Bimbola Oyesola 08033246177, [email protected]
Nigeria’s labour movement, like any other entity in Nigeria’s system, has had its share of historic achievements, which any day make it to be counted relevant in the country’s existence as a sovereign nation. The antecedents of labour pre-date Nigeria’s Independence in 1960.
Organised labour was actually birthed over a century ago. The first industrial action of workers in Nigeria was recorded in 1897. The trade union movement in Nigeria emerged out of this early resistance. The first formal trade union was established on 19th of August, 1912. It was called the Nigeria Civil Service Union. However, the union was not recognised and suffered harassment by employers, until 1938, when the Trade Union Ordinance was enacted. The law opened the way for the registration of trade unions in the country.
The Nigeria Employers Consultative Association (NECA), the tripartite partner in the industrial relations in the country also posits that the development of industrial relations in Nigeria is one that cannot be divorced from the nation’s colonial history.
The system, it noted, was foisted/bequeathed to the post-colonial independent Nigerian government, led by the Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.
“The colonialists established an industrial relations system characterised with a structure of an admixture of the Anglo-Saxon model of tripartis, a system of industrial relations that involved interaction of the key actors, employers, employees and government, and interventionism, which rely on the use of force to enforce compliance and prevention of industrial action,” NECA said.
Michael Imoudu’s legacy
The late Michael Imoudu has been recognized as the father of the Nigeria’s labour movement. While with the Railways, Imoudu became actively involved in the Railway Workers Union (RWU) and in 1939 he became president of the union. In the same year, the union was registered under the Trade Union Ordinance, which allowed it to seek collective bargaining with their employers. With Imoudu as head, the union renewed its demand for higher wages, de-casualization and improved working conditions.
Imoudu had constant clashes with European managers because of the preferential treatment given to European officials. Between 1941 and 1943, Imoudu was queried many times and dismissed in January 1943.
In 1945, along with other union leaders, he embarked on a national strike to put pressure on the British colonialists to pay workers a cost of living allowance in order to cushion the effects of the Second World War on workers.
Imoudu was also the first president of the independently formed Nigeria Labour Congress.
Organised labour believes that the fundamental roles played by Imoudu in colonial and post-Ondependence Nigeria for the emancipation of the proletariat will ever remain indelible and continue to serve as a source of energy and inspiration in the struggle for better conditions of employment and qualitative education.
Pa Imoudu is also remembered for his selflessness and commitment not only to the struggle of the working class but also the political independence of Nigeria.
Imoudu’s memory has remained fresh in labour circles because of his outstanding contributions to the struggle for the nation’s independence and the improvement of working conditions for workers. During his active days, Imoudu, who was an employee of the Railways, was imprisoned. While in prison, he mobilised prisoners against the colonial government and the prisoners embarked on hunger strike.
Nigerians have often declared that the state of affairs of workers today would have been incomprehensible but for the doggedness of legendary Imoudu, Adebola, Wahab Goodluck, Dr. Tunji Otegbeye, Hassan Sunmonu, Frank Kokori and Adams Aliyu Oshiomhole.
Before 1978, Nigeria’s labour movement had less bite and activism. The tide, however, changed with formal constitution of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) in 1978. Before then, four labour centres existed: Nigeria Trade Union Congress (NTUC), Labour Unity Front (LUF), United Labour Congress (ULC) and Nigeria Workers Council (NWC). The emergence of the NLC ended decades of rivalry and rancour involving the four centres and unions affiliated to them. The unions, numbering over 1,000, were also restructured into 42 industrial unions.
The labour centre has had a chequered history, surviving two instances of dissolution of its national organs and consequent appointment of state administrators. The first was in 1988 under the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida. The NLC’s opposition to the anti-people Structural Adjustment Programme incensed the military administration to take over the NLC.
The second military intervention was in 1994 during the regime of General Sani Abacha, whose government also became fed up with the labour movement’s agitation for the restoration of democracy. Like the initial case, the military government dissolved NLC’s National Executive Council and appointed a sole administrator.
The same treatment was meted to the two unions in the oil and gas industry, National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers [NUPENG], whose General Secretary then, Kokori, was incarcerated, and Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria [PENGASSAN]. However, the administrators apparently went overboard as they plundered the finances of congress and the two unions.
The dissolution, the NLC recalled, exemplified the travails of the centre, its leadership, affiliates and state councils, under military rule.
“Arbitration, prolonged and unlawful detention of labour leaders, invasion and disruption of union meetings, seminars and other activities of congress and its components by security forces and a vicious anti-labour campaign by the state generally marked the period. The military also invoked its legislative prerogatives to unleash all manner of legislation to check the activities of unions. For instance, under General Abacha, a decree that banned a section of the movement from holding leadership position in congress came into effect.”
However, with the death of General Abacha, the unions reclaimed the NLC, culminating in a National Delegates Conference held on January 29, 1999. The election brought in Adams Oshiomhole as president from 1999 to February 2007.
Abdulwahed Ibrahim Omar became the president of NLC from February 2007 to 2015, while the incumbent, Ayuba Wabba, took over in 2015.
In 1982, Oshiomhole was appointed General Secretary of the National Union of Textile Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria, a union with over 75,000 workers.
It is important to note that the textile sector then was the second largest employer of labour, after government, but the tide has since changed with the nation’s economy nosediving every day.
More workers in the organised private Sector (OPS) have continued to lose jobs every day, with the unions at the receiving end as this affects their finances and ability to fight for their members.
After democracy was restored in 1999, Oshiomhole became president of the NLC and was prominent as the leader of a campaign of industrial action against high oil prices in Nigeria.
Early in the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo, he negotiated a 25% wage increase for public sector workers. In return he publicly supported Obasanjo and endorsed his candidacy when he was re-elected in 2003.
Oshiomhole deployed the powers of his NLC presidency in becoming the number one defender of the rights and welfare of working people. The NLC on his watch was a nemesis of the Obasanjo administration on its harsh fuel pricing policy as well as other socio-economic policies that were injurious to the wellbeing of Nigerians. Under Oshiomhole’s leadership, workers vehemently fought against casualisation and contract staffing by employers in the OPS. The NLC under his watch became the most popular and influential non-state actor in the country, which provided effective opposition to then ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Oshiomhole led strikes and demonstrations against fuel price increase. He faced arrests, tear gas and temporary blockades of union offices, and Obasanjo introduced legislation to make it more difficult for the NLC to strike. The 2004 Labour Act reform also limited the power of the NLC as the only labour centre and this paved way for the emergence of Trade Union Congress (TUC) as another labour centre. This Obasanjo did to limit the power of the NLC.
The Trade Union Congress of Nigeria was registered as a labour centre on the 8th of August, 2005, when the then president of TUC, Dr. Peace Obiajulu, received the letter of registration. Prior to that date, TUC had gone through various transformations, starting in 1980, first as Federation of Senior Staff Associations of Nigeria (FESSAN), then as Senior Staff Consultative Association of Nigeria (SESCAN).
Before the coming of Hassan Sunmonu as first president of the NLC in 1978, there was no history of a structured minimum wage for workers. It must be said that the Udoji pay package of 1975 was not regarded as a structured minimum wage, because it was not negotiated by workers’ representatives.
The then president of the NLC was encouraged to begin agitation for a minimum wage following a pay rise for political leaders at the time. He called for a N300 per month minimum wage in 1981. This led to a major strike , which culminated in President Shehu Shagari and the Hassan Sunmonu-led executive agreeing to a N125 per month pay package.
Those that led the negotiation on behalf of the Federal Government included the then Vice President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, the then Senate President, Dr. Joseph Wayas, and Speaker, Edwin Ume-Ezeoke.
Another negotiation came up in 1989/90 when the late Pascal Bafyau was NLC president. Oshiomhole led the talks as Bafyau’s deputy. The discussions resulted in workers receiving N250 per month.
Historically, new wages flow with the political tide. The first general wage increase was in 1945, following the end of the Second World War in which the British colonial masters were battered, bruised and financially crippled. A general strike, the first in the country, followed. It lasted 45 days with the colonialists acceding to the workers’ demands. The next one was in 1964 when, after protracted negotiations under Justice Adeyinka Morgan, it was agreed in April that the region-based minimum wages in the country be increased from the subsisting N7.80 and N15.17, to N22 and N15.17. Government refused; about four months to the 1964 general election, the workers went on a general strike. It lasted 13 days with the Tafawa-Balewa government caving in to the workers’ demand.
The three-year civil war ended in 1970 and, to meet workers’ agitations given the hyper inflation in the country, the General Yakubu Gowon regime granted an Interim Award based on the recommendations of a Wages Committee, headed by Chief Simeon Adebo. Hence, it was known as the Adebo Award.
A comprehensive Wage Review Panel headed by Chief Jerome Udoji in 1974, recommended a new minimum wage of N60. It was referred to as the Udoji Award. The military handed over power to civilians on October 1, 1979, and the President Shehu Shagari government increased the minimum wage to N100. But the NLC, led by Sunmonu, demanded a new wage of N300. It followed it up with a national strike on May 11 and 12, 1981. That strike forced government to agree to a new wage of N125. That was the first nationally negotiated minimum wage.
Some opposition state governments, especially of the Unity Party of Nigeria in the West and the People’s Redemption Party, PRP, in Kano State had opposed the alleged imposition of a minimum wage on the entire country, but the effectiveness of the strike gave them no choice. However, many of the governors including the ruling National Party of Nigeria fought back by retrenching workers and refusing to pay salaries. To counter this, the NLC initiated a national campaign called Fight Against Retrenchment and Non-Payment of Wages (FAR & NOW). The campaign met with little success, and with the 1983 general election at hand, the NLC decided that there would be no elections in the country unless wages were paid. Under pressure, politicians across all parties got together and sourced the funds to clear the salary arrears.
The N125 Wage subsisted until the 1989/90 negotiations between the Babangida regime and labour, increased it to N250. After that, there were only wage adjustments and awards until the Abubakar regime which was under serious pressure to hand-over power to a civilian administration, agreed to introduce a quantum leap to a N3,000 National Minimum Wage negotiated by a committee of industrial unions, led by Sylvester Ejiofor.
In May, 1999, civil rule was restored. The new President Olusegun Aremu Obasanjo promised a New Minimum Wage to Oshiomhole’s led NLC in 2000 and 2001. Demands for N5,500 for state workers and N7,500 for their federal counterparts and oil-producing states were agreed to. Along with this was an agreement that in order to move towards a Living Wage, as opposed to a Minimum Wage, the new wage will be increased by 25 percent in May 2001 and 15 percent in May, 2002. However, government did not implement these increases. Finally, in 2004, what should have been a total 40 percent increase was reduced to 12.5 percent, and haphazardly implemented.
New wages were not negotiated as scheduled in 2005. In 2008, the NLC made a formal demand for a N52,200 new wage. Finally, on July 14, 2009, a Presidential Committee headed by Justice Alfa Modibo Belgore was established. When there were no positive results, the NLC and TUC, called a general strike on November 10, 2010. The government raced to stop Labour disrupting the 2011 general elections. A bill was rushed through the National Assembly. In March, a few weeks before the mid-April general elections, a new National Minimum Wage of N18,000 came into existence under the leadership of Abdulwahed Omar as NLC President.
The implementation took months of strikes especially against the state governments whose governors refused to implement the payment.
On Tuesday November 6th 2018, the Organised Labour called off a general strike after agreeing with the government to increase the national minimum salary by 67% to 30,000 Naira (US$ 83).
The new proposed minimum wage is a compromise agreement between workers, employers and the government. Such tripartite negotiations are a sign of democracy at work, founded in the ILO conventions of rights to collective bargaining (ILO core convention #98) and on minimum wage machinery (ILO #26), both to which Nigeria’s government is a signatory. Minimum salaries should be adjusted on a regular basis to keep up with inflation, and according to Nigerian law, it should be negotiated at least every five years. The negotiations called by the APC led government in December 2017 after several agitation and threat from Organised Labour, no doubt was long overdue given that the last Nigerian minimum wage agreement was in 2011.
In 2011, the minimum wage of 18,000 Naira was equivalent to about US$110, today it is worth less than US$50. This is below the poverty line, and the NLC claimed it was the lowest minimum wage on the continent then.
Though a 67% increased minimum wage sounds formidable, the new minimum wage of 30,000 Naira (US$83) is in real terms it lower than the 2011 minimum wage at the time of agreement (US$110). Workers were represented at the tripartite negotiations through NLC, TUC and United Labour Congress (ULC). The (original demand of the NLC and TUC was 66,500 Naira (US$181), while the ULC (which was not recognized by the federal government) demanded 96,000 Naira (US$264). By comparison, the 1981 minimum wage of 125 Naira was worth US$200.
It should be noted that despite the fact that the Governors Forum, representing the governors of the 36 states, had six representatives at the tripartite forum, they had refused to accept the new minimum wage and have threatened to sack workers because they cannot pay the bill.
Recall that President Buhari has used the review of salary as part of his campaign promises. His vow to review the minimum wage followed a fuel price hike and currency devaluation two years earlier. Those measures were aimed at countering the effects of a global oil price plunge which in 2016 pushed Nigeria into its first recession in 25 years from which it emerged in 2017.
The NLC President, Ayuba Wabba has often challenged the governors to subject their humongous salaries and allowances, reputed to be among the highest in the world, pro rata with the minimum wage they want to force down the throats of Nigerian workers.
He has also said that if governors cannot pay, it is a sign of their failure to build a viable economy and their incompetence to govern, and they should resign.
Hence while workers in the Federal Civil Service are already being paid new Minimum Wage, many of the states are yet to pay. Some are either, yet to negotiate consequential adjustment, or complete negotiation and still foot dragging on implementation. The NLC and TUC however have directed the states with issues to downtools to force their governments to the negotiation table. The recent strike in Ogun State points to the determination of Organised Labour to strike should implementation of the new wage continue to drag.
The unions’ popularity never translated to a sustained political power, although they have several times since the 1960s tried to establish or revitalize a Labour Party (LP). Unionists who entered politics have also not found the LP as an interesting party ticket, as there is little money in it. Former president of NLC (1999-2007), Adams Oshiomole, ran on an All Progressive Congress (APC) ticket as governor of Edo state (2008-2016). Although his electoral support was based on his background and popularity from his time in the unions, Oshiomole is not seen as a representative of labour in politics. During Occupy Nigeria in 2012, Oshiomole wanted to do away with the fuel subsidy and lobbied the unions to call off the fuel subsidy strike.
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disruptive effect on the global economy especially as it relates the employment status of millions. The International Labour Organisation (ILO), in a preliminary report, has projected that the COVID-19 pandemic will push millions of people into unemployment, underemployment and working poverty.
Already unions in Nigeria, 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.
Before now, many Organised Labour unions have diversified into businesses during the recession in order to have other sources of income aside the check off to ensure their existence.
But this is also been threatened without government living up to its responsibility in terms of provision of basic infrastructures.
Deputy President of the NLC, Lateef Oyelekan, whose union, National Union of Food Beverage and Tobacco Employees (NUFBTE), is one of the leading unions in business noted that as Nigeria celebrates her 60th independence anniversary, Federal Government must fix electricity and ban importation of generators into the country.
Oyelekan kicked against outsourcing of workers, and insisted that Nigeria is not advanced for such.
He posited that outsourcing of workers should be regulated by the Ministry of Labour and that Nigerians should reject the move.
On International level, Nigeria since Independence has been well represented. Oshiomhole represented African workers for two terms on the Governing Body of the International Labour Organization (ILO), serving on the committee on Freedom of Association. He was also a member of the Executive Board of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.
Presently, the NLC President, Ayuba Wabba, besides being a member of Governing board of ILO is also the President of the International Trade Union Congress (ITUC). Peters Adeyemi, Vice President of the NLC, is equally the Vice President of the Public Service International (PSI) for Africa and Arab Region, while the immediate past General Secretary of the National Union of Textile Garment and Tailoring Workers (NUTGTWN), Issa Aremu is the Vice President of the IndustriAll Global.
Although the Nigerian unions are under deep pressure many times, they have recorded several feats even at the national level, this include the mobilization and shut down of the economy, as demonstrated in January 2012 during the Occupy Nigeria protests.
Another challenge by labour is indecent work and in spite of concerted efforts on how to attract investments and create jobs, this has been without any plan or idea on how to ensure decent work and working conditions for the working poor, short or long term.
“Promoting job creation without decent wages and labour rights, is like promoting democracy without freedom of speech and political parties, Wabba has said.
This has forced Organised Labour since the time of Adams Oshiomhole to shut down big banks like First Bank, Ecobank.
Under Wabba, the Congress also has shut down big conglomerate like MTN for anti labour policies.
The unions have challenged the Nigerian political elites, primarily by exposing and fighting corruption.
Over the years, political leaders have tried to break the popular power of the
trade unions, and Nigeria continues to be one of the worst countries in the world for workers, with no guarantee of labour rights with many workers casualised and being paid peanuts for their labour.
In addition to the direct repression of the most brutal military dictators, President Obasanjo tried to break the unions through the law. In 1978, by military decree, he tried to control the unions by allowing only one Labour centre (the NLC) and one union per industry. In 2005, President Obasanjo also tried to reverse and liberalize the labour law in a blatant attempt to curtail labour power through fragmentation.
The NLC was able to resist this. While Obasanjo wanted any two unions to be able to form a labour centre, the National Assembly ensured that 12 unions that did not already belong to a centre were needed to form a new centre. The United Labour Congress (ULC), formed in 2015 as a splinter union by aggrieved leaders from the NLC election, led by Joe Ajaero, now a deputy President with the NLC after reconciliation last month was unable to register because their members already belong to NLC and TUC. The ULC made its way back to NLC, in August, the reunification which has further forfied the Nigeria labour movement. The evidence which clearly shown when the Organised Labour mobilised against Rivers State recently.
The unions’ ability to organize and mobilize, and to put pressure on political and economic elites through strike actions and negotiations, has been based on unity, but also on a strong militancy at the workplace and close alliances with civil society allies.
Both Labour and the OPS, represented by Nigeria Employers Consultative Association (NECA) have condemned government continuous refusal to revival the statutory Labour Advisory council under the Federal ministry of labour to ensure regular engagement between organized labour, business and government on critical labour market issues.
The Director General of NECA, Timothy Olawale said the non-functional state of the National Labour Advisory Council which is the structured avenue to nip any industrial crisis in the bud is a minus to the government as Nigeria is celebrating 60 years of Independence.
“With the exit of the Colonial masters, efforts to build strong structures to facilitate rapid industrial relations growth have not yielded significant success. While some progress has been made in developing industrial relations legal framework, sixty years after independence, the industrial relations system is still characterised with visible decay,” he said.
According to the NECA Director General, against the expectations of critical stakeholders, there is still little or no Collective Bargaining going on, particularly in the Public Sector. Negotiations now operate mostly in crisis mode.
He said, “Memorandums of Understandings, which are a strange terminology in Collective Bargaining, have replaced collective agreement. The lines of rights of Trade Unions on negotiable matters and information issues have long disappeared. Rather than being the last resort for dispute resolution, strikes have become the first resort and even at that, lines of authority and the provision in the union’s constitution for the convening of strikes are hardly respected.
“Both the grievance settlement and the dispute settlement machineries only exist on paper as it is viewed and treated with contempt and ignominy. Contrary to the spirit and letter of dispute settlement, the Minister of Labour and Employment has assumed the role of the chief conciliator in major disputes.
“Intra-union disputes and the flagrant disregard for judicial interpretation and intervention in labour disputes have perpetually created a siege situation in labour adjudication. These, amongst many others have contributed to the decadent state of our industrial relations system.”
He expressed that while the various decrees and enactments under the Military regimes at different times provided the legal frameworks for industrial relations practice and collective bargaining amongst others, social partners (Government, Employers and labour) have legalistic reference points or bases to indulge in negotiations. “Notwithstanding the provisions of the Trade Dispute Act of 1976, dispute resolutions remain fractured with consequential effects on productivity, enterprise competitiveness and national development.”
He reasoned that as first step in rectifying the anomaly, it is imperative for government to give life to the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC).
“While the NLAC will not on its own solve all issues, it will serve as a veritable platform on which our Industrial Relations system can be built on the short and long run,” he stated.
The minimum salary negotiations as well as resistance to fuel pump price increases and others have continuously put the Nigerian unions where they belong: at the forefront of the struggle for poor people. But despite the movement problems and limitations, without the collective power of the unions, there are few political forces that poor Nigerian workers can actually lean on.
Meanwhile, implementation has equally always been the bane of policies in Nigeria and the more reasons for several lock out and strikes by the unions.