A Nation in the Grip of Strikes

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Abdulwaheed Omar, president, NLC

Nigeria and Nigerians suffer huge financial and other costs every year as workers in various socio-economic sectors abuse their right to strike as the first option

By Vincent Nzemeke  |  Nov. 25, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

WHEN the Nigerian Constitution was penned in 1999, the drafters enshrined in it the inalienable right of the citizens to form or belong to trade union for the protection of their interests.  They could not have imagined that a time would come when the nation would be weighed down by incessant strikes embarked upon by unions in all sectors of the economy. Since the advent of civilian rule in 1999, strikes have taken place almost in all the sectors in the country including the education, aviation, health, oil and gas and other economic sectors in general. These strikes have cost the nation billions of naira.

Iyayi
Iyayi

In January 2012, the more than one week strike by Nigerian workers as a result of fuel subsidy removal cost the nation about N500 billion, according to statistics given by Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, finance minister and co-ordinating minister of the economy. Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, governor of the Central Bank Nigeria, CBN, said the nation lost N100 million per day of the strike. In 2013, many sectors are embroiled in one form of protests or the other with their attendant negative impacts on the economy. Although economists have not quantified the exact cost of the strikes, there is no doubt that they have caused severe human and material losses to the sectors involved in particular and to the nation in general.

For instance, one of the high profile losses of the ongoing strike by public university teachers, is the death of Festus Iyaji, a university don and former president of Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, on November 12. He lost his life while on his way to Kano to participate in the national executive committee, NEC, meeting of the union which was to deliberate on whether or not to continue the strike.

Apart from the ASSU strike which has been on for four months, so many trade unions have gone on strike this year for a variety of reasons basically to better working conditions and welfare of their members. The list of unions include the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics, ASUP, which recently called off a three- month strike, workers’ union in the National Airspace Management Agency, NAMA, the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG, the National Union of Electricity Employees, NUEE, as well as the workers’ union in the Corporate Affairs Commission, CAC. Indeed, the list is really long.

Although the unions are different, their agitations are basically similar. The strikes are caused by unfair treatment of workers, non-implementation of agreements earlier reached, victimisation, violation of legislation or rule, poor application of provisions of collective bargaining, non-observance of conditions of work and situation not governed by rules. In the case of ASUU, since 1999 when the country returned to civilian rule, it has gone on strike for a total of “30 months out of 156 months, or 20 per cent of the total time in the past 13 years,” according to The Scoop, an online database company, “This is an equivalent of six semesters or three academic sessions”, it said.

The implication of this is that thousands of students who could have graduated within this period are still in school. It is not only students who bear the brunt of any industrial action by ASUU, parents and business owners and other stakeholders in in the university communities are also made to suffer.

Achese
Achese

For instance, Sulaimon Mohammed, a campus shuttle driver, at the University of Abuja, Gwagwalada, has been temporarily unemployed since the recent strike began because students are at home ever since. This means that there are no passengers for him to convey. Mohammed’s case is pathetic because he cannot use the bus which was registered strictly for use in the campus anywhere else. “It has been very tough for me and my family. I cannot work because students are not around. There are just a few people on campus and what I take home in a week is not even up to half of what I used to make in one day when there was no strike,” he said. For shop owners around various campuses across the nation, it is the same tale of woes. They are practically struggling to survive since the ASUU strike began.

In May 2013, the staff of the National Airspace Management Agency, NAMA, withdrew their services at the airports to protest the failure of negotiations between their union and the NAMA management over the implementation of the new salary scale approved by the national salaries, incomes and wages commission for them. The industrial action interrupted services at the airports for almost two weeks before it was suspended.

In the health sector, resident doctors in various government hospitals embarked on a strike to press for the implementation of the integrated payroll and personnel information system, IPPIS. Matters relating to emolument of doctors in public service have been consistently contentious in the past few years with doctors being on long drawn strikes to press home their demands.

Similarly, the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG, had in recent times, threatened to stop distribution of petroleum products across the country over some contentious issues with the government. NUPENG sent shivers down the spine of everyone on the third month of the ASUU strike when it threatened to shut down distribution in solidarity with the ASUU.

Igwe Achese, NUPENG’s president, said the body was not happy with the crisis facing the public university system in the country. He blamed the crisis on government’s failure to honour agreements, lamenting that this had led to the proliferation of strikes in nearly all sectors of the economy since the beginning of the year.

It was not only NUPENG that threatened a solidarity strike in support of ASUU. The Nigerian Labour Congress, NLC, also threatened to call out workers across the country to protest if the government did not meet ASUU’s demand. It will be recalled that the NLC began the year 2012 with an industrial action to protest the federal government’s withdrawal of subsidy on petroleum products. The strike which lasted for about one week crippled the Nigerian economy and unleashed unprecedented hardship on the citizens.

Faith Onia
Onia

This notwithstanding, workers at the Corporate Affairs Commission also embarked on a strike to protest the non-payment of an agreed 35 percent pay raise by the commission. The strike which was eventually called off after one week affected business owners seeking registration for their business names at the commission.

All over the country, several unions, perhaps not as popular as the above listed ones, are either on strike or planning to start. It now appears that for many of these unions, downing tools is the only legitimate way of getting what they want. Just like the NLC, ASUU, ASUP and NUPENG, various unions in Nigeria now rely on strikes to settle disputes and press home their demands. To the executives of such organisations, withdrawing their services is the only language the government or their employers can understand.

The unions derive their strength to embark on strikes from two sources. First, Nigeria is a member of the International Labour Organisation, ILO, which recognises strike as a fundamental right. The abolition of forced Labour Convention No. 105 of 1957 prohibits the use of forced or compulsory labour as a punishment for having participated in strike. Secondly, there are major relevant Nigerian legislations covering the right to strike. They include the Trade Unions Act and the Trade Unions (Amendment) Act 2005; the Trade Disputes (Essential Services) Act, CAP 433, the Trade Disputes Act No. 7 of 1976, Cap. 432, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, LFN, 1990; the Teaching, ETC (Essential Services) Decree (now Act) No 30 of 4th May 1993, which amended CAP 433 and the Teaching, ETC (Essential Services) (Amendment) Decree (now Act) No 44 of 1993, LFN, 1990.

Section 30 sub-section (6) of the Trade Unions Act, as amended, outlaws strikes and lock-outs unless they occur in the following four major situations – strikes in non-essential services sectors, strikes over dispute of right, strikes occurring after having exhausted the provisions of the Trade Disputes Act, and provided that a simple majority of all registered members voted to go on strike. The Act defines ‘disputes of right’ to mean any labour dispute arising from the negotiation, application, interpretation or implementation of a contract of employment or collective agreement or any other enactment or law governing matters relating to terms and conditions of employment among others.

In an article entitled The Right to Strike in Nigeria and the ILO Principles on the Right to Strike, Femi Aborisade of the Department of Business Administration and Management Studies, The Polytechnic, Ibadan, said that it was also important to note that the categorisation of enterprises as ‘essential service’ almost embraces virtually all sectors of the economy”.

Paul Andoka
Andoka

They include: the public service of the federation or of a state which shall, for the purposes of this Decree, include service, in a civil capacity, of persons employed in the armed forces of the Federation or any part thereof, and also, of persons employed in an industry or undertaking (corporate or incorporate) which deals or is connected with the manufacture or production of materials for use in the armed forces of the federation or any part thereof; Any service established or maintained by the government of the federation or of a state, by a local government council, a town council or any municipal or statutory authority, or by private enterprise – (i) for, or in connection with, the supply of electricity, power or water, or of fuel of any kind; (ii) for, or in connection with, sound broadcasting or postal, telegraphic, cable, wireless or telephonic communications; (iii) for maintaining ports, harbours, docks or aerodromes, or for, or in connection with, transportation of persons, goods or livestock by road, rail, sea, river or air; (iv) for, or in connection with the burial of the dead, hospitals, the treatment of the sick, the prevention of disease, or any of the following public health matters, namely, sanitation, road-cleaning and the disposal of night-soil and rubbish. Others are (v) for dealing with outbreak of fire; (vi) for, or in connection with, teaching or provision of educational services at primary, secondary or tertiary institutions; Service in any capacity in any of the following organisations – the Central Bank of Nigeria, the Nigeria Security Printing & Minting Company Limited; anybody corporate licensed to carry on banking business under the Banking Decree now Act. The provision concerning item (vi) above was included by the Teaching, ETC (Essential Services) Decree (now Act) No 30 of 4th May 1993, which amended CAP 433, LFN, 1990.

The said Teaching (Essential Services) Act decreed teaching service to be an essential service where no staff, teaching or non-teaching, can embark on any form of strike [S.2(1)] and where a strike occurs and goes on for more than one week, the striking staff shall be deemed to have resigned their appointment. [S.2 (2) of the Teaching, ETC (Essential Services) Act] The Teaching, ETC (Essential Services) Decree (now Act) No 30 of 4th May 1993 was further amended by the Teaching, ETC (Essential Services) (Amendment) Decree (now Act) No 44 of 1993 by inserting new subsections (3), (4) and (5) in Section 2, with the following implications.

A member of staff in the teaching service who embarks on strike for over one week shall be liable to vacate official accommodation that may have been provided, if any [2(3)]. Without prejudice to the provisions of the Trade Disputes (Essential Services) Act, CAP 433, any official or member of an institution who embarks on strike is guilty of an offence and upon conviction is liable to a maximum of two years imprisonment [Section 2(4)]. An offence committed under [2(4)] is triable in the Federal High Court. The Teaching, ETC (Essential Services) (Amendment) Act No 44 of 1993 also substituted a new Section 3 for the Teaching, ETC (Essential Services) Act No 30 of 4th May 1993 to the effect that notwithstanding anything to the contrary in the Constitution, as amended, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act, or any other enactment, no proceeding shall lie or be instituted in any court for or on account of any act, matter or thing done or purported to be done in respect of the Act[Section 3(1)]….”  “The Act criminalises strike action by prescribing that any person, trade union or employer who contravenes any of the provisions of the Act, which prohibits strike action commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of N10,000 or six months’ imprisonment or to both the fine and imprisonment. Section 7 of the Trade Unions Act prescribes that the provisions for arbitration in the Trade Disputes Act Cap. 432, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1990, shall apply in all disputes affecting the provision of essential services and the determination of the National Industrial Court in all such disputes shall be final. The Trade Disputes (Essential Services) Act, CAP 433 LFN, 1990 makes the following provision: Section 1 of the Trade Disputes (Essential Services) Act, CAP 433 LFN, 1990 empowers the President to proscribe trade unions or associations in essential services that may embark on strike.

Sunny Ahwaefeda
Ahwaefeda

Despite this proviso, when NAMA went on strike in May this year, there were interruptions of flight schedules at various airports in the country. Services were skeletal as top NAMA officials had to handle flight operations themselves. Foreign airlines that were not comfortable with the arrangement diverted their flights to neighbouring countries and paid whatever would have been paid as tax to Nigeria to these other countries.

It is the same thing in the health sector.  Every time doctors stay off work in protest of one demand or the other, it is the poor patients at the hospitals who bear the brunt as there are no doctors to attend to them. Faith Onia, a nurse at Nyanya General Hospital in Abuja, told Realnews that death tolls in the hospitals are higher during doctors’ strikes. “We are all important in this job but doctors are the most important. They are the ones who examine the patients and prescribe a drug, which is why everybody takes them seriously. Every time doctors go on strike, there are lots of patients who can’t get treatments and so death tolls are higher at this time,” Onia said.

Aside from the catalogue of losses that come with incessant strikes by various unions, Nigeria is also at the risk of not achieving its vision 2020 agenda if the rate at which workers in the country down tools is not reduced. The vision 2020 is the mantra that represents Nigeria’s ambition to be in the league of the 20 most industrialised economies by the year 2020. But from all indications, that dream may just be another wishful thinking if the current trend of strikes by various unions is not checkmated.

Paul Adonka, an Abuja-based economist, said there is no way Nigeria can achieve vision 2020 when workers in “strategic institutions” in the country continue to stay off work over unsettled issues with the government and their employers. “Vision 2020 is a very good vision but it is sad that our government officials have reduced it to a tool for scoring cheap political points. Judging from the present situation where workers in virtually every sector of the economy down tools at the slightest provocation, it is impossible for Nigeria to achieve that vision.

“We are still very far behind and there is no way for Nigeria to become one of the most industrialised countries in the world by the year 2020. Do you know how much we lose in this country every time the labour union goes on strike? No serious nation can afford to lose that much money.  You saw what happened in America during the government shut down. If we are serious about achieving this vision 2020, then we must find a way of stopping our unions from going on strike because strikes cripple the economy,” he said.

Corroborating Adonka’s view, Wesley Udoh, an economic analyst, said Nigeria could not achieve the vision 2020 agenda because the right structures to do so were not in place. “Becoming an industrialised nation by the year 2020 is a good dream but we deceive ourselves when we say we will achieve it. There is nothing on ground at the moment to suggest that it can be done. We do not have the right structure in place and our economy is not even the strongest in Africa at the moment. So, it is wishful thinking to say we will be a fully industrialised country by 2020 which is just eight years away,” Udoh said.

Theodora Ogharanduku
Ogharanduku

On the implications of strikes in the economy, Udoh reckoned that strike should be a last resort for unions because of its adverse effects on the economy of a country. “Strikes are legitimate instruments for advancing worker’s rights but then it must be done cautiously. As a matter of fact, unions ought to go on strike after exploring other means of settling disputes because a strike destroys a lot of things. You can see what is happening in the educational sector now. You also saw what happened in hospitals when doctors go on strike. Incessant industrial actions have grave consequences for any country,” he said.

For officials of the NLC, ASUU and other unions that have become infamous for frequent industrial actions, embarking on a total strike is the only way to get the attention of the government. Abdulahi Yahaya, chairman of the of the Abuja chapter of the NLC, said even though the union tries as much as possible not to down tools, the insincerity of the government usually forces them to do so.

“Nobody likes strikes but we have discovered over the years that politicians are always not sincere. Look at the subsidy protests of 2012, the government just woke up one day and removed subsidy without thinking of its effect on the citizens. If the NLC didn’t rise up to fight then, Nigerians will be buying a litre of fuel today for N160. Take for instance, the ASUU issue, the bone of contention is the implementation of an agreement that the government willingly signed in 2009. Before this on-going strike, the union had explored so many other means of reminding the government to implement the agreement. They sent emissaries, made treaties and even embarked on a warning strike but nobody paid attention until the lecturers embarked on total strike that sent students home. Now do you blame ASUU for using what it has to get what it wants?”

Sunny Awhefeada, a senior lecturer at the Delta State University, Abraka, also corroborated this view. In an article published in a Nigerian newspaper, the literature in English lecturer, opined that greed and insensitivity on the part of government is the root cause of many industrial actions in Nigeria. “The issues at stake in the on-going strike are well known; it is about revamping the universities that have degenerated into an unacceptable level. It was for this reason that ASUU embarked on a strike in 2009. That strike produced the 2009 agreement which the federal government vowed to implement and even review for enhancement.

“However, three years after, in 2012, the federal government showed no intention of implementing the agreement not even to mention reviewing it. ASUU wrote several letters to remind the government on the urgent need to implement the agreement as the condition of the ailing universities had become critical. The federal government gave no heed. ASSU waited in good faith for the whole of 2012 and continued making entreaties to the government. The federal government’s insensitivity had become provocative and only the last resort of industrial action was left for ASUU. Nigerian workers get nothing from government without strikes,” Awhefeada wrote.

As frequent strikes by various unions continue to take a toll on the life and economy of the country, individuals and other stakeholders have advised that unions look for other ways of pressing home their demands rather than embarking on strikes every now and then. Theodora Ogharanduku, a lecturer, posits that even though strike is necessary in labour matters, it should be used sparingly.  She said: “Industrial actions cannot be ruled out as a tool for driving home demands. It becomes an issue when it is prolonged and yielding no fruits. I would still recommend dialogues and continuous negotiations but when these fail, industrial action should be used but not prolonged.”

Tope Fasua
Fasua

Proffering another remedy to strike, Anslem Anyawu, a civil servant at the National Assembly, said strikes have become a jaded way of making demands. Even though he advised labour organisations to employ other means, he also urged governments and employers of labour to be sincere and implement agreements. “Strikes have become a worn out option and our unions must look for alternatives means of settling issues. Dialogues and a firm adherence to whatever is agreed upon remains the most viable option. Governments and employers of labour must honour their commitments,” Anyawu said. Be that as it may, it appears that as long as the strike is used as a means of getting governments and employers of labour to be true to their responsibilities and commitments, everybody will be hurt by it at all time.

The origin of strike in the society in general dates as far back as the biblical tale of the tower of babel when the workers downed tools to protest the institution of different languages by God, making it impossible for them to understand themselves. In the case of Nigeria, the major notable strike took place in 1945, when the late Micheal Imomodu led Nigerian workers on a general strike against the oppressive tendencies of the colonial masters. There have been five other general strikes since June 2000 and the main cause was increase in fuel price both under President Olusegun Obasanjo and his successors, including President Goodluck Jonathan.

The four-day strike in September 2000, was caused by 25 percent rise in fuel price as government tried to carry forward its neo – liberal policies. The increase took place less than 48hrs after the Nigerian Federal High Court decided that the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC – the main trade union federation) was not entitled to call out its members on strike. Immediately the state owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, jacked up fuel prices by 33 percent.

The protest against hikes in the prices of petroleum products also occurred in June 2003 and June 2004. After the fifth general strike in the country which crippled the economy, the Financial Times wrote that the Trade Union had become ‘the country’s most high profile opposition movement’. For this reason, the Nigerian government prepared to act against the trade unions.  The Obasanjo-led government arrested and detained Adams Oshiomole, the then NLC President but it did not end the strike until the price was reduced. There was another general strike in June 2007 under the tenure of President Umaru Yar’Adua to press for a 15 percent increase in basic pay after the pay as you earn, PAYE, was changed to 10 percent of gross pay instead of the previous policy of taxing only basic pay.

The poor perceived government actions as punitive measures to compound their problem as value added tax, VAT, was also increased by 100 percent. The  increase in VAT affected the people because they spend the bulk of their earnings on consumable items whose prices automatically went up following the increase in petroleum product prices. During the strike, government offices, private petrol stations, ports, airports, schools and hospitals closed down. Commercial vehicles were off the road and major highways became football pitches for youths. Oil exports in all terminals except one were obstructed. In short, the strike paralysed Nigeria. The strike was considered to be a huge success because it brought about a reversal of the increase in fuel price, a removal of 100 percent increase in VAT, payment of 15 percent increase in basic pay of public sector workers and review of sales of refineries and power generating plants. Nonetheless, both government and workers must find a way to stop incessant strikes which are bleeding the country dry.

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