Today is Workers’ Day, a day set aside all over the world to celebrate the historic struggles and contributions of workers to the development of society. This year’s celebration is unique in two ways. First is its coincidence with the 100th anniversary of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and also the fact that Nigerians are celebrating it in the wake of the new national minimum wage recently signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari. While the occasion offers a golden opportunity for a periodic x-ray of the fate of workers globally, it is safe to assert that Nigeria is currently having the most labour-friendly government in recent history.
It is worthy of note that, notwithstanding the teething challenges, which the Buhari administration inherited in 2015, the President wasted no time in taking concrete measures to uplift the welfare of workers across the federation. Precisely, on July 6, 2015, barely a month in office, the President displayed an unprecedented act of compassion, when he approved a whopping sum of N1.2 trillion bailout funds to enable bankrupt states pay an embarrassing long arrears of workers’ salaries. Again, on December 2 of the same year, the President went on further rescue and released the sum of N522 billion to the states. Then followed the Paris Club refund of March 2017 and December 2018 to help states discharge their obligations and fight poverty. Very remarkable is the clearing of the accumulated arrears of benefits and allowances, totalling about N63 billion, owed to federal civil servants by previous administrations.
It bears mentioning at this juncture that the Ministry of Labour and Employment, under Sen. Chris Ngige, has, through clarity of vision and administrative ingenuity, complemented the efforts of the President in stabilising the national industrial milieu while broadening the frontiers of job creation and repositioning Nigeria’s international labour diplomacy. Being in charge of the Ministry of Labour and Employment at a historic moment of crushing national poverty, occasioned by recession, Sen. Ngige succeeded in arresting what would have been conflagrating industrial unrests with roots far beyond the present administration. First was the NLC nationwide strike of May 2016, followed by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD), Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria, Joint Action Committee of Non-Academic Staff of Nigerian Universities, comprising NASU, SAANU and NAAT, and unions in the health sector, operating under JOHESU, as well as NUPENG and PENGASSAN, among others. The list is long but adequate ventilation of all issues through open dialogue with the social partners staved off a wave of industrial strikes.
Besides, whereas tribute is paid to workers, especially the president of the Nigeria Labour Congress, Ayuba Wabba, and his Trade Union Congress counterpart as well as the Association of the Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria for their patience and resilience all through the negotiation for the minimum wage, special commendation goes to Sen. Ngige, whose mature and skilled negotiation capability crowned the efforts of the social partners. But before all these, the immediate task, which confronted the minister on assumption of office in 2015, was how to stem job losses in the financial, oil and construction sectors, hence, he invited all the parties and reached terms that saved millions of jobs in these sectors.
Ngige wil, for long be remembered as a minister who changed the emphasis from white to blue-collar jobs, urging young Nigerians to tap the elastic opportunities that abound in skills acquisition. Apart from rehabilitating its skills centres, the ministry also established new ones. It similarly standardised their operations and programmes to give greater value and international recognition to the trade test certificates. Graduates in tiling, mechatronics, metal works, welding, plumbing, masonry, POP production and laying and info-technology, among others, were in some cases enabled to find opportunities in the formal and informal sectors, thus arresting a situation where such skills were taken over by citizens of our West African neighbours. The National Directorate of Employment, an agency under the ministry primarily charged with job creation, has additionally been providing training and empowerment to hundreds of thousands of Nigerians.
To further assist them, the ministry established inter-agency partnership with other ministries for them to benefit from Farmers Scheme programme, small and medium enterprises loan from the ministries of Agriculture, Trade and Industry, respectively. It also assists them to access facilities from the Industrial Training Fund. The ministry moreover developed with the Ministry of Health a programme for young doctors and other allied health professionals to broaden training opportunities. It is also in liaison with the Ministry of Interior for the strict implementation of the expatriate quota to ensure that Nigerians are not displaced by foreigners in their country.
At another level, in order to help qualified Nigerians get legitimate employment opportunities abroad, the ministry developed a migration policy with the European Union to assist them work and earn decent living abroad. And to curtail illegal migration and save thousands of Nigerians dying in the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean Sea, the ministry, in conjunction with the International Organisation on Migration, established a Migration Resource Centre in Benin City, Edo State, to complement the ones in Lagos and Abuja.
Notwithstanding the severe economic pressure, which would have made any other administration place embargo on employment, the ministry spearheaded the creation of white -collar jobs in the ministries and agencies of government, running into hundreds of thousands. It is on record that, under the Buhari administration, no single worker was retrenched in the federal civil service even at the time the country was in recession. It is also of note that salaries of federal civil servants have in the last four years been paid as and when due.
At the international level, the minister’s skilled labour diplomacy expressed eloquently and restored Nigeria’s preeminence in the comity of nations. Thus, from an ordinary member of the International Labour Organisation, Sen. Ngige brought Nigeria back to the ILO Governing Board in May 2017, after 10 years in limbo. On top of that is the recent nomination of Nigeria by African Ministers in Ethiopia to take up the titular position in the board next year. It is instructive that this nomination was in acknowledgment of the leadership, which Sen. Ngige gave to Africa on the Governing Board since 2017 when he was elected a deputy. At the African Regional Labour Administrative Centre, with headquarters in Zimbabwe, the minister moved Nigeria from a situation where its representative at the secretariat was frustrated out to the current position, where Nigeria is the deputy chair of the organisation.
As Nigerian workers, therefore, join their counterparts the world over to celebrate May Day, let us also reflect on our collective responsibilities to building a stronger and prosperous Nigeria.
• Alo is the Permanent Secretary of thºe Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment