DEMANDING ANSWERS AT VERY UNUSUAL TIMES
Address by the President of Nigeria Labour Congress, Comrade Ayuba Wabba, mni to the National Executive Council (NEC) held on 17th February 2021
Fellow comrades and leaders of our movement, I welcome you to the very first meeting of the National Executive Committee (NEC) this year. This meeting takes place as the world continues to battle the second wave of the novel corona virus disease (Covid-19). I commend your industry and commitment to the Nigerian working class regardless of the adversity of the Covid-19 pandemic. I commend the leadership you have provided for your unions and to millions of workers in Nigeria.
The impact of the novel corona virus in the World of Work continues to bite. In a January 2021 Report, the International Labour Organization (ILO) posited that in 2020, COVID-19 wiped off 225 million Full Time Equivalent working hours from the labour market. In all, 114 million jobs were lost temporarily and a further 33 million jobs disappeared permanently due to COVID-19. In Nigeria, the impact of COVID-19 is no less daunting as the Nigeria’s GDP shrunk by 34.1%. The pandemic also led to a 14% increase in poverty headcount rate in Nigeria. About 27 million Nigerians fell headlong into poverty as a result of COVID-19.
As the infection rate and death toll from this current wave of the pandemic continues to soar, we owe it to ourselves and to Nigerian workers and people to continue to advocate for caution and care. The vicissitudes of these times also instruct us on gratitude. We remain grateful for the unquantifiable sacrifice, commitment and love shown by our frontline workers. You have astutely stood between us and a great plague of death and calamity. Even with scant regard for your welfare and poor reward for your efforts, you have admirably continued to render your profound services to the Nigerian workers and people.
As the punches of the prevalent pandemic are tempered by the discovery of vaccines, we cannot yet lower our guards. We urge our affiliate unions and state councils to remain vigilant. Until these vaccines get into the arms of every Nigerian worker and citizen or at least a good proportion of the population is vaccinated in order to foster the so called “Herd Immunity”, we must all remain at very high alert.
In my New Year Message to Nigerian workers, I had called for the provision of affable, affordable and available vaccines for Nigerians and people in less developed and developing countries of the world. I wish to reiterate that call. I am emphatic about this given the fact that no country of the world would be safe if all the countries of the world are not safe from this very unfortunate pandemic. This time demands the best of international goodwill, cooperation, and solidarity. I also wish to challenge the Nigerian government and governments of other African countries to rise up to the challenge of research and innovation. Our failure to develop a novel corona vaccine does not speak well of us.
On the Economy
The Nigerian economy continues to go through the challenge imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic especially as a result of the near global lockdown of economic and social activities. It has been predicted that the national economy would make some rebound as the production spaces all over the world open up and as demands for goods and services increase. For Nigeria, the story is a tale of mixed fortunes. While the increase in the demand for crude oil has occasioned higher prices in the international commodities market, the appreciable swell in the coffers of government translates to very piercing pain for citizens.
Comrades, you may recall our historical struggle against incessant increases in the prices of petrol – a struggle that has spanned decades. In the last quarter of last year, precisely September 28, we resolved to embark on a nationwide strike if government failed to halt the trend of consistent hike in the price of petrol and other essential public utilities. That same September 28, 2020, the government agreed to set up a technical committee to examine the root challenges in Nigeria’s downstream petroleum sub sector and the electricity sector. The government also agreed to our demand to suspend further increases in petrol price and hike in electricity tariff at least until the committee on downstream petroleum subsector and electricity submits their report.
Leaders of our movement, as we all know – government has reneged on this promise more than once. Relying on your mandate, we had engaged government each time they went contrary to our agreement and increased the prices of petrol or hiked electricity tariff. We had successfully forced the hands of government on those occasions to reverse, suspend or reduce the pains they had brought upon Nigerians.
While we look ahead to a better year for Nigerian workers, the current economic indicators point otherwise. As earlier submitted, the prices of crude oil in the international market which should be an advantage for Nigeria has become a major disadvantage as government insists that workers and citizens must pay higher for imported refined petroleum products and pay dearly for electricity services consumed in the country. Comrades, the failure of successive governments and also this current government to revamp our domestic refineries have brought us to this cul-de-sac. Furthermore, the insistence of our government on using the so-called Import Parity Prices to calculate the landing cost of petrol and other refined petroleum products has made matters worse.
Fellow leaders, our resistance against the subjection of our people to chains of hardship and suffering will be a long one. It is a marathon. We must be ready to give it our best shot. Our position has never changed. We insist that the resuscitation of our refineries and the overhauling of the entire value chain in our downstream petroleum sub sector are the only sustainable ways to halt the embarrassing mass importation of refined petroleum products into Nigeria and the high price volatility that comes with it. Refining crude oil is no longer rocket science. We demand that our public refineries must work. Is this too much to ask?
On Persistent Increase in Electricity Tariff
A few weeks ago, the Government – Labour Technical Committee on Electricity Tariff released its Final Report. The committee’s recommendations validate our position that the major factors behind incessant electricity tariff hike are combinations of pressure from neo-liberal global market forces, poor policy choices, dereliction of duties by the power sector regulator and investors and general inefficiencies in the system. We had canvassed these positions at an earlier engagement in March 2020 with Nigeria Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC).
We maintained the same position at the Technical Committee on Electricity Tariff. From the Report of the Technical Committee, it is clear that the factors fueling incessant hike in electricity tariff such as the dollarization of gas used by GENCOs to run our power stations are issues that government can control. As we speak, the promise by government to force DISCOs to mass deploy meters to electricity consumers has been poorly pursued as these meters are still hoarded by DISCOs and sold at exorbitant rates to frustrated consumers. The implication of this for productivity, employment and stability are huge.
Our beloved country has never been emmeshed in the grips of insecurity turbulence and crisis as we witness today. In the past two years or so, we have witnessed an intense resurgence of terrorism, armed banditry, kidnap-for-ransom, militancy and resource conflicts all over the country. There is also the challenge of criminals who hide under the camouflage of pastoralists to commit all sorts of crime against Nigerians. The mindless bloodshed and misery that our current state of insecurity unleash points to a serious breakdown in governance.
There is no day in Nigeria that one form of violent crime or another is not reported. Many Nigerian citizens have been forced by the large scale spread of rural and urban violence to abandon their homes. Millions of Nigerians have become refuges in their own land. Many Nigerians yet to flee their homes have literarily become prisoners in their own homes as criminals have forced us into a state of perpetual tension and apprehension. Kidnap for ransom has been elevated to the status of jungle enterprise. The crime of kidnapping has become a no respecter of persons as the low and mighty are all vulnerable. Workers are also victims. Many of us no longer feel safe both at work and home.
Perhaps, even more worrisome is the cataclysmic path that the current state of insecurity in Nigeria leads to. In response to the absence of a firm State response to the persistent confrontations between herdsmen and farmers, many Nigerians are beginning to resort to self-help. The tunes, discordance, reactions and counter-reactions from these informal frequencies have constituted in themselves new grand threats to the security, stability and sustainability of the Nigerian project. We cannot fold our hands and watch Nigerians engage themselves in ethnoreligious squabbles. The dangers are too significant to ignore.
When the security situation in the country started getting out of hand, we called for the rejig of the leadership of our national security apparatus. This call was neglected until things deteriorated abysmally. Now that we finally have new sets of service chiefs in play, we demand that the lapses of the old be identified and corrected. We call for a new verve of zeal and commitment in the war against terrorism, banditry, kidnapping, communal unrests and clashes. We must never get to that point where we surrender the initiative and paraphernalia of sovereignty to autonomous state actors and to forces of state capture.
Going forward, the Nigeria Labour Congress will revisit the resolutions of the last Delegates Conference which called for strong proactive steps by Congress to promote the security of lives and property particularly those of workers and their families. To this end, we will revive our efforts last year to convene a National Peace and Security Summit which preparations were scuttled by the outbreak of COVID-19 and the associated lockdown. Ultimately, we say “Enough is Enough”.
On the National Minimum Wage and Minimum Pension
Since April 18, 2019 when President Muhammadu Buhari signed the new national minimum wage into law, the expectation is that all Nigerian employers both in the public and private sector must comply. Unfortunately, Comrades, that has not been the case. There are still some states that are yet to implement the national minimum wage of N30,000. Do we need to make this point again and again that the National Minimum Wage is an Act of the Parliament and so is binding on all employers in Nigeria who are so categorized by the number of workers in their employment to pay the national minimum wage?
Unfortunately, the worse violators of the national minimum wage law are employers in the public sector especially State Governors. There is no begging anyone to comply with the provisions of the law. Perhaps, a very pragmatic way to deal with this would be to provide special penalties against public sector employers who violate the national minimum wage law. We should also consider the use of the court of law to assert the sovereignty of our laws and compliance to same.
We are also mindful of national minimum pension for our pensioners. Section 173 of Nigeria’s Constitution demands review of minimum pension every four years. This must be dutifully complied with.
By this time, it is expected that all the states in Nigeria should have concluded negotiations on the consequential increase in salaries owing to the new national minimum wage. Unfortunately, there are still some states that are yet to conclude negotiations for consequential adjustment of salaries. This is not acceptable. We urge all our State Councils yet to reach a negotiated agreement on consequential salary increases owing to the new national minimum wage of N30,000 to do so as workers are not going to wait forever. Indeed, we have waited enough. Now, we must match our longsuffering with robust results.
Attack on Human, Trade Union and Workers Rights
The right to belong to a trade union of choice by workers is a fundamental human right guaranteed by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights of the United Nations, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and Section 40 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and relevant sections of the Trade Union Act.
Furthermore, Conventions 87 and 98 of the International Labour Organization which Nigeria ratified upon attaining independence amply protects the fundamental rights of workers to organize, join trade unions of their choice and freely enter into collective bargaining with employers in the public and in the private sectors of the economy.
Of recent we have witnessed an upsurge in attack against trade union rights by some organizations in Nigeria. First is the corporate irresponsibility of the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) which management has introduced very draconian measures to stifle trade unions and workers rights in the establishment. The management has institutionalized a practice of punitive transfers and other forms of punishment against trade union leaders and workers who dare speak up for their rights in the CAC. Many members of AUPCTRE have been affected in this wise. Also, the management of CAC has refused to remit check off dues accruing to AUPCTRE. This is aimed at killing unionism in CAC. In order to cover their tracks, the management of CAC has also tried to introduce divide and rule tactics between the unions in CAC.
The management of CAC also attempts to adorn its industrial tyranny with a robe of officialdom by taking AUPCTRE to court. Our response as Organized Labour is simple – we will picket CAC for three days as a warning to other employers who desire to tow CAC’s line of perfidy. Our message is very clear – no one can take away the rights of workers and trade unions to organize, unionize and engage in collective bargaining.
Turkish Air has also drawn the wrath of workers. For some time, we have engaged Turkish Air in quiet negotiations to recall NUATE executives in its establishment who were sacked. Sadly, the response of the management of Turkish Air has been that of contempt and iron clad insensitivity to the appeal by workers’ representative union. Right now, we have issued a 14-day ultimatum to Turkish Air to reverse its anti-workers and anti-trade union actions or face a total shut down of its operations in Nigeria. The same applies to Caverton Helicopters.
In the banking sector, we have witnessed some improvements in the way their management have treated workers especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is heartening that our intervention last year prompted the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to issue a directive to all banks to desist from sacking their workers. We understand that the situation in Access Bank is being brought under control as our trade union leaders in the banking sector continue to make progress in defending the rights of workers who were sacked. We warn against any further attempt to sacrifice any worker on the alter of COVID-19 because we, workers and employers, are all in this pandemic together.
In other to sustain the momentum of progress in this wise, we urge the CBN to direct all the management of banks in Nigeria to constitute the employers’ representative body – the Nigeria Employers Association of Banks and Allied Institutions. This is to ensure seamless collective bargaining machinery and frameworks in the banking industry.
As we prepare to embrace the opportunities of decent work, decent wages and decent living conditions, we must remember that the oppressor is never tired of oppressing. We must, therefore, never be tired of agitating. After all, the ones who are down need fear no fall.
I call on all the leaders of our movement both in our affiliate unions and in our state councils to double our efforts. The challenge of advancing the interest and concerns of the Nigerian working class is now more herculean amidst a treacherous capitalist system, an unequal class yoke, a menacing pandemic, a distracted political class, and a disenchanted citizenry. The task before us is huge but not insurmountable.
Maybe, a smarter way to surmount the challenges presented by the task of achieving class justice for workers is to engage the political system. We have the numbers to make an impressionable dent on the political system in our country. The task of organizing politically is one we all must embrace. I urge us to continue to support the efforts of the leadership of Congress, in line with the marching mandate of the 12th National Delegates Conference of the NLC, to recover and reposition the Labour Party or form a new Workers Party that would serve as the political vehicle for the mass of Nigerian workers and millions of downtrodden Nigerians who are desperately in need of true change.
Finally, Comrades, I thank you immensely for your continued commitment and fidelity to our cause and for attending this very important NEC meeting. I congratulate all the newly elected national officers from some of our affiliate unions that recently held their National Delegates Conferences. I pray that the Almighty God will grant all of us journey mercies back to our respective stations.
Forward Ever!! Backward Never!!!
Comrade Ayuba Wabba, mni