Minister of Labour, Emeka Wogu
As Nigerian workers set out to celebrate another ‘Workers Day’, Linda Erokeanalyses the struggle by trade unions in the last year, as well as how the rising spate of insecurity and government policies are threatening the existence of the labour movement
Today is May Day! A day celebrated as a public holiday for workers throughout most countries, with the exception of the United States and Canada, because of the holiday's association with communism.
Traditionally, it is a day that workers all over the world celebrate the achievements of trade unions and labour movements in its struggle to defend the rights and interests of the working class.
It is also a day where workers express their views on the various policies of government and employers and how it has affected their lives and general well being. Since the late 19th century, workers all over the world have engaged in what can be described as a “direct war” as they always had to fight to win better wages and conditions of work. They use the occasion of May Day to celebrate their struggle against exploitation and all forms of unfair practices by employers.
Unlike previous Workers’ Day celebrations where workers only lament poor working conditions and review employee/employer relations, insecurity and corruption are the major issues that will come under the spotlight today as labour movements across the country celebrate their Day.
Leaders of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) will use the occasion of this year’s May Day celebration to campaign against corruption within government and the corporate sector as well as the growing level of insecurity in the nation’s economy.
There is a growing concern not only from the labour movement but from the entire citizens on the security situations in the country; particularly at this critical period of economic transformation. The insurgence of terrorism and kidnappings has led to wanton destruction of lives and properties across the country.
Thus, the theme of this year’s May Day ‘Right to Work, Food and Education: Panacea to Insecurity’ aptly captured the recent happenings in the nation’s economy.
The continuous and seemingly unchecked bombings constitute grave danger to the unity and development of the country. The numerous attacks by the Boko Haram on public and private institutions with the media as new target had resulted in wanton loss of lives and properties.
“Since the beginning of the year not less than 400 lives have been lost from the sect’s attack. The failure by government to address the challenges of insecurity in the country has continued to threaten meaningful development and hinder foreign investment- a situation that is adversely affecting wellbeing of the Nigerian workers.
President General of TUC, Comrade Peter Esele, who expressed labour’s concern on the state of the nation, urged the Federal Government to view the present security situation as a great opportunity to redress the various foundational challenges confronting the ordinary citizen rather than as an opportunity to arm the security agencies the more.
Esele also called on politicians to rein in their appetite for power and stop the war against Nigeria and its people.
Stressing that government must make conscious effort to open up the political space and allow broader participation of all in the governance of the nation, Esele called for tolerance and for opposing views and dissent.
According to him, power can only be good when it is deployed for the benefit of the populace, and as such government should be brought closer to the people in an open and transparent way.
“The major weapon that is needed to confront Boko Haram is openness in government, it is making work more available for the people and especially the youth, it is making access to food and housing more readily available and, it is increasing access of all to quality education and the deliberate creation of greater safety – nets to the most vulnerable groups within the nation.
“Government is about people, it should therefore be brought closer to the people and the present rush to abdicate responsibilities in the guise of PPP and outright privatisation should be reconsidered and mediated so that the people can win; and as long as the people are winning, the government is winning and the country wins,” Esele explained.
In the same vein, President of the NLC, Comrade Abdulwaheed Omar, called on the nation's security apparatus to live up to their responsibilities and save Nigeria from the dangerous trend the country was gradually degenerating to.
“It is really lamentable that the issue of insecurity continues to linger in this country. As we are seated here, somebody called me to tell me that there was a bomb blast in Abuja and shortly thereafter, another call said there was also bomb blast in Kaduna. Where are we going?
“Well, we are making statement especially during the May Day that we as a nation we have to rise up to the challenge. Much as nobody will condone such acts, but we must also put the government on alert to rise to its expectation.
“What do we expect of a nation with over 25 per cent unemployment with majority of the youths on the streets without any meaningful employment? Nevertheless, unemployment is not an excuse for bombing, killing and maiming fellow Nigerians.
“We condemn it and we expect the government and its security agencies to protect lives of Nigerians. This is one fundamental reason of the existence of government. The government must ensure that the perpetrators of this heinous act are brought to book without delay,” Omar said.
Also President of the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), Igwe Achese, expressed concern over the spate of insecurity in the country. He said the continuous and seemingly unchecked bombings constitute grave danger for Nigeria and Nigerians.
Achese also lamented the continued cases of kidnapping in the Niger Delta region particularly in Warri, Delta state, noting that kidnapping had continued on a daily basis despite the official complaints to the state government and security agencies.
"The issue of insecurity in our country is posing a great concern to us and there is no way as citizens of this country we will fold our hands and see where our sons and daughters are being killed like animals. It is very unfortunate and we share the pains of our comrades in the media profession especially those who lost their colleagues in THISDAY Newspapers and all other bombings.
“Government needs to wake to face these challenges. There is no security in this country. Government has centred the security of the nation on the military headquarters, government parastatals and institutions and forgotten that the citizens of this country should also be protected as well.
“For us in NUPENG, we are watching with keen interest. In order not to call our members out on the street to say enough is enough, that we cannot continue to fold our hands and see citizens of this country being killed unnecessarily like animals, we appeal to government to wake up from their slumber and make sure this country is properly secured,” he said.
Labour leaders are also using the opportunity of May Day celebration to campaign against corruption and reiterate the need for government to confront the scourge headlong as the fight against corruption seems to be shrinking each passing day.
They are demanding, among other things, better governance that is devoid of corruption and other forms of sharp practices that is tantamount to stealing from the poor in the society.
Though they acknowledged efforts made in the past to probe corrupt individuals and institutions, they however expressed concern that the numerous probes instituted by the National Assembly and other agencies of governments have been shoved aside when those indicted ought to have been prosecuted.
In his view, the TUC President expressed concern that the major institutions that are saddled with the responsibility to fight corruption have themselves become corrupt; going by recent revelations.
According to him, resources that would have been allocated to national development are recycled into private pockets; thus denying the citizenry the much needed opportunity for better living.
He called for a total overhaul of both the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Independent Corrupt Practice and other related offences Commission (ICPC) to make them play the role they ought to play in nation building.
He also canvassed that the recent National Assembly probe reports into the various sectors particularly the oil and gas industry be made public and all those indicted prosecuted immediately.
“The battle against corruption in Nigeria has indeed become lopsided as corruption seems to be having a field day bashing Nigerians on the head all over the place. We are tired of recounting our placement in the global Transparency Index.
“Even the institutions that were set up to hunt for corrupt persons are not spared of this cancer. The truth is that corruption has remained the singular factor that is responsible for the nation’s backwardness.
“It is what has led to all the troubles in the Oil and Gas Sector – the insistence on importing Petroleum Products rather refining locally; the challenges in the power sector, the sleaze in the Banks and other financial institutions including the SEC and NSE, the rot in the Judiciary, the refusal of some Committees of the National Assembly to carry out their statutory oversight functions.
“There is also the continuous poisoning of the economy through the deliberate mismanagement of the Naira by the CBN, the decayed infrastructure etc. Corruption distorts efficiency and makes it impossible for resources to be allocated without waste. It undermines merit enthroning mediocrity, cronyism and nepotism. It breeds backwardness and underdevelopment.
“This is why we call that the same punishment that we have reserved for murderers, armed robbers and terrorists be reserved for corrupt public officials as their perfidy is more atrocious than these others,” Esele said.
Many thought that the battle between government and labour over the implementation of the N18,000 minimum wage had ended. However, the reverse seems be the case, as labour leaders have threatened to confront some state governments that are yet to implement the minimum wage law.
They are also using the May Day celebration to demand for an upward review of the minimum wage, which they say was not tenable.
Speaking on labour’s demand for a review of the minimum wage, Esele argued that the agitation for an upward review of the minimum wage was necessitated by the need to cushion the effect of the fuel price hike on the common masses and the increasing cost of basic commodities.
He lamented that despite several battles over the minimum wage issue government has continues to renege on agreements; thereby frustrating every good intention of Nigerian workers to get the pittance paid as minimum wage.
“This is despite the huge inflation that has made a mess of the real wages since after the passage of the Minimum wage act and the increasing deprivation which we have had to go through in recent times as a result of various anti-people and workers policies of the government.
“This is why we want to serve a notice to all State Governments that have refused to comply fully with the minimum wage act to immediately take steps to comply totally with the provisions of the Law so as to purge themselves of this evil and avoid confrontation with Nigerian workers,” he added.
Speaking also on the minimum wage issue, the NLC president said the failure by government to implement the minimum wage law has worsened the plight of Nigerian workers, who have not fared well in the last year.
He alleged that most state governments were yet to implement the new national minimum wage signed into law by the president since March 2011.
Specifically, he said some states in the South East were yet to pay the new wage despite several agitation by workers and lamented that the increase in pump price of fuel had eaten deep into the N18,000 minimum wage; thereby making workers worse off.
"There are some states where the minimum wage has not been implemented, states like Enugu, Anambra and some other states in the South East. This is a gross violation of the Constitution of the country. This is also a very serious area we are going to confront," he said.
Given the numerous challenges confronting the Nigerian labour movement, the need for trade unions to unite towards making the labour movement stronger and more equipped to engage its social partners for the benefit of the working class have become imperative.
There is no better period than now for unions to strategise on how to involve in the nation’s political landscape where decisions that affect the populace are taken and where their voices can be heard.
However, just as the theme of this year’s May Day celebration focuses on poverty and unemployment, Nigerian workers are calling on the FG to pay more attention to the issues of employment and jobs creation, which are central to the existence of humanity.
In Esele’s words: “The word of work is the key to economic development, to national security and it is what grants access to food, education and quality life to the citizenry; eliminating poverty, hunger and diseases in its worst forms. Right therefore to work is akin to right to life and every citizen has this as a fundamental right.
“The federal government must take the creation of new workplaces seriously through various targeted empowerment schemes that would make real impact on the nation and not the jamborees that are celebrated in the media. This should be a serious business so that angst and bitterness is taken away from the land,” he added.