Government’s disrepute for infidelity to validly made agreements must end, writes Bolaji Adebiyi

Unless something gives, workers may proceed on another round of strikes next week. Truculent Joe Ajaero, president of the Nigerian Labour Congress, and less combative, but no less firm Festus Osifoh, president of the Trade Union Congress, indicated last Thursday that the federal government had 14 days within which to fulfil its part of the 16-point Memorandum of Understanding signed with the organised labour on 3 October, 2023. The ultimatum kicked off on Friday, 9 February 2024 and would lapse next Friday, 23 February 2024. “The government’s failure to uphold its end of the bargain is deeply regrettable and unacceptable to the working people and the citizenry,” they said in a communique, expressing profound concern over the non-implementation of the 16-point agreement.

As usual, the federal government scampered with a response on Monday, pleading for more time to implement an agreement it freely entered into more than four months ago. “I plead with you to sheath your sword,” Nkeiruka Onyejeocha, minister of state for Labour and Employment, told a meeting with labour leaders in Abuja, claiming, “We have been showing good faith; it is just that it is not commensurate with your expectations. But I promise you that we will surpass your expectations this time, and I believe that everything will go well.” However, labour in a firm response said the time for empty promises was over, and that it was time for action. The meeting broke down because the federal government came to the table without a concrete report on its bag of promises made in October last year.

When organised labour threatened to down tools by 3 October last year if the government did not take concrete steps to alleviate the pains inflicted on the workforce and the mass of the people by the twin policies of fuel subsidy removal and the single window forex market, it came under searing attacks for its propensity for strikes, which further worsened the fragile national economy. It did not matter to the critics that the government never took the plight of the people seriously until there was a recourse to force or violence. For weeks, the government had treated labour with levity until a few days to the end of the ultimatum when it became obvious that the workers meant business and were prepared to shut down the economy. At the negotiating table, labour’s substantive demands were the reversal of the subsidy withdrawal until certain previously agreed remedial measures were put in place as well as a substantial wage increase that is commensurate to the rate of inflation imposed by the twin economic policies of the President Bola Tinubu administration.

Ordinarily, the negotiation would have broken down as the federal government was not prepared to accept labour’s key demands. But buffeted by a rash of growing public hostility to its tactics, and the government’s subtle blackmail, the workers agreed to suspend the strike and signed the 16-point MOU, stating that they were doing so in absolute good faith even when they feared that the federal government, notorious for its infidelity to agreements, would not honour the terms of the memorandum. The terms were straightforward measures aimed at reducing the negative impacts of the removal of subsidy on fuel and were to be implemented within a month. The star points were that the federal government would within a month set up a committee to recommend minimum wage review; grant an N35,000 wage award across the board from September 2023, pending an agreement on the new minimum wage; suspend VAT on Diesel for six months; and commit N100 billion to the purchase of high-capacity CNG buses.

The federal government also committed to pay N25,000 per month for three months starting from October 2023 to 15 million households, including vulnerable pensioners as well as increase its initiatives on subsidized distribution of fertilizers to farmers across the country. The central government was also to urge the state governments, through the National Economic Council and Governors Forum to implement wage awards for their workers. Similar consideration should also be given to local government and private sector workers.

Finally, the federal government agreed to provide funds for Micro and Small-scale Enterprises and ensure that a joint visitation was made to the refineries to ascertain their rehabilitation status.

Now, which of these agreements has been addressed by the federal government? Organised labour submits that the memorandum has been observed more in the breach. The minister of Labour and Employment, who met with labour leaders on Monday, offered no rebuttal of the claim of infidelity. Rather, she pleaded for more time to enable the government to implement a memorandum whose gestation period was one month. In fairness to labour, it took its relentless agitations for the few measures that had been taken on the memo. It was its persistent warnings that forced the government to set up the committee on wage review. It would take another threat of sanctions for it to be inaugurated. When it was eventually inaugurated a scandal broke with the request by its secretariat for a whopping N1.8bn for its operations. The N35,000 wage award, labour claimed, was only paid twice. Upon the refreshment of the strike card, the government said on Monday that it would resume the payment.

The question is, why does the government fail to abide by agreements it freely enters into? From organised labour to academic and non-academic unions as well as specialised unions, including medical doctors, nurses, and pharmacists it is ingloriously reputed not to keep bargains. Even commercial contracts are routinely flouted. A legion of suits and judgment debts running into billions of naira testify to the government’s legendary abuse of contractual terms.

It can no longer be business as usual. The Tinubu administration should break away from this inglorious past. It’s not just a legal necessity, it’s a moral requirement that the government that is charged with the enforcement of social order must live by example. No doubt, the latest threat by organised labour is justified, and the federal government must take its task of implementing the MoU more seriously, particularly coming against the background of growing resentment of the rising cost of living and food nationwide. A few street protests have occurred, and a workers’ uprising is the least this government needs at this time.

Adebiyi, the executive editor of Western Post, is a member of the Editorial Board of THISDAY Newspapers

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