By Bimbola Oyesola
It is another Workers Day today. A day also known as May Day and celebrated worldwide with funfair in the previous years before the COVID-19 pandemic changed the narrative last year.
Though COVID-19 pandemic took the shine off the celebration last year, but this year, workers worldwide will be marking the day as the world of work is gradually returning to normal. But for Nigerian workers, it’s not only COVID-19 that has made the celebration less memorable, the past one year has been saddled with many ills from inflation, which has now makes cost of food items beyond the reach of the poor workers to high cost of infrastructures, like exorbitant electricity bills and skyrocketing petroleum pump price to insecurity and others, without a commensurate earnings.
All these summed up together informed the theme of this year’s May Day, “COVID-19: Socio Economic crisis – Challenges for Decent Job, Social Protection & People’s Welfare”.
There is no doubt that Nigerian workers have been stretched beyond limit and at a breaking point as the N30,000 Minimum Wage could no longer meet the need of an average worker who now lives in penury and almost live from hands mouth, despite working. It is not limited to workers in the public sector alone, but including their counterparts in the private sector. However, some leadership believed that workers need to take their destiny in their own hands and stage a revolution against the ruling class.
May Day history
The historical perspective of May Day could be traced back to May 1, 1886, when more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the United States walked off their jobs in the first May Day celebration in history. In Chicago, the epicenter for the 8-hourday agitators, 40,000 went out on strike with the anarchists in the forefront of the public’s eye.
May 1 was chosen as the International Workers’ Day in the late 19th century by socialists, communists and trade unionists. This date was specifically chosen given its importance due to the Haymarket affair, which took place in Chicago, in the US, in 1886.
For many decades, the working class was once forced to work extra hours and was paid very less wages. In order to protest against the owners of business establishments and other employers and put up a big symbol of their demand, the Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions of the United States and Canada decided to celebrate May Day. Back then, people were fighting for more ‘humane’ workday hours and as the years passed and the new century was ushered in, the process acquired momentum globally.
In many countries, May 1 is a workers’ holiday celebrated every year. In Nigeria, May Day as a holiday was first declared by the People Redemption Party (PRP) Government of Kano State in 1980 and it became a national holiday on May 1, 1981.
Year 2021 celebration
Last year, the World Bank, has said the COVID-19 shock alone is projected to push about 5 million more Nigerians into poverty in 2020. While before the pandemic, the number of poor Nigerians was expected to increase by about 2 million largely due to population growth, the number is now projected to increase by 7 million – with a poverty rate projected to rise from 40.1% in 2019 to 42.5% in 2020. That has been an understatement to what the workers, the bulk of the population are experiencing now as the country within a year relapsed into another recession.
The Organised Private Sector OPS (OPS) in Nigeria said it lost a whopping 74.2% of its members due to the negative impact of COVID-19 pandemic.
The Nigeria Employers Consultative Association (NECA) during one of its briefing had said survey showed that 74.2 percent of enterprises have stopped operating due to COVID-19.
The President of the Association, Mr. Taiwo Adeniyi said the businesses survey conducted with the view of gauging the specific impact of COVID-19 on businesses to aid NECA’S advocacy efforts amongst others also revealed that 15.8 percent are either fully on site or teleworking.
He said “Over 90% of surveyed enterprises noted that limited cash-flow was an impediment to operations and over 90% stated that demand for their goods and services had significantly reduced,” he said.
“With many businesses closed down and many others on the verge of bankruptcy, we had urged Government to give attention and support to businesses to ensure their survival and competitiveness.”
For most part of last year and till now unions, on daily basis are busy negotiating with the employers on the exit package for their members who are being retrenched daily due to the negative impact of the pandemic on the economy as a result of the compulsory lockdown.
President of the Nigeria Labour Congress ( NLC), who doubles as the President of International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Ayuba Wabba noted that the year has been turbulent for the workers hence government must steer away from making workers’ burden an ounce more grievous.
“This will be resisted. Workers cannot be the cannon fodder for the misgovernance of successive years,” he said.
He stated that Nigerians especially workers have suffered a lot of downturns and reversals in the past one year, noting that while wages remained constant, fuel and electricity prices have been severally and arbitrarily increased inducing a galloping inflation.
He expressed concern on the rising cost of food items, inflationary trend currently standing at 22.5%, poverty, unemployment, and insecurity in Nigeria and warned that the situation would be worsened by the IMF and World Bank demand for increased taxation, subsidy removal and other anti-people reforms.
He condemned a report of the World Bank that energy tariffs are subsidized by about 70%, as an acute aberration that is totally untoward, and completely unacceptable to Nigerians.
He recalled that the privatization programme for Nigeria’s power sector was at the bidding of the World Bank and other Bretton Woods Institutions.
Wabba said labour will demand that government in line with the agreement signed with Organized Labour on September 28, 2020 should invoke the clause in the power sector privatization that provides for a 5-year review of the power sector privatization programme to reverse the power sector privatization programme and return the sold assets to the Nigerian people.
“This demand is consequent on the incontrovertible evidence that the current power sector privatization has failed to achieve any of its set objectives which includes improving the quality and quantity of electricity supply to Nigerians, shedding of power sector funding from the government and increasing revenue from power sector investment to the coffers of government.
Wabba said government must be clear and straight on its engagement with Organized Labour on the management of electricity tariff, as Labour would no longer allow government to hide under the guise of “sine die” engagement with Organized Labour to afflict Nigerians with further increases in electricity tariff.
He said henceforth labour would demand that all tiers of governments in Nigeria should be wary of accepting loans from Bretton Woods Institutions especially when such loans are laced with anti-people conditionalities that impose hardship and suffering on workers and the generality of the people of Nigeria.
Wabba called on all tiers of government in Nigeria to take steps to improve on human welfare especially through adequate investment in the social sector, social protection and social services, adding that governments at all levels in Nigeria must create a balance in public expenditure between investments in physical infrastructure and improving people’s welfare.
He said, “Instead of swallowing hook, line and sinker sinister loans from neoliberal organizations, NLC urged the Nigerian government to accept the challenge of home-grown economic development anchored on investments in education, public health, research, public works, social welfare, and support for the real sectors of the economy including small and medium scale enterprises.”
Noting the critical role of security and public order in national development especially with regards to attracting foreign investments, the NLC President called for the removal of the veil on “security votes”.
He reasoned that the leadership of the Congress at its meeting last week has called for the passage and implementation of security sector appropriations through the regular budgetary and legislative procedures to engender public confidence, performance and accountability by all state actors.
Call to Action
With all the untold hardships Nigerian workers are presently passing through, a versatile Labour leader, Peters Adeyemi, the General Secretary of the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU) and Vice President of Public Service International (PSI) for Africa and Arab Region opined that Organised Labour should have used the day to protest against all the injustices being poured on them by the insensitive leaders in the country, but for the COVID-19 protocol.
Adeyemi who said the pandemic has a devastating effect on both the education and health sectors where NASU has members expressed that he did not see any reprieve soon to give Nigerian workers any kind of hope even after COVID-19.
“There’s nothing to laugh about, even if COVID-19 has gone. How do we deal with the bastardization of our currency, the inflation, the bastardization by the governors, their refusals to pay Minimum Wage, outrageous prices of electricity, fuel. What lies ahead is a serious battle for survival.
“The environment is hostile, the insecurity, times are so bad! Nigerian workers have to get ready for revolution. Things are really bad, we need to fight for survival. Definitely there’s need to review wage, what is N30,000. The truth of the matter is that when situation is like this, there is bound to be loss of confidence.
“I believe there is need for labour leaders to hold a stakeholders meeting to re-strategize on how to deal with this insensitive leaders who do not respect agreement neither are they bothered by workers going on strike.
Similarly, Deputy President of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the President of the Association of Senior Staff of Banks Insurance and Financial Institutions (ASSBIFFI), Oyinkan Olasanoye stated that the present time is not one of the best time to be a Nigerian or worker.
According to her it is absurd for government to say it has spent 156bn subsidising electricity, “What is the palliative, average Nigerians are enjoying now, no medical, school fees for children are exorbitant, cost of living is beyond explanation, even in terms of security, our government should be more proactive. They need to brace up. All what we are experiencing now is because at one time they’ve encouraged these criminals by paying ransome to them, they have tasted it and now do not want to work.”
She noted that there would not be any meaningful solution and improved economy if the goverment fails to put infrastructures in place which would support establishment of small businesses and reduce the trend of people looking for white collar jobs.
Minimum Wage Bill
Nigerian workers’ feathers were recently ruffled with a Bill aimed at destabilizing the Minimum Wage and further aggravate the sufferings of the workers, but this was seriously resisted by the Organised Labour with the two centres mobilizing their members to shut down the National Assembly.
Though the federal government has commenced payment of the N30,000 minimum wage, over 18 states are yet to pay while some are trying to revert back to the old wage. The bill labour believed was sponsored by the governors to frustrate payment of the new wage and further impoverished the workers.
In the past one year, several workers have lost their means of livelihood, while such organisations who decided to send workers home or halve their salaries have failed to recall such. Around this time last year, the Airport Hotel in Lagos without paying the March salary, had instructed some of its workers who had been at home due to lockdown to continue on a three month leave without pay. The Sheratons hotels in Lagos and Abuja also informed their staff that their April salary would not be paid. This is even as Arik Airline has sacked members of its workforce. In the chemical sector, over 10,000 workers lost their jobs, while in the banking sector, but for the intervention of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) more workers would have been lost as Access Bank attempt was nipped in the bud.
But despite this, the President of the Association of Senior Staff of Banks Insurance and Financial Institutions (ASSBIFFI), Oyinkan Olasanoye has noted that it is not yet eldorado for the workers in the sector.
According to her, workers in the banking sector may be at the receiving end of the pandemic, even though there is present understanding that the employers should not unilaterally disengage the workers.
“The effect of COVID-19 pandemic on our sector is so much and wide. During the lockdown, our members have been working remotely and not all of them have been recalled back. The truth is more people may lose their jobs as the employers have discovered that they can do with few. This year they will end up making more profits as they have been able to cut down cost.
“But this is done at the detriment of the workers, it’s affecting our work time balance, there is the health issue as our members are exposed to so many hazard counting mutilated money. There is no increase in our medical facility and unfortunately despite the fact that we are always on duty, widely exposed to COVID-19, government do not consider us as essential workers.”
As the workers in Nigeria, under the umbrella of NLC and the TUC converged all over the federation today to mark the Workers Day, one statement would be clear, to resist further attempt to push them off the cliff by those in the place of authority.