| By Dan Agbese |
Email: [email protected]
OUR collective sigh of relief was loud enough to be heard in Burkina Faso. We escaped being the grass about to be trampled under the feet of the two heavy elephants — labour and the federal government last week. Labour chafed over the federal government’s sudden decision to deregulate petroleum prices. A new price regime of N145 per litre for diesel and petrol invited a quickened heart beat.
The Nigerian Labour Congress, NLC, finds it unacceptable. It wants the government to revert to the old prices. To show it meant business, the congress reached for that deadly bazooka in the arsenal of labour – workers’ strike.
The NLC is the mother umbrella of our labour unions. It ordered us to stock pile food for a long winter of its battle with the federal government. In its eagerness to bare its fangs, the congress failed to realise that nothing is as it was even three months ago when we went through the stress and the trauma of spending days and nights at petrol stations to buy fuel for our vehicles and our generators in our homes and offices. We are tired; we are depressed; we are distressed.
Fact is, there is no money to buy and stockpile food. That should not have come to the NLC president, Ayuba Wabba, as a surprise. How did the congress expect the civil servants in the 27 states of the federation who have not been paid for months to find the money to stock pile food – and then sit at home and watch the battle royal? It failed to see that the ever smart market women have placed such high price tags on basic food items that we are all trying to get by with just enough to cook one meal a day. Those who once ate fresh fish now make do with crayfish. Just enough of it to give some flavour to the okra or egusi soup. They blame on daily defeat of the Naira by the dollar. If you thought the dollar had nothing to do with the price of ugu leaves, think again.
It would be unfair not to acknowledge the positive role of the NLC has played in defending and protecting the rights and interests of Nigerian workers all these years. It has been part and parcel of our lives since 1978 when it assumed the heavy responsibility as the mother of labour unions in our country. In that capacity it has been a wonderful mother, ever ready to take on all and every government whose policies it judged inimical to the interests and the well-being of the workers, as in Nigerians.
The congress has had a long list of illustrious and combative labour leaders since Alhaji Hassan Sunmonu, its first president. It has not always got it right in its many battles with the government and other employers of labour but it has always meant well. Each time the government increased petroleum prices, the congress forced it to make it bearable for the workers with something to cushion the effect.
Its decision to call the workers out on strike last week to force the federal government to rescind its decision on deregulation, was in line with its combative modus operandi. In the past, each time the congress called us out on strike, we gladly and positively responded to the order. It received the overwhelming support of the workers, the civil society groups and the media. But its decision to call us out on an indefinite strike beginning Wednesday last week, did not have many takers, even among the labour unions. TUC, NUPEN and PENGASSAN, gave it the thumbs down. In spite of that, Wabba insisted the strike must go on. He was largely ignored. He succeeded quite remarkably in embarrassing himself.
He ought to know that the times have changed. The strike as the workers’ only weapon in its arsenal has become anachronistic. Workers do not generally resort to it any more. They prefer the new fangled thing called alternative conflict resolution in which a round table discussion between employers and employees produces an agreement satisfactory to both sides, avoids disruptive behaviour and makes the maintenance of peace the cardinal principle of labour-employer relations.
The NLC decision was poorly timed. We are still reeling from the trauma of the fuel crisis and the disruption in electricity supply that saw power generation last week hit the bottom at 1,400 megawatts. Would the strike action have remedied these lingering problems we have been battling with since Noah abandoned the ark for dry land? No, it would have compounded our woes and our unending misery.
Why is the NLC obsessed with petroleum product prices any way? It has called out workers on strike every time the federal government increased petroleum prices. The sentiment about an oil producing country necessarily paying less for its petroleum products has had its day. It is no longer a wise argument in the global conventional wisdom of hard headed economic management. Sure, cheap petroleum products would be great but the good old days when petrol sold for the princely sum of N1.50 per litre are gone for ever.
Secondly, the NLC has always and unwisely at that, seen itself as a parallel government. It insists that it must be consulted and its consent obtained in all major decisions by the federal government. It is a fundamental mistake. It is not the business of labour to impose its will on the country. Its business is to protect workers from unnecessary exploitation by their employers. We have no room in our laws for a parallel government. Labour cannot be the approving authority.
The congress in recent times has not shown enough appreciation of the crisis in our economic situation. Some of its decisions have been patently wrong-headed. One of them is the issue of minimum wage. It wants N56,000. It has not told us how it arrived at this impressive figure. What did the congress base its calculation on? Workers’ productivity or a new stupendous earning from the export of crude oil?
Surely, Wabba and his men cannot be ignorant of the fact that this country is getting poorer, done in by a) the vagaries in the crude oil market and b) the criminal disruption of oil activities in the Niger Delta by the so-called militants.
The Nigerian worker is about the least productive in the world. Go to any government offices and see the army of idle young men and women. They are under-employed, and, therefore, a drag on productivity. It is not entirely their fault. Politicians use over-establishment in federal and state governments to reward relations and political supporters. No one sees anything wrong with employing ten to fifteen people to do the work of one man. So, government must pay a minimum wage of N56,000 to such people? I am sure congress is aware that some states are still unable to pay the N18,000 minimum wage it forced federal and state governments to accept more than then years ago. Why compound our situation with dream figures that are strange to the realities on ground?
I believe it is time for labour to re-invent itself, redefine its modus operandi and reposition itself to serve the needs of employers and employees better in the 21st century. It must embrace the positive and distance itself from the negative. Strike actions are cheap and usually produce no more than Pyrrhic victories at best.
The NLC can begin to play a more positive role if:
- It initiates discussions with federal and state governments on how best to raise the productivity of workers, particularly in the public sector;
- It takes it upon itself to help eliminate ghost workers in our public services;
- Takes a clear stand on the anti-graft war;
- Constantly demands accountability and transparency in government.
- It discusses with federal and state governments how to reduce or eliminate over-establishment in the ministries. The ministries are being crushed by the weight of idle hands on their pay roll.
— May 23, 2016 @ 14:00 GMT