Today is Workers’ Day, also widely known as May Day. In the past, it was celebrated with much fun and pageantry, with workers all over the world organising lectures, march pasts, get-togethers and other activities. But this year’s May Day, the first time in the history of Workers’ Day, will be celebrated like no other. There is not going to be any march past, no lecture, celebration nor gathering whatsoever as the COVID-19 pandemic has taken the shine off the Workers’ Day, just as it has done to almost every event scheduled for the second and third quarter of the year all over the globe. In recent times, the Olympic Games, International Labour Conference, World Bank and several events have been put on hold. Almost every nation of the world is on lockdown.
Going down memory lane
The origins of May Day could be traced back to May 1, 1886, when more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the United States walked off their jobs in the first May Day celebration in history. In Chicago, the epicentre of the eight-hour day agitators, 40,000 went out on strike, with the anarchists in the forefront of the public’s eye.
May 1 was chosen as International Workers’ Day in the late 19th Century by socialists, communists and trade unionists. This date was significant, given its importance due to the Haymarket Affair, which took place in Chicago, in the US, in 1886.
For many decades, the working class was forced to work extra hours and was paid very low wages. In order to protest against the owners of business establishments and other employers and put up a big symbol of their demand, the Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions of the United States and Canada decided to celebrate May Day. Back then, people were fighting for more ‘humane’ workday hours and as the years passed and the new century was ushered in, the process acquired momentum globally.
In many countries, May 1 is a workers’ holiday celebrated every year. In Nigeria, May Day as a holiday was first declared by the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP) government of Kano State in 1980 and it became a national holiday on May 1, 1981.
2020 May Day
Every year, since the May Day got national recognition, the Federal Government has declared May 1 a public holiday for workers to celebrate, this year, in spite of COVID-19, is not an exception as it has been declared a public holiday to mark this year’s International Workers’ Day celebration.
Minister of Interior, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, made the declaration on behalf of the Federal Government in a statement signed by the permanent secretary of the ministry, Barrister Georgina Ehuriah. He commended Nigerian workers for their resilience, patience and understanding.
The minister commended the workers for their support of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration’s efforts at stemming the spread of COVID-19 pandemic in the country.
Aregbesola, who further thanked Nigerians and the labour force for their sacrifices in the present period of trial, said their commitment and patience would complement government’s efforts and other stakeholders to ensure the speedy control of the virus.
According to him, with the cooperation of every citizen as well as strict adherence to the measures being put in place by relevant authorities, the challenges as a result of the disease would soon be put behind Nigerians.
The minister expressed optimism that the economy of the country would rebound and be stronger after the COVID-19 experience, taking cognizance of the various economic stabilisation efforts of the Federal Government. He called on Nigerians to remain calm and hopeful.
The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) have stated that this year’s May Day, given the current lockdown and in line with global realities, would be low key.
Government may be reassuring Nigerian workers on a day like this, but the organised labour movement, going by the themes of this year’s May Day from the NLC, “COVID-19 Pandemic and It’s Socio-Economic Impact on the Nigerian Working Class” and TUC’s “60 Years of Nationhood: Insecurity, Wage Poverty and Future of Work in Nigeria” have indicated that workers are now challenged more than ever and the world of work may never be the same after COVID-19.
But for the pandemic, Nigerian workers would have had cause to celebrate the victory of the N30,000 minimum wage, which took them over two years to win and not minding the fact that the battle is still ongoing at the state level. No doubt, the success has been overtaken by COVID-19, with workers’ livelihood now under threat.
The International Labour Organization (ILO), on Wednesday, alerted that continued sharp decline in working hours globally due to the COVID-19 outbreak means that 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy – that is, nearly half of the global workforce – stand in immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed.
The latest ILO data on the labour market impact of the COVID-19 pandemic reveals the devastating effect on workers in the informal economy and on hundreds of millions of enterprises worldwide.
Compared to pre-crisis levels (Q4 2019), a 10.5 per cent deterioration is now expected, equivalent to 305 million full-time jobs (assuming a 48-hour working week). The previous estimate was for a 6.7 percent drop, equivalent to 195 million full-time workers.
The global body said this is due to the prolongation and extension of lockdown measures.
The ILO maintained that, as a result of the economic crisis created by the pandemic, almost 1.6 billion informal economy workers (representing the most vulnerable in the labour market), out of a worldwide total of two billion and a global workforce of 3.3 billion, have suffered massive damage to their capacity to earn a living.
The first month of the crisis is estimated to have resulted in a drop of 60 per cent in the income of informal workers globally, which translates to a drop of 81 per cent in Africa and the Americas, 21.6 per cent in Asia and the Pacific, and 70 per cent in Europe and Central Asia.
Worldwide, ILO said more than 436 million enterprises face high risks of serious disruption, saying that these enterprises are operating in the hardest-hit economic sectors, including some 232 million in wholesale and retail, 111 million in manufacturing, 51 million in accommodation and food services, and 42 million in real estate and other business activities.
“As the pandemic and the jobs crisis evolve, the need to protect the most vulnerable becomes even more urgent,” said ILO director-general, Guy Ryder.
“For millions of workers, no income means no food, no security and no future. Millions of businesses around the world are barely breathing. They have no savings or access to credit. These are the real faces of the world of work. If we don’t help them now, these enterprises will simply perish.”
Already, in Nigeria, several jobs are being threatened. The Airport Hotel in Lagos without paying the March salary, last week, sent a circular to workers at home to continue on a three-month leave without pay. Sheratons Hotels in Lagos and Abuja have also informed their staff that their April salary would not be paid. This is even as Arik Air has started sending its workers home.
The NLC president, Ayuba Wabba, who doubles as the president of International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), noted that, this year, Nigeria would be celebrating its 60th Independence anniversary and it is important to point out that, without workers, independence would have remained a pipe dream.
According to him, Nigeria did not get independence on a platter of gold and it would be tantamount to a tortious twist of history to say so.
“Just as our frontline workers are doing today in the COVID-19 battle, Nigerian workers paid with their blood so that we can all be free. At the Bukuru minefields, workers were killed. At the Iva Valley coal mine, 22 workers were mowed down by British guns. Many more lost their limbs and livelihood. These workers laid down their lives so that we can pick up our lives. We will never forget,” he said during the celebration of the 2020 International Workers Memorial Workers’ Day on Tuesday.
As far as the NLC is concerned, any employer of labour who stops or reduces salary of workers on account of COVID-19 would incur the wrath of organised labour.
In the same vein, the leadership of the congress has directed its state councils to resist any salary deduction by state governments due to COVID-19.
Wabba stated that labour was not a commodity to be taken, trampled, and tossed aside: “This is not the time to stop or deduct from workers’ salaries. Such an action would be both illogical and illegal, as workers’ salaries are core elements of employment contracts and collective bargaining agreements.”
The NLC president added that workers create wealth and so deserve a decent fraction of the reward for their efforts, urging workers everywhere to continue to draw inspiration from the fact that, without their sweat, no sweet gain can be made. He said, “Without the twitching of our muscles, no socio-economic puzzle can be solved.
“In reciprocation of the enormous sacrifice made by workers, we urge employers of labour to show solidarity with the sacrifice of our workers and people by ensuring wage protection, income support and social inclusion at these trying times.”
He reassured workers that their priority in these trying times remained the cautious, gradual, evidence-led and smart restart of the economy so that they could go back to work. Wabba said that the NLC was also completely committed to the recovery of lost jobs, protection of wages, support for income and livelihood and improvement of Nigeria’s social safety net.
The labour leader was equally unanimous with the organised private sector (OPS) in calling for the relaxation of the lockdown order to enable businesses commence operation to forestall total collapse of the economy, which the Federal Government has taciturnly consented to.
Both the NLC and the Nigeria Employers Consultative Association (NECA) have demanded that government should find a balance between saving lives and saving means of livelihood of Nigerians.
Wabba said government should see how to relax the lockdown order from state to state, as well as think out of the box so that the income of the workers is not jeorpadise at the end of the day.
“While we understand the public health imperatives for extending the lockdown in some parts of the country, it is also very important to underscore the fact that the states currently under total lockdown are the economic and administrative nerve centres of Nigeria. This is very dicey. As much as it is important to keep many Nigerians from dying in the hands of coronavirus, loss of income and the accompanying destitution can also be a pathfinder for numerous other sicknesses and deaths,” he said.
He said the concern of the NLC as a responsible labour centre was primarily the health and safety of workers, especially those in the frontline of COVID-19 battle, but added that labour was interested in the recovery of jobs, restoration of income, and sustainability of livelihoods, especially at the end of the lockdown.
He charged the leadership of the industrial unions and state councils to continue working with the different cadres of workers’ leadership in the states and unions to ensure that health and safety facilities and guidelines such as running water, soaps, hand sanitizers, use of protective masks and social distancing are made available and enforced in different workplaces.
“As part of smart measures to restart the economy, government should intensify COVID-19 testing (build at least a test centre in each state), contact tracing, public fumigation, and robust public health education,” he said.
For the TUC, the president, Quadri Olaleye, submitted that the workers might not gather together to celebrate this year’s May Day, have rallies, parades and protest on the streets as usual due to the coronavirus pandemic currently ravaging the world coupled with the need to entrench the practice of social distancing.
He lamented that this is the first time in 130 years that workers around the world will not be able to celebrate May Day on the streets.
He, however, said that the TUC has taken the initiative to organise an online May Day event spanning across the federation via Zoom application.
“This will involve various presentations such as speeches, greetings, coordinated campaigns and protest via all available online mediums (print and electronic media, social media) in conjunction with all the affiliates,” he said.
He also shared in the view that the world of work may never be the same after the pandemic.
Olaleye opined that it was the responsibility of the leadership of organised labour to protect jobs.
“We don’t envisage redundancy or layoffs but because of speculations and need to be on a safer side, TUC will ensure that the laws and collective agreement regarding contract of employment are strictly followed.
“Work/life balance has been a myth for a long time. As the pandemic has exposed the new trend of working from home, TUC will ensure that people care about family, and also care about job, and prioritize health.”
He said TUC was working nonstop to protect the health and safety of all workers, including workers on the frontlines of this public health emergency.
According to him, the congress would ensure that occupational health and safety procedures and COVID-19 safety measures are followed so that its members would not be exposed to danger, “Serious market research will be carried out to keep abreast with the activities in our companies in order to ensure that workers are not short changed in terms of earnings.
“We in TUC shall continue to offer professional advice to companies, government, through regular engagement, and make concessions where necessary in order to boost profitability. As the world of work continues to allow for more diversity and flexibility, reduction in bureaucracy, the trade Union will work together as social partner to achieve success.”
He maintained that the TUC was contending with the COVID-19 pandemic and its challenges, stressing that, as humans, workers need social contact to grow, learn, stay engaged and stay well,
“Although technology assists us in periods of enforced isolation, there is a little digital contact can do to productivity, hence, there is a growing urge to be with others for the stimulus that only person-to-person interaction provides. And in the context of trade unionism, this means that there will always be a requirement for a physical presence,” he said
As physical contact at this period of May Day celebration has become impossible, the leadership of organised labour has charged members to continue to be vigilant, stay at home and, for those at work, follow the social distancing rules and other health safety measures and, in the event of any COVID-19-related work place infraction, injustice, negligence and gender-based violence, contact their secretariats as soon as possible.