By Cosmas Omegoh, Bimbo Oyesola and Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye, Abuja
It is indeed a season of anomie in the Nigerian labour industry. In the season, things have been happening differently, with the rapidity of industrial actions which are increasingly becoming absurd.
Within a space of four months, a sizable number of labour unions in the country have gone on strike. Yet, there is no guarantee that others will not follow suit soon.
One-time President of Trade Union Congress (TUC), Peter Esele, insisted that this ominous trend signposts “systemic break down,” for the country.
Esele, and other stakeholders: a retired federal Permanent Secretary, Dr Timiebi Koripamo-Agary and the Director General, Nigeria Employers Consultative Association (NECA), Timothy Olawale, are frowning at the frequency of strikes in the country, insisting that they are becoming alarming.
The trio have been looking at a holistic impact of the debacle, returning a verdict that things are going in the wrong direction.
Now, recall that the nine-month epic industrial action embarked upon by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) spilled into the New Year 2021. Soon after ASUU called off its industrial action, its sister unions: the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) and the National Association of University Staff (NASU), began flexing their own muscles. Their stance further elongated a restart of academic programmes in the universities.
Then, at a time everyone thought the nation was moving forward, the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) struck, grounding health services in the various public sector hospitals across the country.
Trauma was spread everywhere. And when NARD looked to calling off its strike on April 11, 2021, the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP) and Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) launched into the trenches on April 6, 2021. No doubt, the accompanying crisis was a handful of trouble for the country and the Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige.
Strikes sign of system failure
Many will not cease to wonder why these crises are coming in torrents. Often the impression out there is that the various labour unions in Nigerian are strike-mongers.
But Olawale holds a contrary view. Describing industrial conflict as the discord that occurs when the goals, interest or values of different individuals or groups in an industrial setting are incompatible, he said that conflict is inevitable, but could be curtailed and managed in a win-win manner.
His organisation, NECA, is the third party in the tripartite industrial resolution, which includes government and the union. He noted that there are several causes of strikes, such as: refusal of union recognition, unpopular and harsh public policies, structural-organisational causes, interpersonal and personal sources, failure of collective bargaining, failure by parties to respect the terms of their agreements, among others.
He, however, frowned at their frequency, describing it as alarming.
He reasoned that incessant strikes are a reflection of the unhealthy nature and structure of industrial relations practices in the country, warning that there is, therefore, a need to revamp the structures of the nation’s industrial relations and conclude the review of labour laws in Nigeria.
Dr. Koripamo-Agary also in a chat with our correspondent noted that he does not believe that labour is ‘always’ happy to withdraw its services at the slightest provocation, especially when issues involved do not warrant it.
“What I can say is that strikes are allowed under our Labour Act that derives its inspiration from the articles of ILO conventions such as the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention, 1948 (No 87) amongst others that Nigeria ratified and domesticated. Though Convention No. 87 does not explicitly mention the right to strike, it does establish the right of workers’ and employers’ organizations to independently “organize their administration and activities and to formulate their programmes” (Article 3). The aim of such organization could include, but not limited to “furthering and defending the interest of workers or of employers (Article 10). It is within this provisions that strikes are, therefore, well within the rights of workers to exercise, when negotiations stall/fail. It is, therefore, up to the employers to quickly deal with the issues and concerns of the workers before it degenerates to work stoppage or promptly refer the same to the regulator, the Ministry of Labour and Productivity. Delay is always bad and must be avoided.
Echoing the same views, Esele noted that “I don’t think any trade union is happy to go on strike; it happens when no one is listening.”
With particular reference to the judiciary union strike he asked: “Now, why do we think the judiciary union is on strike? Is there anything wrong in asking for the autonomy of the judiciary? So, why will we be finding it difficult to grant their request? The federal judiciary has autonomy. So why won’t the state judiciary have autonomy? It is because the state governors don’t want justice for all. They want to be the ones to see who gets justice and who does not get.
“So when people say why these strikes? They are too many, we say yes, that is what strike is all about.
“What the judiciary workers are fighting for is actually the destiny of the various states.
“I have always said that the biggest problem Nigeria faces is actually not the Federal Government or the president, it is the governors. They are emperors; they dictate what happens; they dictate who gets what. Could you believe that at the last (constitution) amendment, the governors voted against the autonomy of the legislature? The legislature at the federal level is free. But at the state level, the speaker has to go and beg the governor before he can do anything. The legislature at the state level cannot do anything without the say of the governor.
“Now, the governor can go ahead to borrow money without recourse to the legislature. That is an impeachable offence. So our state governors have become emperors and have become a bigger threat to the nation and democracy.”
Strikes in global community’s eyes
Esele is unhappy that the Federal Government is unfazed about the sad vibes wafting from its labour industry.
“The international community will be looking at our leadership as an incompetent and unreliable bunch that doesn’t keep to agreement,” he said.
Recalling previous strikes, he noted that “what ASUU has been fighting for is the autonomy for the universities. Let there be more investment for the universities. It is not about this government. ASUU has been on this for long – from Obasanjo, Yar’Adua, to Jonathan administrations.
“During Jonathan’s era, an agreement was signed. So, why was it not implemented? If you cannot implement the agreement, you can come back to the table and say ‘this is the challenge I’m facing.’ If you cannot invest the said amount agreed upon, why not do that in phases? Let the legislative arm be part of the agreement and say okay, every year, so and so amount will be implemented from the budget; in the next 10 years you would have completed the investment.”
He said that the failure of the Federal Government to honour agreements with ASUU had crashed the university system in Nigeria, forcing student abroad with UK and Canada as big beneficiaries.
“When ASUU goes on strike, it is not about themselves alone. It is also about the future of our country. In the 1960s and 1970s, we know that we had students from Cameroon, South Africa and other parts of the world coming to Nigerian to study. But now, the reverse is the case.
“So, the international community will not be looking at the unions, but the political office holders as a bunch of incompetent and unreliable leaders.”
For Dr Koripamo-Agary, what is important is not the opinion of the international community but the good of the people.
He said that the international community is less important to him than the Nigerian people and the welfare of workers, insisting that “it is the concerns of the Nigerian people that should matter.”
According to him, “responsible parties must be able to determine this from both public and private assessment. The world is a global village and what any country does is being reported in real time, thanks to the technology in our hands. So those charged with the responsibility must constantly fill the pulse of its nationals and take appropriate steps to decompress and de-escalate the intensity of any conflict or potentially violent situation. And this must be through dialogue and negotiation, never by force. The institutionalisation of social dialogue and negotiation through the established tripartite machinery should be rigidly pursued with the ultimate aim of building confidence, trust and consensus among the social partners.”
Effect of strikes
Looking at the overall impact of the harvest of strikes, Esele’s said that “it is very damaging,” revealing that it engenders low productivity.” With particular reverence to the judiciary union strike, he said, “you have people who are supposed to have their cases heard in court, that cannot happen. Those who are supposed to have their freedom, cannot have it; there is congestion in our prisons – the system is broken down.
“Sadly, we don’t have leaders who have a composite way of thinking. What we have are just me, me, me style of thinking – everything built on ego. ‘I’m the governor of this state; if you don’t like what I’m offering, go to hell.’ They forget that they are not the boss; they are but employees of the people. This is where we are getting it wrong. Governors think they are the masters and others are the slaves.
“We expect that what is happening at the federal level should trickle down; so what is holding the governors from granting autonomy to the judiciary in their states?”
Now, here is his verdict. “What we are having now is a systemic break down as a result of inefficiency, incompetency and inability to think things through; one of the biggest threats we are having now is people who cannot think things through. When you have a complex problem, you have to take things to the level that you resolve the complex problem. Unfortunately, we are lacking that in all spheres.”
He further lamented that “right now, the country cannot put her hands on any of the employees of the people who is right now in office, who is ready to find a solution to the challenge we are having.”
This trend, Dr Koripamo-Agary believes is a serious cause for concern to any government.
To him, continuous strikes “definitely impacts governance as it threatens the peace and security of the nation. The history of trade unionism records the devastating impact on government of strikes that are unresolved promptly. And the one that readily comes to mind is Lech Walesa, who led strike by the solidarity movement that truncated the Polish government, albeit an undemocratic one in 1989.
“We cannot afford any such festering crisis, especially in our current circumstances of the triple existential threats of insecurity, high unemployment and low productivity. Government must do all within its powers to curtail these disputes promptly and embark on open, transparent and honest negotiations with the parties as an employer and regulator.”
Olawale’s view on this is equally apt. The NECA director general catalogued the common consequences of industrial disputes as loss of production, income, employment, increase in inflation and cost of living.
According to him, strikes have a lot of socio-economic effects on the development of Nigeria, stating that no matter the logics behind them, there are always attendant socio-economic misfortunes.
“Economically, it obliterates the desired growth and development in the economy; it hinders national productivity, and also scares away the needed foreign investment,” he said.
He recalled that human productivity is an important index in calculating national productivity, noting that this is because it is the human element that transforms all other resources toward achieving an increased national productivity.
He lamented that strikes instigate work stoppages, which result in man-days lost.
He said: “Thus, when labour productivity depreciates, in form of man-days lost, it automatically results to a reduction and loss in productivity which affects the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as well as the Gross National Product (GNP).
“It affects investment in the country. Foreign investors are scared away, and are not encouraged to invest in an environment of unstable industrial peace and harmony, where their return on investment will be distorted as a result of strikes.”
Another cost of strike, he averred is that it paints a bad image and casts a social stigma on both parties involved in the industrial conflict.
Strikes, he said, especially frequent and prolonged ones, make the country to have a bad or negative judgment of the parties involved.
“For instance, ASUU has numerously been adjudged as a group of greedy, egoistic folks who are only after their selfish interest, owing to their frequent and often protracted strikes. On the other hand, their employers, the government, has been labelled a bunch of insensitive lots. It becomes obvious from the above background and analysis that strikes serve as a constraint towards the social development of Nigeria.
“We recommend that all stakeholders involved in industrial relations should adopt systematic and sustainable mechanisms – including collective bargaining towards arresting the embarrassing, incessant and recurring spate of strikes.”
He sadly recalled that “issues of agreement implementation over the years has been a serious problem for the Nigerian government.” He recalled that “stakeholders are of the opinion that if governments sign and don’t keep to the letter and spirit of the agreement, it leads to distrust and scepticism. The unions with which government interface have gradually come to the conclusion that government signs these agreements simply to fulfil all righteousness, hence for the image of the country, the employers in the public sector, which is the government may need to turn a new leaf.”
To avert repeated strikes in the country, Esele pointed out that the road to this expectation is “is very clear.”
He suggested that the government should “sit down and talk about this issue; they must sit down to negotiate.
“One thing is clear, unions don’t forget. The difference between the unions and political office holders is that the unions don’t forget. Unions believe in continuity. But the political office holders don’t believe in continuity. They believe ‘okay, because I’m in power, I can sign any agreement; even if I don’t believe in it, I’m on my way out; I can sign any agreement; it doesn’t matter.
“But they forget that unions will always hold you responsible; whether it was Peter Esele that was there then, and now no longer there. The next person coming will not stop that agreement.
“Now in order to bring this to an end both the government and the union need to sit down and have a conversation. You look at the agreement and design a means to fulfil it.
“You can take 10 years to sign an agreement, but once it is signed, you have to follow it to the letter. But you can come back and say ‘hey, I cannot achieve this in three years, but let’s do five years.’ These are the things we are talking about. When you sign an agreement, you design how to implement it. The unions can give the benefit of the doubt when they see the seriousness coming from the administration.”
And for Dr Koripamo-Agary, the way forward is for “the employer, workers and regulator to engage in an atmosphere devoid of threats and intimidation to reach an agreement. Our workers and employers should exercise restraint, be patient with each other while negotiating in good faith. The paradigm shift from adversarial disposition to peaceful industrial resolution of conflict should be embraced by all parties so as to create the desired conducive industrial relations atmosphere to multiply wealth and increase productivity for all.”
Lending his weight to this, Olawale said that there is a need for proactive and corrective mechanisms to be put in place.
According to him, “proactive actions should be able to detect and prevent the possibility of an industrial conflict, and corrective actions should quickly resolve the conflict when it arises. One of such mechanisms is the institutionalisation of an effective National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC).”
He also said that “there is a need for a legislation which will give legal backing to collective agreement. Such legislation would give statutory recognition to collective agreement, and make it enforceable within a legal framework on the parties – either the Unions or Employers (Private and Public Sectors). This will go a long way in containing the propensity to default in honouring collective agreement.
“There is a need for government, as an employer, to emulate the human resource management and employee relations strategies applicable in the private sector. This is because, strike propensity is very high and predominant in the public sector and infrequent in the private sector.”