ADAMS OSHIOMHOLE (GUEST COLUMNIST)
(A Message to Nigerian Workers by Comrade Adams Oshiomhole on the Occasion of May Day 2020)
The historic events that May Day is set aside to commemorate were doubtless not happy ones.
In the same vein, the mood of the present is a gloomy one in our country and indeed in the whole world.
So why celebrate the 2020 May Day?
Since May 1, 1886, rather than lament workers have celebrated internationally by reflecting on the events in Chicago, United States of America, in which workers were killed, jailed and brutalised for their beliefs in social justice and freedom. Workers have since won the battle for eight-hour work day and the right to organise among other victories.
So, it is not the tragedy that is being celebrated. The day becomes significant because it provides an opportunity to reflect on the gains of the struggle as we look into the future with hope.
In our context, therefore, today’s celebration should be about the awareness of the great opportunity inherent in the present socio-economic challenges triggered by a public health emergency. It is an occasion for deeper reflection and honest self-criticisms by all the social partners in the economic system.
Reflection as celebration, you may say. What’s more, the usual workers’ rallies would not be possible today as comrades are expected to maintain social distancing and avoid crowds among other precautions in the interest of their own health as well as the public health.
That’s why today’s personal message to my dear comrades, the Nigerian workers, should not be read as that of a politician; but it should be taken as a humble statement from a proud product of the labour movement.
Even in politics as state governor and now chairman of a national party, my background looms large as I reflect on the solutions to the socio-economic and political problems facing Nigeria.
This full disclosure is important to me and it should be noted by the public.
One sobering lesson that should not be lost on anyone in the current crisis is that while on the global level coronavirus has bitterly reminded us of our common humanity, the virus has also underlined within our national borders why all stakeholders should work together in cooperation and utmost good faith.
From Beijing to Washington, from London to Tokyo, the word solidarity has suddenly become the word of the moment.
Conservative presidents and prime ministers and their social democratic opposite numbers are not only talking of solidarity rhetorically. Emergency stimulus packages are being put together by governments around the world to mitigate the social costs of the crisis on the most vulnerable members of the society.
The doctrinaire postulations of neo-liberal ideologues are becoming tempered even in the headquarters of global capitalism. Companies are not just focused on profits; CEOs are talking about compassion and the social environment of the production of goods and services. Policymakers are probably being convinced now that the huge investments in the healthcare delivery system do not have to be subjected to the brutal logic of the market. Solidarity is no more read only as the battle cry of agitators in the labour movement.
Workers should be proud that their proletarian language seems to be the universal tongue at present.
As the world changes, Nigerian workers should get prepared to swim (and not sink) in the coming ocean of changes. Workers should be ready for the innovations that private and public sector employers might be compelled to introduce in order to boost production. Ultimately, the system would be able to recover from the crisis only when productive activities could be brought to the optimum.
With the relaxation of the lockdowns imposed in the public interest, workers should gird their loins to be more efficient and work towards increased productivity according to the peculiarities of different work places. Private sector workers should set themselves the targets of improved products and services. Public sector workers should rethink their culture of work in accordance with the global dynamic of things; they should be more creative in ensuring that policies of governments at all tiers are efficiently and honestly implemented so that social goods are delivered in the public interest.
It’s becoming clearer to everyone that the post-COVID-19 economy would be run on the basis of efficient production so that sufficient incomes would be generated for government to tax. Labour education should, therefore, be imbued with a keen sense of productivity.
Besides, comrade labour leaders should improve their knowledge about the workings of the Nigerian political economy. They should familiarise themselves with important data and information about the socio-economic space. They need vital information to work with in proposing workable alternatives to what is officially on display.
It is no longer enough to tell the government or employer what is wrong; it is important to come up with the alternatives that could work. For instance, labour should not just denounce the social investments programme of the federal government. The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) could come up with practical suggestions to improve the implementation of the programmes in addition to their legitimate criticisms. Is there a way the structures of the unions in the local areas could be employed to police and facilitate the process?
Labour activists should also be informed policy activists. As a I observed above, this is not the time for mere doctrinaire arguments in seeking to influence economic policy. It is an emergency period requiring workable solutions. Labour should bring its ideas to the table to compete with those of other social partners.
This is the logic of the new age that is replete with great uncertainties.
My plea to the private sector employers of various scales is to act in this crisis as responsible social partners. This is a season to deepen the humane content of industrial relations. Even in the West, the origin of capitalism, thinkers are now calling on corporate bodies to embrace “stakeholder capitalism,” in which the private sector becomes more responsive to its social environment with a great sense of responsibility. Here we are talking of an idea that is more fundamental philosophically than what we know now as corporate social responsibility.
In other words, corporate bodies are not just accountable to their shareholders, but also their public on matters of environmental damage, insecurity and crippling inequality. It’s in the ultimate interest of the private sector giants especially to be socially concerned as they are not immune to the consequences of any damage done to the socio-economic space by natural disasters or policy missteps.
As coronavirus has chillingly demonstrated, at the end of the day, we are all in the same boat. It is, therefore, better to take steps that would make us all to swim together to a future of social justice, prosperity and peace.
This crisis will surely bring to the fore its burdens. Employers should be compassionate enough not to shift the burdens exclusively on the workers. Dispensing with labour should not be the first option as organisations re-strategise their way out of the crisis
As if anticipating this coming global change of monumental proportions, President Muhammadu Buhari has reset the button for multi-dimensional change in Nigeria. The federal and state governments deserve the support of workers and indeed all Nigerian people as they gear up to meet the challenges of the moment.
Consistent with the progressive philosophy of our party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), the Buhari administration had made social protection a major policy thrust before the word palliative became a buzz word during this crisis. The emphasis of the Buhari administration on social policy as a concomitant to economic recovery programme is a proof of the social democratic content of the APC philosophy as a party.
Thank God, as I observed in another occasion, President Buhari’s political personality is imbued with a sincere sense of compassion for the poor. His immense commitment to use policy instruments to lift millions of Nigeria out of poverty is real and total. The President once said that he wondered how any governor could sleep well when workers are not paid. It was in that spirit that a new minimum wage law has been passed. Unfortunately, with the looming economic crisis, inflation would surely make nonsense of the N30, 000 stipulated in that law.
While economic management is certainly a work in process, the Buhari administration has demonstrated that it is fully conscious of the vital link between social security and physical security.
In this regard, I earnestly plead with state governments to take a cue from the federal government to improve the social content of their respective development agendas. In any case, the imperative of overall national planning for an inclusive and sustainable development makes this proposition an imperative.
State governments should be sensitive to the poor condition of workers in determining trade-offs as policy options are considered in this crisis. For instance, cutting wages is most unhelpful in the circumstance. It’s like asking an anaemic patient to donate blood to save the lives of other patients in need of blood transfusion. A doctor who does that should have his licence withdrawn. So, a policy adviser who recommends wage cut is abysmally unconscious of the mood of the present which is that compassion and solidarity.
State governments should not make workers bear a disproportionate part of the burden. When you cut a workers’ poor wage, you are further limiting his power to be an economic player. How can the worker make effective demand for the goods and services produced when you shrink his income? It can only bring about a vicious cycle of poverty. Rather than cut wages or retrench, state governments should do away with avoidable overheads to reduce the cost of governance.
With the commendable provision of succour to the poor by corporate bodies, religious organisations, philanthropists, non-governmental organisations and public-spirited individuals, there is no doubt that the global spirit of solidarity resonates with Nigeria. All the generous donors during this crisis should be saluted!
The spirit should be kept alive as we face the challenges of the future. This spirit demands cooperation among governments, private employers, labour, the informal sector, intellectuals, professionals, civil society, etc. regardless of their loci in the societal spectrum.
Stakeholders should work in solidarity.
Beyond palliatives, however, labour should nudge other social partners to embrace an agenda to fundamentally combat poverty and inequality, the plagues already troubling the land before coronavirus arrived to exacerbate the condition.
The society is already paying a huge price for the inequality created by the socially unjust policies of the past decades. Just think of insecurity, crimes, threats of social convulsion, hatred, misery etc. pervading the land
Therefore, policies of governments at all levels should henceforth be based on social justice in an atmosphere of genuine freedom. That would imply greater investments in the social sector for human development especially healthcare and education. For instance, the healthcare facilities being built during this emergency should be sustained and expanded with suitable equipment and training of personnel.
This is the way to serve the common good.
Today’s May Day is an occasion to amplify one of the key principles of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) declared in Philadelphia, U,S., in 1944: Poverty anywhere is a threat to prosperity everywhere.
Workers should be prepared to play their own role in a post-COVID-19 future. To paraphrase the famous international working class song, from the disruptions and anguish caused by the coronavirus a new world of prosperity based on social justice, equity and solidarity can emerge because “the union makes us strong.”
•Adams Aliyu Oshiomhole, mni
National Chairman All Progressives Congress (APC)