Getting Issa Aremu, a leading figure in Nigeria’s labour movement, to talk about the relaxation culture among Nigerian workers is a bit of a sore point, reports Nseobong Okon-Ekong

An impressive scenario was witnessed last week at the Agege Stadium in Lagos at the 2018 celebration of Workers Day. It was the first time Governor Akinwunmi Ambode attended the ceremony in person since he assumed office three years ago. As usual, one of the rites-goodwill messages were being taken and they centred-on the physical well-being of workers.

As customary with large outdoor gatherings, there was confused noise everywhere, drowning the voice of the speaker. The uproarious behaviour of the crowd defeated some of the purpose for which they gathered. This particular narrator from the Lagos State Ministry of Health was enumerating some of the fine points for healthy living, in line with this year’s theme: ‘Role of Labour Movement in National Development: Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win.’
Making informed decisions on sex was obviously a strong concern of the state government as staff of the Lagos State AIDS Control Agency mounted a conspicuous platform for testing and counselling willing workers.

However, in the disorderly atmosphere, many workers were engaged in the very things they were being warned against-smoking, consuming large amounts of alcoholic beverage and open licentious behaviour with the opposite sex.

Elsewhere in Kaduna, Issa Aremu, a leading comrade in the struggle of Nigerian workers was trying to return to Abuja after participating in the workers day celebration. Currently, the sub-African Vice President of IndustriALL Global Union, based in Geneva, Switzerland with 50 million members from 116 countries from 600 affiliate unions in Europe, Africa, America, Latin America and Maghreb, Aremu is also the General Secretary, National Union of Textile & Garment Workers of Nigeria (NUTGTWN) and National Executive (NEC) member, of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, which he served as two term Vice President between 2007 and 2015.

Getting Aremu to talk about the relaxation or leisure culture among Nigerian workers is a bit of a sore point. To get around the subject he tries to lead by example. Annually, he uses the period of his birthday to encourage a cycling contest. Every day, he takes a long walk and/or cycles. Regular reading of books on interesting subjects, playing football and listening to music are other ways in which he lets off steam and rejuvenates.
His activist profile accommodates the enduring effort by the NLC to ensure that no worker is forcefully made to work more than eight hours for five days a week. If he chooses to work more than eight hours, he is entitled to overtime.

What is the outlook for rest hours for workers in Nigeria?
“The whole history of May-Day is about rest and hours of work for workers. There was once a world of work in which workers worked endlessly for 18 and 20 hours and even died at work with miserable pay. May Day has its origins in United States of America (USA) within the context of the first Industrial Revolution. The first generation workers devoted half of the 19th century to the struggle against wage exploitation and long hours of poorly paid work. The working class was in constant struggle to gain the 8-hour work day. On the May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses participated in the first May Day celebration in history following earlier protests which led to persecution of labour leaders including mass hanging in ‘a democratic America’. Leave days are legitimate including maternity leave days for women. Nigeria labour laws are very progressive with rest hours for workers,” he said. He went on to settle the matter conclusively. “But with too many public holidays, the rest is getting too much and turning into leisure amidst poverty and deprivation. There is a Yoruba proverb: ‘work does not kill, it’s lack of work that kills fast.’”

Between the different engagements that demand his attention, Aremu somehow manages to get things done in the most effective way he can. His response to a question on the last time he went on a holiday is shocking. “I am over employed such that I hardly rest. When you work for workers, it is (for) almost 24 hours. Workers think you must listen to them at anytime and anywhere too. I have however realized the need to take a leave. We unionists are like the healers who must also heal ourselves.”

When the opportunity comes, Aremu looks to Plateau state for a period of relaxation. He gave reasons for this choice. “My preferred holiday destination is Jos, precisely Kuru. After my Senior Executive Course (SEC) 27 in 2005, I fell in love with Kuru with its temperate weather and good rainfalls.”

Making a critical remark on the practice of collecting money in lieu of leave, Aremu blamed it on poverty. He was very unhappy about the trend and wished more workers would understand the harm to themselves by refusing to go on leave. “Encashment of leaves days is a sign of poverty. We must pay workers well such that they would not monitize leave days, rest well and give the best in terms of productivity. The logic is simple; rest with empty pockets, demand for food, rent and mounting school fees is restlessness.”

A 2015 report by HealthDay News quotes a study that suggests that workers who take short, frequent breaks during the workday have more stamina and fewer aches and pains when they return to work. Breaks are particularly re-energizing if workers spend the time doing something they enjoy.

Aremu offered an insight into his personal relaxation routine. Only his acts of piety and charity, he asserted, come before his routine morning physical exercise. “My best relaxation is reading. My sleeping tablet is contained in my iPad with e-books; from the holy texts to the political and economic, from bibliography to the historic. A good book is akin to sex appeal for me! A good book is my wake up call. I also love music; from the best of African rhythms to the best of global jazz. I like playing football, rather than watching. My best passion is cycling. It is my annual birthday celebration band. I love cycling. I loathe being part of a clapping society for global football stars who keep fit, making monies while their gullible fans drink away their energy in frenzy. Only prayer comes before early morning jogging and cycling for me. Early morning cycling/walkout is a must before breakfast.”

Realizing how important these rejuvenating activities mean to his overall well-being, Aremu takes them seriously as if his life depends on them. “My daily one hour solitary walk out decongests my mind and prepares me for the whole day,” he explained. The way he sees it, the benefits physical exercise rises into a spiritual value that cannot be quantified. “Listening to singing birds in a park early morning reaffirms my faith in Almighty Allah that He is the creator all living things must worship. My leisure walk out gets me closer to God spiritually in addition to the physical benefit.”

He has long sought to place these advantage in the purview of all Nigerian workers. The NLC, he said, would not mind promoting leisure activities like sports, music, concert or art exhibition (solely or in partnership). “In my union, we agreed on monthly collective jogging exercise in both Lagos and Kaduna. But most comrades have not signed on. My experience shows that you cannot be a good unionist if you are not physically fit. This job is not meant for laybacks. Comrade Adams Oshihomole is one of the most successful unionists in Africa and the world. Apart from his legendary commitment, and enhanced capacity, he is also fit. He exercises daily covering kilometers on treadmills. He is a regular star at Okpeke 10 kilometer race made possible with his good governance in Edo State which opened up the beautiful Okpeke landscape to civilization through good quality road.”

The International Labour Organisation, ILO, estimates that the annual cost to the global economy from accidents and work-related diseases alone is a staggering USD3 trillion. Moreso, a recent report suggests the world’s 3.2 billion workers are increasingly unwell, with the vast majority facing significant economic insecurity: 77 per cent work in part-time, temporary, ‘vulnerable’ or unpaid jobs. What’s more, the labour force is growing older and less healthy: 52 per cent is overweight or obese and 38 per cent suffer from excessive pressure on the job.

With a second class Economics Degree from the University of Port Harcourt and Masters Degree in Labour and Development Studies, The Hague, Netherlands, Aremu is a two term Secretary General of the Alumni Association of the National Institute (AANI). He is also a labour commissioner on the tripartite Salaries and Wages Commission.

Writing in an e-mail while journeying from Kaduna to Abuja, he affirmed that “workers are not just interested in the happenings in the world of work but in the country as a whole. We are citizens. We are as worried about deepening social and economic insecurity as well as physical insecurity. In the north-east, Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) lost hundreds of teachers and pupils to Boko Haram indiscriminate madness. So we are also victims of violence.”

Explaining how the NLC has impacted on the fortunes of Nigerian workers, Aremu said he was proud of the achievements of the organization in its 40 years of existence. “Our relevance is long dated and not a present fad. As a pan-Nigeria workers organization, NLC is as relevant as long as there are employers in both private and public sectors who want to produce at the expense of Labour. NLC’s relevance is to stop public wealth capture by the few exploiters, bridge the great divide between owners of means of production and the poor working men and women.
Without organized labour, capitalist owners would take all the billion maximum profits without minimum and living wages for the working poor. Unarguably, NLC remains the biggest labour centre in Africa with over 7 million organized and potential 40 million members. NLC is the biggest independent trade union movement in Africa followed by South Africa’s labour Federation, Council of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU).

The Congress is an activist affiliate of the Accra-based Organization of Africa Trade Union (OATUU) and Geneva based global union; International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). With negotiated four national minimum wages since 1981, NLC has commendably provided minimum pay standard for workers. South Africa’ COSATU just won the battle for minimum wage in South Africa this year. However, with neoliberal policies of Naira devaluation and deregulation it is clear that Nigerian workers on N125 (about $200 in 1981) ,in real terms were better than members on N18000 (less than $50) in 2018.

With 11 delegates’ conferences of NLC in 40 years, notwithstanding the challenges that trailed the last conference in 2015, it is self-evident that NLC exhibits better democratic traditions and experiences than the Nigerian republic itself. However, avoidable problems of disunity threaten our relevance. I will like all comrades to extend arms of solidarity, get united, ensure organizational forgiveness and make sure we sustain our relevance in confronting global capital when necessary, fight precarious jobs, defend workers’ rights and ensure industrial sustainability to create jobs for the youths who are actually future workers.”