This year’s May Day comes at a period when the whole world is ravaged by coronavirus disease. Many countries, including Nigeria, are on lockdown currently. This has adversely affected the economies of nations. Social distancing is also in force in many countries. Thus, this is one of the May Days that will be marked without rallies across the world.
The worst is that many companies have shut down operations. Many others are either cutting salaries or sacking workers. The aviation industry is particularly hit. With the closure of borders and suspension of flight operations around the world, many airlines are gasping for breath. A few days ago, it was announced that the British Airways would cut up to 12, 000 jobs from its 42,000 workforce. The company reportedly said it needed to impose a restructuring and redundancy programme until demand for air travels returns to 2019 levels.
In Nigeria, the situation is not different as an airline, last week, announced 80 per cent salary cut for members of staff across board for the month of April 2020. From today, May 1, the company said that 90 per cent of the employees would proceed on leave without pay until further notice. Aviation unions in the country have rejected these directives.
The hospitality industry is not faring any better. There are reports that managements of some hotels have stopped payment of salary from March and even directed workers to go on forced leave without pay. The Organised Labour in the hospitality industry has warned managements of these hotels against owing workers salaries.
The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) has also vowed to resist moves to slash salaries of workers by government under the pretext of COVID-19. In a solidarity message to workers to commemorate this year’s International Workers Memorial Day, NLC President, Ayuba Wabba, said: “This is not the time to stop or deduct from workers’ salaries. Such an action would be both illogical and illegal as workers salaries are core elements of employment contracts and collective bargaining agreements.”
Hitherto, one of the major headaches for the Labour union was employing workers on casual basis. Even when there are laws prohibiting this anomaly, many companies still look for ways to circumvent them. Happily, the House of Representatives has initiated plans to criminalise employing workers on casual contracts beyond six months and that any casual worker sacked after six months will be entitled to the benefits of full-time workers for six months. The House, in the Labour Act (Amendment) Bill 2019, is also proposing prohibiting outsourcing to third parties. Last December, the House called on the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to sanction commercial banks using casual workers to run critical operations.
For some companies and government establishments, the statement that a worker deserves his pay is a ruse. They owe workers many arrears of salary that sometimes stretch to over one year. In Kogi State, for instance, civil servants and pensioners continue to groan over unpaid salaries. In September last year, teachers in the state reportedly asked the governor to pay them 39 months’ salary arrears.
Many state governments are in the same shoes as Kogi. They marginalise their workers one way or the other. Despite the billions of Paris Club refund they received from the Federal Government in 2018, many state governments still refused to pay their workers. Sometimes, contributory pension deductions are not remitted. Also, certain promotion arrears and death benefits, including gratuities and pensions are not paid.
For workers who get paid, even the take-home pay does not take them home. This is partly why President Muhammadu Buhari signed the new minimum wage bill into law on April 18, 2019. But even at that, many state governments are yet to start paying the new minimum wage of N30, 000. In reality, some states may not be able to pay it. Only very few states among the 36 states of the federation are viable. The rest depend almost entirely on federal allocations.
With the dip in oil prices and no excess money to share anymore, this situation will likely get worse. It calls for expansion of our revenue base and a cut in profligate spending and debt accumulation by the government. For instance, there is no need, as some state governments currently do, to continue paying huge pension entitlements to ex-governors. Some of these ex-governors currently serve as ministers or senators.
By and large, Nigerian workers have come a long way. The period we are in calls for more understanding and negotiation. Employers should not hide under COVID-19 pandemic to maltreat employees. Workers, on their part, should be realistic. On this special May Day, we salute their resilience and urge them to be more resolute.