• Minimum Wage Debate Lingers
• Industrial Disputes Unresolved
• Labour Dead In Nigeria, Workers Insist
• ‘Things Are Tough For Us, Hike In Prices Worsening Our Situations’
• Union To Speak Truth To Power Today
Across the world, the Labour movement is today commemorating May Day, otherwise called Workers Day. But in Nigeria, there appears to be nothing to celebrate apart from being alive. Workers and labour leaders across sectors of the economy lament their fortunes and fear a gloomy future for the Nigerian worker, which they said calls for sober reflection.
This, they noted, is hinged on the many unresolved factors, such as the refusal by some state governors to pay workers the N30, 000 national minimum wage, several lingering strikes by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), judiciary and health workers, unresolved industrial disputes and the controversial minimum wage Bill before the National Assembly to expunge the minimum wage Act from the Exclusive Legislative List to the Concurrent Legislative List, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, which has further plunged workers into harrowing conditions.
The Guardian gathered that even now, some workers are still struggling to survive the negative effects, which has taken a toll on their socio-economic and psychological wellbeing.
The workers said with the paltry N30, 000 minimum wage, life is difficult in the present economic climate and called for a review of the wage to meet the realities on the ground.
At the Eagle Square in Abuja, the nation’s capital, members of Nigeria Labour Congress (TUC) and its Trade Union Congress (TUC) counterpart would today attempt to speak ‘truth to power,’ as soul-searching speeches are expected from NLC President, Ayuba Wabba, and his TUC counterpart, Quadri Olaleye.
Indeed, Wabba had explained that choosing ‘Save Lives at Work’ as theme of this year’s edition is significant, coming at the epoch of the global fight against COVID-9, adding that the contribution of frontline workers, especially healthcare workers, is a formidable buffer between deaths in thousands and deaths in millions. He condoled with families of workers who have paid the supreme sacrifice in the fight against the pandemic and those who have died due to work-related injuries or ailments.
NLC demanded the listing of Occupational Health and Safety as a fundamental right at work and recognition of COVID-19 as a workplace disease and as a notifiable and compensable occupational hazard. The labour union also called for the provision of training and capacity building for trade unions to deal with Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) issues and push for reforms in the Factories Act, particularly to enforcement and penalties.
While Wabba and Quadri are expected to demand urgent action aimed at curtailing the spread of insecurity, they lamented the haphazard implementation of minimum wage, rising inflation, concrete action on the revitalisation of the comatose refineries amid push for full deregulation of the downstream sector of the Nigeria oil industry, devaluation of the naira. Chairmen of state councils would equally be making their demands in the various state capitals.
But beyond requests and celebrations, a human rights lawyer, Femi Falana has bemoaned the loss of ‘labour tradition’ in the past few decades, saying the labour movement birthed by the Labour Number One, the late Chief Michael Imoudu, Nduka Eze, Wahab Goodluck, Hassan Sunmonu, Ali Chiroma, Pascal Bafyau, Adams Oshiomhole and other quintessential labour leaders, must be found and enthroned for Nigerians to renew their belief in the capacity of the movement to lead popular struggles that the founding fathers established.
Meanwhile, labour seems to be losing relevance even amongst its primary constituency, as workers said they care less about its posture, especially the NLC.
Activist and civil servant in Abuja, Stella Okoye, lamented the lethargic nature of the present-day NLC leadership, noting: “I don’t even have any feeling tomorrow (today) is May Day because there is no enthusiasm as far as the day is concerned. In the days gone by, workers were always elated whenever May Day was approaching, because there would be promises made on that day.
“That was the day labour would challenge all perceived obnoxious policies of the government. Sometimes, the government would even reverse some of those policies as a mark of regards for labour.
“But these days, either the leadership of NLC is compromised or ineffective or both. There is no suitable adjective to describe the level labour has sunk. Am I even surprised? Is it not this same country when (Abdulwaheed) Omar was leading the NLC that Oshiomhole started crying that labour was losing its voice? Adams was in opposition then and his becoming a member of the governing party has shut his mouth. Nevertheless, he volunteered those criticisms.
“What has changed since Wabba became president of the NLC? The movement has gone so backwards that people like Sunmonu cannot be said to be happy with the ways things are going right now. For me, I see no hope in the labour movement of today.”
A menial jobber at Berger Junction, Wuse, Marvellous Ogidi, described labour as a set of ‘callous’ people who are inconsiderate.
“Look, I come here every morning first to join the ‘free readers association’ to read newspapers and listen to what Nigerians are saying. I don’t just come here because I cannot afford to buy newspapers, but to get an education. From what people are saying here, it seems that labour has jettisoned the people and are now pursuing individual agendas.
“Before now, we looked up to labour to resist any government policy that is likely going to increase the burden of ordinary persons. Who knows the names of those there now? That in itself tells a sordid story about how those that are there now are perceived.”
In Ondo State, workers decried unstable salary payments. There was palpable discomfort across the 18 local councils over the irregular payment of salaries. It was gathered that there is a disagreement between the state government and union leaders over the percentage of salaries to be paid to the workers in the state; hence delay in its payment till now.
A source disclosed that the state had wanted to pay 81 per cent and 50 per cent salaries to local councils and state workers, respectively, but the unions resisted the move, stressing that it must honour its earlier promise to pay in full.
A civil servant in Akure Local Council, who simply identified himself as Adesida, bemoaned the harrowing experience irregular salary has subjected him and his family to in the past few years, saying: “As I speak to you, I am indebted in multiple folds, just in a bid to keep body and soul together and to meet up my responsibilities as a man. Most times, it is very hard to feed my family; we always borrow, especially now that things are extremely costly in the market.
“The women selling petty trade in the neighbourhood have labelled us negatively. It is not their fault; the economic hardship on us as a civil servant state has also sent many of them out of business.”
There have been bouts of confrontation between the state government and union leaders over irregular payment of salaries, especially since the state resorted to paying workers in percentage and partially.
Adesida, alongside other workers, demanded a downward review of the running cost of governance in the state, saying the money expended on running the current democracy in the country is too expensive.
“Government at all levels should cut down their political expenses, because these, oftentimes, are at the expense of critical expenditures, like payment of salaries to workers. Our politics is too extravagant and a white elephant project.
“Again, Nigeria needs restructuring more than ever. It is high time each state becomes economically independent and creative with the limitless resources, both human and natural, at its disposal.”
Another civil servant in Irele Council, who simply identified herself as Adesanoye, however, noted that the state government could not be solely blamed for the hardship, pointing at lack of visionary leadership in the country.
“People are making too much noise now about the looming cash crunch as raised by NNPC, but what could be more deadly and terrific than what we are already going through in the country? It is a case of a man on the floor that fears no fall.
“The Ondo State Government is already owing us February salary to April; three years leave bonuses and we receive salaries now in percentages. So, what else? There was a time we went through thick and thin for seven months without salaries.”
He informed that they received two months salaries last month, which was 100 per cent for January 2021 and the remaining 30 per cent salary for December last year, insisting the salary issues did not start overnight but has built up to become a monster over the years.
She added: “Where are they to get the IGR? How many industries do we have in the state to get IGR? Most times, it is a tax of burdens meted on the people, killing the few small-scale enterprises that are trying to survive.”
President of Movement for the Survival of Underprivileged (MOSUP), Dappa Maharajah, affirmed that the future is very bleak for the states and country at large, adding that the IGR performance indices in most states are nothing to write home about.
Maharajah pointed out that only a functional economy could rely absolutely on IGR, adding that developed countries do not keep the majority of their workforce on the government payroll.
“Governments at all levels owe the people enabling environment, infrastructure, basic amenities and security for the private sector to thrive. Employment in the public service in Nigeria has been a charity initiative over the years.
“The large workforce in many states of the federation are not productive; they keep consuming without giving back, in terms of production of even quality services. How does a society, state or country grow like that?”
He urged the Federal Government to restructure the country for more economic power and productivity, warning that the present architecture of the country would further worsen the already bad situations.
A civil servant in Delta State, Dominic Chukwuka, said the recession has rendered the workforce in Nigeria useless, lamenting that Nigeria is now going cap in hand begging for loans.
“If the country as an entity cannot fend for itself, you can imagine what has become of its workforce. It has made life extremely difficult. To feed, pay house rent, school fees and socialise from the meagre salary is difficult, as state governments are finding it difficult to pay the approved N30, 000 minimum wage.”
He warned that unless states block all areas of financial leakages, reduce wasteful expenditure on political aides, jamborees and servicing of godfathers, the recession would not cease, adding that states must revive areas where they have a comparative advantage other than oil.
“Moreover, states must rejig their Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) formulae to stop tax evasion. Now that the NNPC is threatening to reduce its contribution to the national government, owing to the trillions of naira being paid as subsidy, your guess can be as good as mine.
“The cost of production has already skyrocketed, by the time subsidy is removed, the cost of living will assume a dangerous dimension. I am particularly sad that since the advent of the recession, the country failed to do the needful.
“The house project I embarked upon with borrowed money from the cooperative society has been at a standstill,” he lamented.
On his part, Sam Erhunmwunse, a staff of Radio Nigeria, said the hard times are really affecting Nigerian workers, saying: “In fact, before the end of the first or second week of the month, salary received are already spent on food items. Then, one will end up borrowing before the next salary is paid.
“As a result of the recession, one is forced to live from hand to month. Besides, one hardly thinks of carrying out projects, such as housing and others, because money received is not enough to buy food due to high cost of living.”
He advised the government to also make loans available for workers to access to enable them to meet up with the high cost of living while subsidising some essential items or commodities, such as transportation and foodstuff, as well as strive to prioritise payment of salary and allowance.
On the future of Nigeria, he declared: “I don’t see a bleak future for Nigeria, because the country has what it takes to come out of the recession and revamp the economy, being one of the countries in the world that are richly blessed or endowed with abundant natural resources that can translate into economic prosperity when judiciously utilised. The country would surely found its feet from the present hardship, having survived twice between 2015 and early this year.”
A civil servant at the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) in Osogbo, Osun State, who did not want to be named, said most workers have been struggling to manage their meagre salaries and that any attempt to stop or reduce it would be disastrous for workers.
She blamed the looming cash crunch on the failure of government to build the economy, arguing that National Assembly members and other public office holders should be made to part with their salaries and allowances, noting that with COVID-19, the last one year has been difficult for her.
“Before COVID-19, we were struggling to manage the meagre salaries we were receiving from the government, but things became worst when we were ordered to stay at home as means of curbing the spread of the coronavirus. The money we are receiving from the government is no longer enough to fend for the family.
“Things are too expensive in the market and there is no increment in the salaries. We that have little children at home need to feed them always. All the while, they were at home with us, their appetite increased and we needed to spend more on buying foodstuffs,” she said.
On the looming cash crunch, she tasked governments on the management of finances at their disposal, saying that it would be disastrous for workers’ salaries to be denied.
“When I hear governments say they are broke, I am confused. Is it that the means of getting money for Nigerian leaders have been blocked totally or what? Whatever happens, so far Nigerian political office holders are getting their money steadily, it should not be the meagre salaries that workers managing that the cash crunch should affect.
“Political office holders should be the ones that should be made to bear the brunt of whatever cash crunch affecting the nation. They should be the ones to sacrifice part of their bogus earnings should there be any cash crunch.
“We (workers) are pained and don’t expect the government to add to it. Should anything affect our salaries, it will be really disturbing for us,” the worker warned.
Also speaking, a public servant, Sedan Adeleke, said the living standard of workers is nothing to write home about, adding that government and other employers should understand that ‘a hungry man is an angry man.’
“In the last one year, we have had an ambivalent experience that had culminated in our mixed feelings towards government at all levels, considering how the workers in the civil service are being treated. One wonders when Nigeria will be able to wake up to the numerous plights of workers and people, with a view to improving the living standard of its citizenry.
“Governments at all levels must see and take the wellbeing, welfare and development of its people as the topmost priority, instead of personal aggrandisement that some of them have adopted in running the affairs of men.
“In the same vein, all employers of labour must realise that a hungry man is an angry man. They should place the happiness of their employees in the front, in their administrations.
“Many employers of today tend to pay attention to only the growth and development of their varying establishments without any consideration for their workers. It is when a worker is adequately encouraged that he or she will be able to happily contribute his or her best to the organisation.
“Can you imagine? Many states in Nigeria are already struggling to pay worker’s full salaries. The implementation of the N30, 000 minimum wage is just a matter of another day, because only a few of the states are able to do that to the letter.
“It may interest you to know that some governors are using a bank overdraft to pay their workers. In fact, the issue of salary payment has become a scary thing, as some governments are beginning to see it as an achievement.
“So, if a cash crunch from the Federal Allocation is added, it is indeed adding salt to injury and definitely, we all know the sort of negative implications to expect. Only God can see us through, because no visible remedy is in sight, at least for now.”
A worker at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Dr. Tunji Ogunyemi, said it was worrisome that state governments now depend on the tax from workers’ salaries to be able to generate IGR.
Ogunyemi, who is a financial expert, charged governors to set up factories and industries to harness their natural resources and think of means of improving their IGR.
Former deputy president of Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN), Frank Esanubi, said with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, insecurity and economic crisis, the future looks very gloomy and dim for the Nigerian worker, who is still made to grapple with a minimum wage of N30, 000, which even some states have refused to pay.
He said with the collaboration of the organised labour, including the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC), appropriate engagement would take place with the government to see how the issues could be resolved. He stressed the need for government to take a definite stand on the issue of insecurity, saying insecurity was hindering the country’s development
“Our security architecture is too centralised for the challenges we are faced with. We need to decentralise the security architecture so that people can deal with peculiarities within their local communities.
“Also, governors must see that they satisfy the minimum wage requirement.”
When asked if another review is needed, he said: “What is important is to address issues in the economy as a whole. For you to be entitled to the minimum wage, you must be employed, and there are no jobs. Priority should be made on creating more jobs, then more efforts could be made on minimum wage, which would now be at equilibrium.”
Chairman, Lagos State Council of TUC, Gbenga Ekundayo, said the theme of this year’s May Day celebration, ‘COVID-19 Pandemic, Social and Economic Crises: Challenges for Decent Jobs, Social Protection and People’s Welfare,’ was apt to continue to stand for workers, continue to strive together and ask for best equally for workers at a time like this.
He said there is hope for the Nigerian worker, which he said would only come to fruition when members really engage unions and do things to make the hope materialise.
At a pre-May Day symposium, organised by the Lagos State Council of NLC and the TUC, he said the unions had been challenged and told the bitter truth on how the labour movement has been in recent times.
He stated: “We need to pick up ourselves on how to engage constructively and effectively. For our state council, we are looking at partnering with the Lagos State Safety Commission to look at what employers do in factories because lots of things are happening around there.
“We need to ensure that people are safe and secure and the health conditions around the workplaces are good for workers.”
Rather than the call for review of new minimum wage, Ekundayo said: “What we should be asking now is: ‘What is happening to our commonwealth? What is the government doing to the little income that we have? Can we really survive with the kind of system, structure and blown governance that we have? And are we spending the commonwealth on real developmental projects that can create jobs, opportunities and enabling environment for the young smart brains that could make things happen?’
“I think that is what we should be talking about; how we need to get the jobs to be there, to get the commonwealth to really work for the people, not when you have governors that are living large at the expense of the common man that cannot even feed himself. That needs to change. Until we tackle that, nothing is going to move.”
Similarly, Permanent Secretary, Public Service Office, Office of the Head of Service, Lagos State, Samson Ajibade, stressed the need for better welfare for the workforce, considering the long struggles labour had gone through.
Noting that labour should lend their voices for a peaceful co-existence, he said today’s Workers Day celebration was a reminder that Nigerians should not be there only for themselves, but for the good of the majority of the people and for good governance.
President of the Chemical and Non-Metallic Products Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (CANMPSSAN), Segun David, said some employers used the pandemic to better the lots of workers, while some did otherwise by doing so many things that were inimical to the growth of workers under the pretense of COVID-19.
“For instance, a lot of companies downsized arbitrarily and indiscriminately, while some even went ahead to reduce the salary of workers. Now that things have improved reasonably, those salaries were not reversed.
“Also, we saw where a majority of companies declared huge profits than they usually made in recent past. But most of them to date have not done salary appraisals and yet, they are declaring huge profits.
“These profits, if I may say, part of it was gotten as a result of suppression of workers, because some of them did not increase salary, some employees retired and there were no replacements, they froze promotions and in all these, they counted them as profits, not even considering the workers that worked for them to make these profits,” he said.
Looking at the socio-economic situation in the country, vis-a-vis workers’ welfare and N30, 000 national minimum wages, amid rising inflation, David said now was the time for labour leaders to once again rise to the occasion to save Nigerian workers.
“Going down memory lane when the minimum wage issue was being discussed with the Federal Government then, the exchange rate was N360 and petrol price was still N97. But now, the dollar is almost N500 and the petrol price is N165. These developments have thrown a challenge to labour leaders to once again rise to the occasion.
“Apart from inflation and exchange rate, the high level of insecurity in the country has made it difficult for an average worker to get things at ease, which had made things go above the reach of the common man.”
On his message as labour celebrates May Day, he said: “We need to see that there is hope beyond where we are. For us to be able to achieve meaningful results, we need to come together as unions and start talking with one voice, no need for rivalry.
“We need togetherness and unity. We must be able to point out to employers when they err for them to make adjustments.”