…Demand better wages, welfare packages amid severe economic hardship
BY BIMBOLA OYESOLA
IT is no longer an understatement that Nigerians, most especially workers are facing serious hardship given the current economic challenges. Hence, when President Muhammadu Buhari stands before the workers today at Eagles Square in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory, he may not only be taking the usual salute, but have to provide answers to a barrage of demands and questions from the organised labour.
All over the world, workers on May 1 celebrate Workers Day in remembrance of workers who were massacred on May 1, 1886, during a peaceful protest at Hay Market Square in Chicago to demand an eight-hour work day. May 1 was declared an eight-hour holiday in 1889 by the International Workers’ Congress in Paris. May Day as a holiday in commemoration of this struggle and the struggle of all workers for better conditions, 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, during the administration of former President Shehu Shagari.
Since then till now, Nigerian workers have come to hold the day sacrosanct as it provides them the opportunity to focus the attention of the government to their plights.
Unlike in the past, workers in the country confessed that their condition is almost becoming unbearable which informs the theme of this year May Day, “The Working Class and the Quest for Socio-Economic Revival”.
In the last one year, with millions of job losses and still counting as a result of skeletal production or outright closure of companies due to Federal Government’s policy on restriction of foreign exchange for 41 raw materials, high cost of living, poor wages, poor electricity supply and the persistent fuel crisis, which could be considered as the last straw, the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s music, Suffering and smiling may just be apt.
Although the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) had decided to hold a one-day nationwide protest along with a warning strike to focuse Federal Government’s attention to the harship of workers and Nigerians in general, before then, they decided that President Buhari must provide answers and probably commitment to lessen their hardship.
NLC President, Ayuba Wabba, said the response to the prevailing economic situation by all tiers of government in the country has been a source of worry for many Nigerians, especially Nigerian workers.
Wabba said though the President’s battle against corruption is commendable and has the backing of workers, labour however felt government should start paying attention to other details aside corruption and security, especially power generation and distribution as well as fuel which are crucial to the survival of the country.
He noted that NLC as a result of hike in electricity tariff, had been inundated by complaints about crazy bills being churned out by the Discos and making things worse for especially Nigerian workers whose salaries are static and reduced to nothing due to inflation.
“Since we have voted for change, we believe that we should have the change”, he said.
He said the privatization of the power sector was done in bad faith and it has become obvious that investors do not have the capacity to improve power generation and supply in the country, but rather want to distribute their losses due to their shortcomings to Nigerians, hence workers may be use the May Day platform to call for the review of the privatisation of the sector.
On the issue of fuel scarcity, Wabba said workers “would make the point that spells of scarcity will not be acceptable to Labour and other Nigerians. One of the fastest ways for government to lose credibility is shortage of petroleum products because the combined effects of scarcity of petroleum products and poor power supply creates misery as well as has a damning impact on traveling, jobs, productivity and the economy as a whole.”
He lamented that labour is being pushed to stage the protest as gvernment has failed to consult Nigerian workers even as the economy continues to nosedive.
Taking the lead
His counterpart in the TUC, Bobboi Bala Kaigama,said labour decided on the theme bearing in mind that the nation’s economy is in shambles and labour believes that it can take the lead to chart the way forward for the repositioning of the country’s socio-economic status.
According to him, Nigerians are feeling the harsh realities of the economic crisis in the country and the immediate cause is the drastic fall in the price of crude oil which is the primary source of the nation’s foreign exchange earnings.
Kaigama said organised labour has already made representation to the government for a new minimum wage and expecting the government to respond appropriately by putting up a committee in place to commence the negotiation.
“This is going to be at the front burner during the May Day celebration and we would expect the President to assure workers on this issue pertaining to their welfare. The states had been bailed out, but federal workers have been suffering and yet to experience any bail-out as several of their allowances remain unpaid. So, when President Buhari attends the May Day parade, we would put this across to him”, he said.
The TUC President said labour has been inundated lately with several reports on industrial issues, redundancy complaints, anti-labour practices, casualisation of workers, mass sack of workers, etc, which it said are caused by Nigeria’s unfriendly business environment and as such would want a response from the Presidency. Kaigama also said the leadership of labour could no longer afford to stay aloof with the tendency in the real sector.
“For instance, the food and beverage sector alone in the last few months has shed over 500 employees, the naira currently exchanges for N197 to a dollar at the official window and over N300 at the parallel market and firms that borrowed dollar-denominated loans are facing the risk of foreclosure on assets pledged as collateral and loss of credibility among creditors because of exchange rate fluctuations”, he said adding “On the issue of power, we demand that power distribution companies should stop sending so-called “estimated” bills to Nigerians. They are defrauding consumers while the government consistently looks the other way. How else do we explain the fact that Nigerians are paying for services not rendered?”
More facts on the theme
Chairman of the May Day Organisng Committee, who is also Deputy President of the NLC, Peter Adeyemi, said the theme of the Workers Day was predicated on the reality of what is absolutely needed for labour to work for Nigerian workers’ survival in the face of economic harship foisted on them by government .
According to him, “When the present minimum wage was negotiated, the exchange rate of the naira to the dollar was between N135 and N145, but now with the exchange at N320, the worker’s salary has been grossly devalued by more than 100 percent. An average worker in Nigeria doesn’t earn $100 in a month and this is unacceptable anywhere in the world”.
He lamented that the situation of Nigerian workers daily is worrisome, be it in the private sector or public, more so with almost 27 governors not being able to pay salaries and even with no hope of paying.
Speaking on the current fuel shortage, Adeyemi said the problem was from the government who felt it could save trillions and attempted to remove the subsidy through the back door in spite of several warnings from organised labour.
“In the last couple of years, May Day has been celebrated in anguish and I don’t know when the remedy will come”, he said.
He however added that the present economic crisis was imposed on Nigerians by the political class, who failed to save for the rainy day during the excess crude windfall but rather preferred to squander the money.
The labour leader added “We shouldn’t have suffered if our leaders had foresight like Saudi Arabia. The present plight of Nigerian workers and the hopelessness is inflicted on us by our leaders.
“It’s unfortunate that our economy is in serious problem and nothing is being done to save the situation.”