By Nwachukwu Obidiwe

FINALLY, the National Labour Advisory Council, NLAC, which was last convened almost seven years ago is here. The council which every serving Minister of Labour and Employment statutorily chairs,   will meet today, March 23, 2021 in Owerri, the Imo State capital to discuss labour issues which its ventilated tripartite structure best positions it to tackle.

The two arms of the tripartite community – workers unions and employers in the private sector have, over the years, yearned for the convening of the council which, according to the International Labour Organisation, ILO, is a “consultative mechanism, providing consultation and co-operation between the government and the organisations of workers and employers on matters relating to social and labour policies” with international labour standards as target.

While promoting social dialogue between government, employers and the employees is the major aim of NLAC, it creates a platform for government to seek the views, advice as well as get feedback from workers and employers on labour policies and legislations, so as to achieve mutual and equable working condition, necessary for optimum national productivity.

The Buhari administration no doubt has taken a longer time than expected in convening this council but that also does not diminish its unprecedented labour disposition. After all, this is a government whose first act in office was billions of naira in bailout to states to clear arrears of workers’ salaries. A government that gave a definite directive that no civil servant in its   employ should be sacked on account of severe dwindling national resources occasioned by sharp fall in price and production output of crude oil, went ahead to employ more Nigerians into service and implemented a new national minimum wage.

Indeed, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Sen. Chris Ngige, had in the early hours of the administration, in December in 2015, while outlining his programmes, disclosed that the National Labour Advisory Council would be cardinal mechanism of engagement among the social partners. Said he: “The National Labour Advisory Council is important because it is the equivalent of the public hearing at the National Assembly. It is a very important organ of the tripartite committee in labour administration. The council will help us to review the labour laws in the country and take measures to ensure international best practices. So this ministry under my leadership will make sure that we revive the council.”

Though this council was not convened all through the first four years of the administration, the truth is that the office of the Minister of Labour whose charge it is to convoke it had no single respite as torrents of vexed industrial disputes from all sectors, kept even reporters at the corridors of the Ministry, at times, till early hours of the morning, in what appeared a bay of cyclic conflicts arising from agreements with preceding administrations.

The list is too long. The Ministry got more than it bargained, but it succeeded largely, apprehending 1,425 trade disputes and complaints, with 788 disputes completely resolved, 37 cases referred to Industrial Arbitration Panel, IAP; 600 pending at various stages of conciliation, thus, rendering both the IAP and the industrial court somewhat idle.

But this varying level of multiple social dialogue did not take the place of NLAC as agitations continued, especially in the wake of disputes surrounding the minimum wage and   appointments into the tripartite National Insurance Trust Fund, NSITF, in 2018 and 2019. However, budgetary constraints was given by the Ministry as reason for failure to convene the labour council. But hope rose in 2019 as the Minister upon re-appointment, promised the council would be convened by year end.

“So everything being equal this important forum for tripartite dialogue will soon meet. I expect greater synergy, more so as I have stated that all the tripartite members must work together to assist Mr. President realise his promise to lift 100 million Nigerians from poverty in the next ten years. The effort starts now,” Ngige said. While the promise didn’t materialise in the short period leading to the end of 2019, the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 no doubt made it impossible in a world of work convulsed by the pandemic.

Expectations are, therefore, high as the council converges on Owerri. Emerging tripartite issues such as the planned amendment of the Minimum Wage Act by the National Assembly to break its exclusivity and reschedule it into the concurrent list will definitely get a mention. The labour centres are already up in arms over the amendment that would cede to the state governments, constitutional competence to decide what the least worker earns as a wage. The council will take a stock of anti-labour practices such as casualisation, working poor as well as introspect into the expatriate quota which, labour watchers say, has been observed better in breach in a country where millions of youths are out of job, with the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics recently placing unemployment rate at 34 per cent.

The minister has stridently battled to arrest the phenomenon with the Ministry of Interior since 2016 but the efforts may not have paid off significantly. However, the job content clause which the Federal Executive Council in 2019 attached to all contracts passing through it may be an off-shoot of this effort. Similarly, the effectiveness of the NLAC on anti-labour practices will also depend on the efficient functioning of the Inspectorate and Industrial Relations department of the Labour Ministry because even with 10,098 factories so far inspected across the country, the effect still compares to a little above a drop in the ocean.

While social dialogue, tripartism and future of work will also feature in the discussion, the forum will further give consideration to two memoranda: One on ratification of ILO Convention C143 on Migrant Workers of 1975 and ILO Convention C181 on Private Employment Agencies Convention 1997. The world of work in the era of COVID-19 pandemic where the ILO has warned that 1.6billion workers in the informal economy, half the global workforce, are in danger of losing livelihood, is just as topical as the review of the labour laws.

Recall that the Ministry had in March 2020 in Lagos initiated the review of national labour bills in liaison with social partners. Some of the bills being reviewed include Elimination of Sexual Harassment in the Work Place, Labour Migration, Elimination of Child Labour, the Promotion of Gender Equality, Occupational Safety and Health as well as the restructuring of the IAP, National Labour Advisory Council and the office of the Registrar of Trade Union to ensure better and effective performance.

Therefore, while the president who has shown unprecedented support to the cause of Nigerian workers declares the event open, fresh ideas from the technical sessions is expected to form significant contributions not just to the Federal Government’s pro-employment macroeconomic policies but also lend a helping hand to the sagging tenor of national industrial relations, once again being hobbled by harsh economic realities.

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