further reported the impact of COVID-19 has been strongly felt in the commerce, service and agriculture sectors.

NLC’s affiliate unions in aviation, construction, textile, chemical and allied sectors have reported shutdowns, redundancies and retrenchments, pay cuts and compulsory leaves without pay. These developments have put enormous pressures on workers and their families they concluded. In the public service, the combination of the COVID-19 induced economic slowdown and the sharp drop in oil prices in March had led to sharp decline in government revenue and corresponding cuts in budgets creating genuine fears and concerns in respect of the implementation of the minimum wage.

Indications of the enormous challenges that lay ahead abound in the unilateral decisions of some state governments to cut salary and pension payments by as much as 25 per cent. In Kaduna State for instance, the NLC state council is currently engaging the state government on the unilateral reduction of salary by 25 per cent

While the economic impact of COVID-19 is on a medium to long term basis, the immediate impact is on the health of people around the world especially workers and their families. Global estimates as at early May indicated that over 90,000 health workers have been infected with COVID-19. In Nigeria, over 800 health workers including doctors and nurses have been infected and scores are known to have died from COVID-19 infection.

Workers at the points of entry especially those in the aviation and maritime sectors are at the greatest vulnerability to COVID-19 infection. The multiple infection in a manufacturing company in Ibadan, Oyo State underscores the general vulnerability of workers to this virulent virus. A few plants and companies across the country have shut-down on account of COVID-19 infections.

No doubt, it is a huge challenge to maintain the balance between the health of enterprise and the jobs and welfare of workers. As the world gradually unlocks, workers vulnerability remains of great concern. Chances of worker to worker transmission are very high in workplaces. The return of workers to work calls for risk assessment of workplaces in line with occupational safety standards and COVID-19 hygiene protocols.

During this back to work phase, we must collectively strengthen the occupational health and safety measures, scale up testing and ensure adequate care for of employees who may test positive in the course of work. For health care workers and other essential workers, it imperative that adequate personal protective equipment is provided regularly. This is also not the time to dilly dally over the welfare of health workers, matters relating to their legitimate remuneration and allowances must be expeditiously treated.

The NLC has mapped out a detailed programme of sensitization and domestication of hygiene and safety protocols in all workplaces through the affiliate unions. NLC is also on the offensive in getting the social partners together to continue to devise ways and means to keep the balance between enterprise competitiveness, protections of workers’ rights and interests and the development of the national economy.

In this direction, the NLC and the TUC signed an MOU with NECA on Monday, June 15, to work together now and post COVID-19 to develop programme with governments and other stakeholders to ensure business sustainability and competitiveness, job retention and creation of decent jobs and rapid national development. Both Labour and Employers group called on government to put in place complimentary measures to avoid further collapse of the economy and create a favourable condition for quick economic recovery.

The President of the NLC, Comrade Ayuba Wabba, has repeatedly emphasized that NLC’s advocacy for stimulus packages and debt moratorium is to help stimulate the economy, support the enterprise and ultimately provide buffer for jobs and guaranteed income. It is expected that trade unions in the country will, using the NLC/TUC/NECA bipartite template and the instrumentality of tripartite social dialogue continually engage with Employers (Public and Private) to build consensus on workplace policies and actions and ensure provision of necessary facilities and resources as well training and retraining of employees.

  • Bello, Deputy General Secretary, Nigeria Labour Congress, wrote from Abuja

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