Price Hike: Will Labour Still Go ahead with the Strike?

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By Onyebuchi Ezigbo

While the organised labour has proposed tomorrow, Monday, September 28, as the date for protest against the increase in the fuel price and electricity tariff, Onyebuchi Ezigbo wonders if the strike will hold as planned, especially with level of discussion between the federal government and labour.

The die is cast as the leadership of the organised labour mobilises their members and civil society allies for a national protest against recent rise in fuel price and electricity tariff. For now, nothing is certain about the protest because, labour agreed during the second dialogue session with the federal government team last Thursday to go back and consult with its organs and respond to government offers on palliatives to help cushion the impact of the price increase on workers and Nigerians. Although, organised labour had insisted during the meeting that they want the federal government to reverse its decisions on the price increase before bringing palliatives on the table for consideration, their final stance is expected to be made known before midnight Sunday in order to determine whether the nationwide protest will still go or not.

The two labour centres, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC), had threatened to embark on a nationwide mass protest with civil society allies beginning from Monday, September 28, to compel the federal government to reverse increases in price of fuel and electricity tariff. Organised labour’s resolve to hold the protest came from resolutions reached at the National Executive Committee meeting of the two labour centres.

TUC first gave a 7-day ultimatum in a letter addressed to President Muhammadu Buhari and dated September 14, 2020. It threatened to commence an indefinite industrial action and national protest from Wednesday, September 23, 2020, if the federal government failed to reverse the increase in electricity tariff and petrol price. In the letter, entitled ‘We cannot bear the burden any longer, issuance of seven days ultimatum,’ which was jointly signed by its President, Mr. Quadri Olaleye, and Secretary-General, Mr. Musa Lawal, TUC said: We have observed the gradual and steady annihilation of Nigeria and Nigerians in the light of government actions for the umpteenth time”.

TUC had complained that the decision to approve increases in fuel price and electricity tariff was done without consultation with critical stakeholders and without due regard to the debilitating impact of COVID-19 on people’s income. TUC demanded that government should take immediate steps to: reverse the hike in prices as it affects electricity, petrol and all other social services in the country to status quo ante (prior to increase) within seven days.

“Provide adequate and quality healthcare and education for all to save the poor and the vulnerable at all levels. These demands are made in good faith, and to save the dying masses and the vulnerable in our society. In the event of not showing empathy for this class of people by adhering to above demands, we shall, together with our civil societies and allies sympathetic to the suffering masses of our people, commence an indefinite industrial action and national protest from Wednesday, September 23,” tough talking president of TUC, Comrade Quadri Olaleye repeated the position of the union at the first dialogue session convened by federal government to convince labour leaders of the need to support the deregulation policy.

He said workers and the suffering poor masses should not be made to bear the brunt of poor management of the economy by the administration. “There is no need for the pains we bear. It is a needless one. They ask us to tighten our belts while they loosen theirs. Services are not rendered, yet we are compelled to pay estimated bills. You will recall that this government during its electioneering campaigns in 2014, told the world there is nothing like subsidy. We were told that they will build refineries, but all that are history now. We run a mono-economy and any hike in fuel automatically will have adverse effect on us, yet successive governments toe that part.”

TUC tactically reviewed its ultimatum and shifted it forward to align with that of the NLC which fixed its own protest for Monday, September 28 in order to have maximum effect. TUC, in a statement by its President and Secretary, Quadri Olaleye and Musa-Lawal Ozigi, respectively, said that after an exhaustive meeting held to review its mobilisation strategies on the forthcoming strike to protest fuel hike and electricity tariff increase, it resolved that the Congress is going to work in collaboration with its sister Labour Centre, the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Civil Society allies to execute the strike. “Consequent upon this, the ultimatum, which should expire by midnight of today September 22, 2020, has been shifted to September 28, 2020 for effective and maximum effect. We want to use this opportunity to call on Nigerians, especially those in the informal sector to bear with us while the industrial action lasts.”

On its part, NLC after consulting with its organs summoned a meeting of its National Executive Committee (NEC) to ratify an earlier notice of strike and nationwide protest proposed by the Central Working Committee. Speaking to journalists after the NEC’s meeting, President of NLC, Ayuba Wabba, urged the federal government to listen to the cries of workers and other suffering Nigerians and rescind the increases in the interest of industrial peace and social order. He said failure to meet the demands would make the planned strike and mass protest inevitable.

In stating the resolutions reached at the meeting, Wabba said: “The NEC of the NLC comprising members of the National Administrative Council, President and General Secretary of members of the affiliate unions and our state council chairpersons and secretaries of the 36 states and FCT met today (yesterday) and resolved as follows:

“NEC resolved to reject in its entirety the issue of hike in electricity tariff by almost 100 percent as well as the fuel price increase in the name of full deregulation.

‘’This decision is premised on the fact that this twin decision, alongside other decisions of government, including the increase of VAT by 7.5 per cent, numerous charges being charged by commercial banks on depositors’ funds without any explanations, will further impoverish Nigerian workers, citizens and their families.

“Therefore, this increase, coming in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, is not only ill-timed but also counterproductive. NEC also observed that the privatisation of the electricity sub-sector seven years down the line has not yielded any positive result.

“Whereas in the entire privatisation process, the entire sector was sold at about N400 billion, we are also surprised that government within the last four years injected N1.5 trillion over and above the amount that accrued from this important asset.

“Therefore, NEC came to the conclusion that the entire privatization process has failed and the electricity hike is actually a process of continuous exploitation of Nigerians.

“On the issue of the refineries and also the increase in the pump price of PMS, this particular issue had been on the table for more than three decades and the argument has not changed.

“Whether it is the name of full deregulation or subsidy removal, what is obvious is that it is fuel price hike and this has further eroded the gains of the N30,000 minimum wage because it has spiral effects, which include the high costs of food and services and the reduction in the purchasing power of ordinary Nigerians.

‘’In the light of all of these, NEC thought that the issue of deregulation would be a continuous exploitation if it is import-driven.

“While demanding that our three refineries should be made to work optimally and then, it would benefit Nigerians, NEC also concluded that government has business in doing business because the primary purpose of governance is about the security and welfare of the people and if in other countries, governments are maintaining refineries, and they are working optimally for the benefit of the people, Nigeria cannot be an exception.

“In the light of these, NEC decided to endorse the two-week ultimatum given to the federal government to reverse those obnoxious decisions and also pronounce that the action proposed by the Central Working Committee is hereby endorsed by NEC that 28th of September should be the date that those decisions should be challenged by Nigerian workers, our civil society allies and other labour centres.”

The federal government has also not relented in its bid to avert the looming conflagration that will no doubt affect national economy adversely. It convened another meeting with organised labour, the second in two weeks. The meeting held at the Presidential Villa had an expanded team representing the federal government. Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, and Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, joined Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, Minister of State, for Labour and Employment, Festus Keyamo (SAN) and others to sit at the negotiating table with labour representatives.

After several hours of talks that lasted from 3.30 pm to 10.30 pm, the meeting was again adjourned till Monday without any concrete agreement on issues at stake.

Ngige who briefed journalists on the outcome of the meeting at about 11 pm said the meeting was fruitful as it afforded the government opportunity to present some of the palliatives federal government intends to implement to cushion the effects of the increases in cost of fuel and electricity.

Ngige said: “Fruitful meeting. They are going back to their organs. When they consult their organs tomorrow, next tomorrow maybe they will take a new decision.

We have requested them to shelve the strike. We have appealed to them to shelve the strike.

“The government side agreed to proposals with them on the palliative to cushion the effect of the rise in petroleum products and electricity.”

Ngige said the meeting agreed to adjourn till Monday, by 3pm.

On his part, NLC president, Ayuba Wabba said the meeting has been adjourned till Monday so that labour can “consult”. THISDAY gathered from sources that the government side had offered palliatives, including mass and affordable housing, purchase of transport buses to help reduce the impact of rise in fuel price. Federal government also proposed that the Central Bank (CBN) and Ministry of Agriculture will help famers with loans and that federal government give N2.5 billion as fresh palliatives to level 1-4 in civil service They also agreed that government will not tax minimum wage.