Senate building in Abuja,
By Kunle Akogun
A bill seeking to make the declaration of industrial action by the leadership of organised labour in the country practically impossible Tuesday suffered a setback at the Senate as it created a sharp division among senators.
But Senate President David Mark’s deft move at the end of a lively debate left the bill’s fate hanging in the balance, as the “evil day” was postponed to another legislative session.
Cited as “A Bill for an Act to further amend the Trade Unions Act, Cap. T14 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004”, the proposed law seeks to make provisions for balloting as a requirement before any strike could be declared by labour unions in the country.
Various senators expressed divergent views over whether or not labour leaders in the country could call for a strike without the consent of their members.
Sponsor of the bill, Senator Heineken Lokpobiri (PDP, Bayelsa West), said there was a need for consensus among trade union members before an industrial action could be declared.
Lokpobiri explained that the proposed amendment was to bring the practice of industrial action in trade unionism in line with global best practice as obtained in Great Britain, USA, Canada, France, Belgium, South Africa and others.
He said the amendment accordingly provides that an act done by a trade union to induce a person to take part in industrial action should have the support of a ballot, adding: “The conduct of a ballot as specified by this amendment would spare the nation and the trade unions the misfortune of any arbitrary action undertaken by the leadership of any union.”
He added: “It is instructive to note that strikes as contemplated by the Trade Union Act do not accommodate strike against government except where the government is the employer. The use of the platform of trade union for political gains is not a trade dispute. With due regard to the varying and often conflicting interests in our variegated political space, the direct involvement of the members of the union in the form of a ballot have become even more than imperative.”
Supporting the Bill, Senator Ayogu Eze (PDP, Enugu North) argued that “nobody was contesting the right of employees to express their right, but that labour has more often than not operated beyond their bounds, as they often veer off”.
According to Eze, “There was a court ruling that barred labour from going on strike, yet it was ignored; if this is allowed, there will be anarchy because one of the major ingredients of democracy is observance of rule of law.”
Also contributing to the debate, Senator Ita Enang (PDP, Akwa Ibom North East), said: “Trade unions have lost their tracks; this Bill seeks to ensure that when a decision on strike is taken, there will be a concrete evidence to show that the workers actually took the decision to go on strike and not by the leaders.”
Others who argued in support of the Bill included Senator James Manager (PDP, Delta South), George Sekibo (PDP, Rivers East), Magnus Ugbesia (PDP, Edo Central) and Bassey Otu (PDP, Cross River South).
However, the Bill suffered a setback when Senators Olufemi Lanlehin (ACN, Oyo South), Smart Adeyemi (PDP, Kogi West), Joshua Dariye (LP, Plateau Central), Chris Ngige (ACN, Anambra Central), and Ahmed Makarfi (PDP, Kaduna North) rose to make their contributions.
In his contribution, Lanlehin said the Bill “denies workers their rights to go on strike”.
He said: “Each union has a constitution that contains methodology, the process of declaring a strike, either by congress or executive or union representatives; nothing is more democratic; I wish to advise that we should not because of the need to solve a particular problem, take action that disagrees with the constitution.
“The climes that are being referred to are very different from our fledgling democracy; Section 40 of the 1999 Constitution recognises the fact that people can gather together and take action; disobedience of court orders is due to failure of those who should enforce court orders; in this democracy, we should not shut the only window through which people use to vent their anger and opinion. Section 4 of the constitution also provides that union should determine how it should be run.”
On his part, Adeyemi, who is a former National President of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), noted that “there is no way labour will go on strike without majority support of members; this Bill is uncalled for; this is an exercise in futility; before the labour goes on strike, representatives of all chapters are called to take a decision; it will be wrong of us to question the way the labour conduct their affairs; with all due respect, I think this Bill should just be thrown outside.”
Also contributing, Dariye said: “If you are familiar with operations of trade union, this Bill will not have come up at all; the labour unions are the safety valves of the society; these are very civilised people, very professional. This Bill is an invitation to anarchy; if you subject this Bill to public hearing I can assure you that it will not cross the watershed.”
Makarfi submitted that “requirement of the labour is not an act of parliament; the Bill is like a vote of no confidence on the labour; the Bill is ill-timed and will be seriously misunderstood”.
To Ngige, “a lot of information in the lead debate is against this Bill; this Bill is trying to reinvent the wheel; when you juxtapose the trade union Bill against happenings in the union, you will hail them; the unions are the bastion of democracy.
“These unions have their own constitution which stipulates conditions for going on strike; this Bill is dead on arrival because the sponsor of this Bill is my friend, I wish to advise that he withdraws the Bill. This particular Bill is anti-people, anti-Nigerian people, anti-labour, anti-Senate and even anti-the National Assembly; this Bill is not for us let it go away.”
At this point, Mark, perhaps sensing that the Bill was going to stoke tension, acted swiftly by refusing to put it into vote but instead announced that it would be stepped down till another legislative day to allow more senators speak on it.