Labour’s many headaches in last one year

The administration of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu clocked one on May 29, 2024. But for Nigerian workers the year has been full of challenges as workers welfare conditions have gone from bad to worse. Since the announcement for the removal of petroleum subsidy was made by President Tinubu during his inauguration on May 29, 2023, the conditions of Nigerian workers had been pathetic. The state of the nation’s economy which suffered a huge set back by the free fall of Naira due to government policy on foreign exchange further added more injury to the workers’s plight.

The Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) have been at the forefront of advocating for workers’ rights in Nigeria. Over the past year, under President Bola Tinubu’s administration, the unions have faced a plethora of challenges but have relentlessly advocated for the welfare and interests of Nigerian workers through protests, negotiations, and public advocacy.

Despite numerous obstacles, their efforts have brought significant attention to crucial issues, cementing their role as vital players in Nigeria’s socio-economic landscape.

Struggles and industrial actions
Many Nigerians may describe the year under review as a ‘striking year’ for labour, as there has been a notable combination of protests and other forms of industrial actions to drive home their demands and displeasure at the direction which the economy has taken and its attendant implications on the quality of life of Nigerian workers and the entire public.

Recall that President Tinubu in March this year has taken a swipe at the Organised labour for its incessant strikes and threats of industrial action. This was coming after one of the strikes called by the NLC in protest against the government insensitivity to workers condition.

The President, who reflected on the pattern of acrimony, urged the NLC to pull the break, saying that it is not the only voice of the people.

He also condemned the Joe Ajaero-led NLC for regressing into partisan politics noting that political participation is a right, but asked the NLC leaders to wait till 2027 to participate in the electoral process.

However both labour centres responded to President Bola Tinubu’s criticism on the series of strike saying that its major concern was to get the government to address the pervasive hunger, unemployment, housing, insecurity and escalating cost of basic necessities in the country.

It added that it was the right of the trade unions to embark on protests and strike actions to pressure the government to meet their demands, when necessary.

Also last week, the leadership of the Organised Labour on the sidelines of the 112 International Labour Conference (ILC) in Geneva, Switzerland reacted to President Tinubu’s statement made on Democracy Day that no one was threatened or arrested when Organised Labour embarked on a nationwide strike in protest for the implementation of the new minimum wage and reversal of the increase in electricity tariff .

The NLC President, Joe Ajaero said there has never been such experience under a Democratic government, stating that the Tinubu’s administration is not doing labour any favour. He maintained that the labour would continue to exercise its rights to strike and protest in the face of oppression.

Fuel subsidy removal protests
One of the most prominent actions by the NLC and TUC was their response to the removal of the fuel subsidy announced by President Tinubu on May 29, 2023. The policy led to a steep increase in fuel prices, sparking widespread protests and strikes nationwide. The unions contended that the removal, without adequate palliative measures, intensified the hardship of Nigerian workers already burdened by high inflation and economic instability.

In August 2023, the NLC and TUC launched a nationwide strike to protest the subsidy removal. This industrial action underscored the unions’ capacity to mobilize workers and challenge government policies detrimental to the working class. Despite the government’s attempts to negotiate and provide temporary relief measures, the unions steadfastly demanded more sustainable solutions to mitigate the impact on workers.

Minimum wage negotiations
With the expiration of the previous minimum wage in April this year, Organised labour believed that the new wage supposed to commence in May, hence labour has assured its members that it would ensure that workers would get arrears.
Though labour has insisted that the minimum wage is a matter of urgency, but the negotiation is yet to reach any conclusion as there are variance figures from the committee which concluded its sitting early this month.

Most recently, the NLC and TUC organized another nationwide strike on Monday, June 3, 2024. However, the industrial action followed the path of previous ones as it was suspended the next day (Tuesday) after an appeal from the Federal Government for the tripartite committee to resume negotiations.

Given the rising cost of goods and services, exacerbated by rising inflation and the removal of the fuel subsidy, the unions initially pushed for a substantial increase to match the rising cost of living. The NLC initially demanded a minimum wage of N615,000, arguing this amount was necessary to cover workers’ basic needs amid severe economic pressures.

Throughout 2023 and into 2024, the unions engaged in prolonged negotiations with the government. After several meetings with the tripartite committee, labour reduced its demand to N494,000. However, the government consistently stated that they would be unable to pay that sum, deeming the demand unsustainable as it would impose a N9.5 trillion economic burden on the government annually.

This led to further tensions and public statements from union leaders condemning the government’s inaction. They noted firmly that the government could pay if adequate measures like cutting down the cost of governance and improved revenue generation from state and federal levels were implemented.

During the recent workers strike, President Tinubu had intervened, instructing the Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Wale Edun, to present the cost implications of the new wage. Reports on June 6, 2024, suggested Edun proposed a minimum wage of N105,000 to Tinubu. However, the Special Adviser to the President on Information and Strategy, Bayo Onanuga, refuted these claims, stating that the reported figure was false news.

Many figures have been bantered, but the workers have continued to insist that its agreement with the committee was N250,000, while the employers came up with N62,000. The Governors forum on its part has insisted that 60,000 is not feasible. President Tinubu is expected to send the committee’s report to the National Assembly for deliberations and labour has vowed to put pressure on NASS for the quick passage of the wage bill.

The TUC President, Festus Osifo told Sun Workforce that labour would not wait endlessly for the government to make pronunciation on the minimum wage as the workers are presently anxious after the expiration of the last minimum wage in April.

“As pressure group, we will not leave any stone unturned. Our responsibility is to go to NASS and put pressure until we get what we want when the government sends the recommendation to the Assembly.
“Unlike 2019, there’s urgency of moment. If it’s transmitted to NASS today, we will ensure that the bill is passed within a reasonable time frame,” he said.

Consequently, Nigerian workers remain uncertain about the specific figures of the proposed new minimum wage, until an official announcement is made, workers await clarity on their new wage.

Electricity tariff hikes
In May 2024, labour opposed the government’s decision to increase electricity tariffs, arguing that it would impose additional financial burdens on workers already struggling with high living costs. The unions embarked on another industrial action demanding a reversal, revamping of the country’s power sector, and the abolition of the classification of electricity consumers into bands. They described it as discriminatory and insisted that every Nigerian deserved equitable distribution of electricity. Their resilience showcased a commitment and vigilance in protecting workers’ economic interests.
Cybersecurity Levy Opposition

Similarly, the NLC strongly condemned the introduction of a cybersecurity levy, viewing it as another policy disproportionately affecting ordinary Nigerians. The union demanded the immediate reversal of the directive. The unions recorded success in this endeavour as the CBN suspended the implementation of the levy as announced in a revised circular dated May 17, signed by Chibuzor Efobi, Director of Payment Systems Management, and Haruna Mustafa, Director of Financial Policy and Regulation.

Failed Promises by Government
It is typical of the Nigerian government to make promises to the people without clear and concise strategies to fulfil them. The issues have always arisen in the implementation of policies among other constraints.

After the removal of the fuel subsidy, the government promised several palliative measures to ease the burden on Nigerians. A year later, many of these promises are yet to crystallize, including the provision of CNG buses to ease transportation, disbursement of student loans, and loans to small businesses among others.

Achievements
Despite the barrage of challenges in the past year, the labour unions have been able to record some level of success in their struggles, including:

Successful Advocacy for Wage Awards
The unions secured a temporary wage award of N35,000 for workers as a palliative measure following the fuel subsidy removal. Although the government initially defaulted on full payment, persistent union pressure led to the commencement of arrear payments by early 2024. This was seen as a partial victory, demonstrating the unions’ ability to hold the government accountable for its promises.

Protection of Workers’ Rights in Various Sectors
The NLC and TUC were also instrumental in addressing sector-specific issues. They supported the Non-Academic Staff Union (NASU) and the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) in demanding payment of withheld salaries.

Their intervention in these cases underscored the unions’ commitment to safeguarding workers’ rights across different industries, achieving some level of advancement despite ongoing issues.

Legal Victories
The unions also secured significant legal victories reinforcing their influence. In March 2024, the NLC commended the National Industrial Court for affirming the leadership of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), a decision that bolstered union solidarity and legal recognition.

Consistent Engagements with Government
Throughout the year, the NLC and TUC consistently engaged in dialogue with the government. Despite frequent frustrations and perceived delays, these engagements were crucial in keeping workers’ issues on the national agenda. The unions participated in multiple negotiation sessions, and although progress was slow, these efforts ensured that workers’ voices were heard in policy discussions.

Engagement with Public
The unions frequently issued public statements and press releases to articulate their positions on various issues. These communications served to inform and mobilize their members while putting pressure on the government to act. The NLC’s public criticism of the government’s handling of the minimum wage review and other economic policies exemplified their strategic use of media to advance their agenda.

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