Salisu Nuhu Muhammad, [email protected]
This year, Workers’ Day, (May Day), expectedly, was celebrated in a worldwide unplanned atmosphere of paradoxical solitude. The annual observance of this historic labour event has always been preceded by enormous trade unions’ efforts at raising consciousness and active mobilisation of workers for them to register their genuine feelings, boldly champion their class interests and courageously express their collective future aspirations.
These activities normally take the forms of public lectures, rallies, peaceful protests and solidarity marches.
But, this year, for reasons that are not unconnected with the unanticipated global prevalence of a tiny invisible enemy in the guise of COVID-19, all the above-listed traditional modes of operation were painfully modified or completely punctuated.
Whereas the organised workforce and their allies fought tooth and nail for many years, until they succeeded in 1981 (the year of our lord), to ably secure the day as a public holiday for all Nigerians, the idea of workers and the general public celebrating this prized holiday quietly and timidly in the inner sanctum of their respective dwellings was never remotely imagined, or ever contemplated.
Workers and their families are not only being forcibly quarantined behind locked doors, but the factories, shops and offices that normally provided them guaranteed livelihoods are now everywhere similarly, but firmly, closed.
This tiny virus, whose notoriety has turned it into a pandemic, is now indiscriminately deploying the full force of its mysterious powers to the pitiless killings of a large number of precious and productive workers, powerful industrialists, astute politicians, illustrious academics, health specialists, underemployed and unemployed, young and old, rich and poor, men and women, religious leaders, prominent atheists and even notable agnostics, without any sense of remorse or even a pause.
This microscopic chemical creation whose true origin is now the subject of ongoing indubitable international disputations, particularly among eminent scientists, reputable researchers, political leaders and men and women of learning from medical fields and other human endeavours, nonetheless, has tenaciously, speedily and capriciously succeeded in gravely paralyzing and profoundly dislocating all forms of industrial, commercial, cultural, financial and political activities on a worldwide scale.
In this age of Internet of Things (IoT), the whole idea of Virtual May Day celebration may appear quaint or surreal to many, especially veteran labour leaders. Today, however, it is a fact of life that millions of their union members are already compliant with the new managerial imperative being imposed by their employers in getting their work done online, from the comfort of their homes. The point being made here is that lockdown is not an insuperable barrier to labour exploitation by the capitalist class.
Also, speaking of “the comfort of their homes” readily brings to mind the cries and torrent of tears that the labouring poor are inconsolably shedding as they are compelled to observe the excruciating social distancing, otherwise known as stay at home, a directive issued by government in its bid to flatten the ever-rising COVID-19 sanguinary curve.
It is, therefore, obvious that the severity of the pains that workers and their families are forced to bear in this disagreeable state of lockdown, coupled with the already squalid conditions of penury under which they live, for as long as anyone could remember, any further prolongation of this draconian order may lead to unmistakable, predictable and, thus, unpalatable consequences.
The new normal in our city scapes is the picturesque atmosphere of really hard to witness empty boulevards, deserted gardens and popular parks, abandoned places of religious worship, usually and always the beehive for the peaceful assembly of the faithful, scanty crowds in cultural and social weekly events and of, course, paucity of people in markets and schools, all seeming to suggest an idyllic serenity to the many who cannot read between the lines, more so, among the coterie of undiscerning people who currently find themselves in power.
Acutely devastated by the gangrene of elitism, desicated by huge deficit of integrity and with a conscience saturated by the pathetic failure to deliver on promised dividends of democracy to our people, most elected and appointed political office holders in Nigeria (more often than not) end up taking refuge in a fake chivalry or in an antediluvian chicanery.
Nowhere is this stark failure more evident than in the shoddy and murky measures emplaced by government to distribute palliatives among the most vulnerable sections of our communities, ostensibly to cushion the harsh effects of the stay-at-home order, which it had imposed on the suffering populace. Starting from cash distribution to essential commodities sharing arrangements by government to the millions of poor people in conditions of lockdown, we all got our collective sense of decency rudely assaulted by the spectacle of barefaced fraud and kleptomaniac wizardry of Mafian audacity being displayed by some top government officials, in broad day light. In other words, monies and foodstuff meant for the vulnerable poor in the society were cornered and diverted by those entrusted to do the sharing. In the circumstance, millions of law-abiding citizens stayed hungry, totally abandoned to their precarious fate, in a total state of impecunious existence. What could be more callous than this man’s inhumanity to man?
The lessons should not be lost on all of us that the May Day we are celebrating has its historical antecedents in the epic battles heroically waged by workers and their unions well over a century ago, in 1886, in Hay Market Square, Chicago, USA, against the then prevailing inhuman and exploitative working and living conditions under which they were made to operate.
In drawing inspiration from their exemplary legacy of selfless sacrifices, we are also recalibrating our fighting spirit with the necessary iron resolution to confront, head-on, our contemporary challenges without sparing energy or resources, fully conscious of the festering cruelties of COVID-19 pandemic on global labour solidarity.
The prevailing lockdown in which workers and their families remain tethered in their respective homes should not be an excuse to run away from the ceaseless struggles for the qualitative improvement of our working and living conditions. It should also not serve as a pretext for labour leaders and union officials to engage in opportunistic practices capable of undermining and eroding past labour gains, secured through workers’ sweat and blood. No one should be allowed to use the extant lockdown atmosphere as reason for lowering the banner of working class struggles, because, difficult as some of these battles may appear, the resounding victory of workers is ultimately inevitable.
COVID-19 is a novel virus that has many distinguishing characteristics. Therefore, what is above all necessary is the dexterity and the willpower of labour leaders to be more adaptive, imaginative, innovative, creative, focused with a long-term vision on how to decide, design and defend the broader and wider strategic and political interests of workers and their class allies, with the understanding of the collective consequences that opting for this choice would imply.
Such a mindset as outlined above is a desideratum prelude to laying a broad based labour demands even in the face of ongoing lockdown dictated by the virulent COVID-19 pandemic.
The unique situation created by the deadly virus has made work of any type too hazardous to contemplate. All the preventative safeguards strongly recommended by health authorities, such as social distancing, regular washing of hands with soap and wearing masks to cover mouth and nose have not obviated the dangers of spreading the virus in workplaces, where the risks to workers, are authoritatively judged to be extremely high.
In light of these obvious startling revelations, it is our contention that workers and their trade unions should, henceforth, legitimately demand that COVID-19 be universally declared as an occupational health and safety disease. Doing this will ensure the provision of adequate protection and health insurance coverage to those of our members who are exposed to the killer virus, operating in hospitals and treatment centres as frontline caregivers.
As the supply of testing kits, personnel protection equipment (PPE), isolation centres, ventilators, face masks, palliatives, sanitizers, water and soap and other public hygiene-enhancing provisions is everywhere said to be hopelessly inadequate, workers and their unions, should stridently agitate and actively demand for urgent procurement of these provisions, in order to foster the capacity of citizens to overcome the debilitating effects of this wicked virus.
To conclude, it is not out of place at this stage for workers and their unions, under the umbrella of the Nigeria Labour Congress, to insist that, in the interest of equity, fairness and transparency, henceforth, any committee or body that government had set up or intends to reconstitute, must attract the all round active and full participation of workers and their leaders.
The lessons of May Day are very enduring and veritable, because they are anchored on the time-tested humane values of sacrifice, solidarity, selflessness, courage, unity, loyalty and dedication to the noble and just cause of the international working class and the oppressed peoples of the world.
Workers of the world, unite and knock down the deadly coronavirus!
Happy May Day celebrations.