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A look at labour 60 years after

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There is no doubt that the labour movement in Nigeria for the past 60 years has witnessed some high moments with significant turbulence.

Shortly after Independence, the labour movement showed some interesting prospects. However, events in the last few decades call for concern.

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With the exit of colonial masters, there were efforts to build strong structures to facilitate rapid employment and raise the human capital development bar. But they yielded little or no success. While some progress has been made in developing the industrial relations legal framework 60 years after independence, the unemployment rate remains high just as industrial relations practices are disturbing.

Labour and human capital development experts believe the dispute resolution process is still poor and treated with contempt. They also argued that intra-union disputes and the flagrant disregard for judicial interpretation and intervention have constituted a siege in labour adjudication.

Director-General of the Nigeria Employers Consultative Association (NECA), Dr. Timothy Olawale, said it was worrisome that some of the laws regulating the sector had become obsolete. He noted that labour and industrial relations space had been marred by frequent strikes and industrial actions with little or no regard for the legal framework.

Olawale said there was little to celebrate, particularly in the public sector.  These among other issues that called for urgent attention, he maintained, had contributed to the decadence of labour and industrial relations practice in Nigeria.

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The NECA boss noted that the current unfriendly business environment coupled with the global economic downturn and unstable industrial relations environment had increased the rate of unemployment in the country.

The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reported that Nigeria’s unemployment rate as of the second quarter (Q2) of 2020 was 27.1 percent, indicating that at least 21.7 million Nigerians are unemployed. It also disclosed that the unemployment and underemployment rate (28.6 percent) when combined stood at 55.7 percent as of June this year.
Olawale said the alarming rate of unemployment, particularly among the young population, showed that the country is, indeed, in a precarious state.

He said there was the need to strengthen and utilise existing labour-relations mechanisms to facilitate continuous interface so that differences are narrowed and frustrations re-channelled into productive ends.

He called on the government to work with stakeholders, particularly labour and employers, to put in place structures that would foster productivity, increase industrial harmony and reduce the level of unemployment in Nigeria. He maintained that the resuscitation of the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) would be the first port of call in addressing the inadequacies in the labour market.

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He advised the government to adopt a two-way strategy to fight the unemployment challenge. He advocated the creation of demand-side policies to reduce demand-deficient unemployment and supply-side policies to reduce structural unemployment

Corroborating Olawale, the National President, Association of Senior Staff of Banks, Insurance and other Financial Institutions (ASSBIFI), Oyinkan Olasanoye, also urged the government, to, as a matter of urgency, reconstitute the NLAC, which has been moribund for over a decade.

She said until the NLAC was reconstituted, the government and employers would continue to deny workers their right to participate in making decisions that affect their interests.

NLAC was established in line with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 144, on Tripartite Consultation and Social Dialogue, which Nigeria has already ratified.

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Olasanoye harped on the need to strengthen trade unions with technical and professional competency to negotiate for better infrastructure, social and economic development.

She mentioned some of the challenges facing the trade union movement in Nigeria to include poor enforcement of the labour laws, lack of political will to sufficiently review the obsolete labour laws, the dearth of experienced and committed union leaders, government unilateral decisions on sensitive national issues affecting workers and lack of respect for Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs).

With the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, Olasanoye, who is also Deputy President of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), noted that the transition to a virtual work approach is some of the new challenges being faced by the labour movement in Nigeria.

According to her, as automation increases, those without the requisite inadequate skills may lag and employment rates could soar.

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She urged labour leaders to bargain for a better compensation template, legislation protecting the rights of workers and adequate training for up-skilling and right-skilling.

The labour leader canvassed the use of technology to expand campaigns, and the accessibility of remote and emerging workplace trends by labour leaders.

She noted: “The challenge is not only about employers replacing workers with machinery, but the employment of flexible workforce such as outsourced workers without commitment towards social protection, decent wages, and bypassing of other workplace responsibilities.

“We need more capacity building to equip us to organise and negotiate in a complex environment, especially as presented under this COVID-19. Employers, especially those in the organised private sector will seize this as an opportunity to pursue anti-union and union-busting tactics, such as provided in Section 45 of the amended Banks and other Financial Institutions (BOFI) Act 2004, where the President is empowered to proscribe any union in the banking sector whose activities he suspects to be against the economic interest of the country.”

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Deputy President of Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Joe Ajaero, said the nation has continued to move at snail speed with an instalment development decline year-in-year-out.
 
Ajaero argued that no development plan spanned 10 years, noting that successive administrations had failed to embark on sustainability assessment.

“I am not sure there has been any conscious plan to put Nigeria where it should be in the next five years. Consistency and conscious planning will help us. Over-dependence on petroleum is also not helping the matter,” he said.

He maintained that the N30,000 national minimum wage is inadequate because of the value of the naira which is constantly on a downward path. If the naira has remained at par with the dollar or stronger as it was in the early 1980s, Nigerians would have been among the highest-paid employees globally even with the N30,000 minimum wage.

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He said the welfare of Nigerians and workers had deteriorated over time, lamenting that there has been “no good transport system, no quality healthcare, no good social space, no old people’s home and no good housing policy since after Lateef Jakande era in Lagos.”

He continued: “If we have good housing policy in place, a worker is sure of affordable housing, good transport system and quality health care among other things to take care of an individual and his family.”

Speaking on incessant industrial actions by labour, he said: “During the COVID-19 pandemic, nobody should tell the government that those in the health institutions should be paid allowances. We had to wait for them to go on strike before negotiating with them. In the education sector too, you forcefully included the teachers in the IPPIS platform event while the system is not efficient, making them not to receive salaries when a month ends.

“The restiveness of the workers and the unions were as a result of non-responsiveness of the employers from various quarters, so the agitation will continue. But if we have people in authorities that are focused and act swiftly before things go out of control, we will not be where we are today.

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“Some of the reactions leading to strikes and coercion were as a result of failure to implement agreements signed years ago; they are not implemented. The authorities should always listen to the agitations and yearnings of workers.”

Addressing the rising unemployment concerns, he insisted that Nigeria does not have policies to tackle unemployment, maintaining that the government has sold major establishments and parastatals that would have created jobs.

“Before now, defunct organisations like NEPA, NITE and others regularly conducted recruitment with each employing about 2,000 persons yearly. Back then, retirees were constantly replaced. Since these areas have been blocked, where do we have space to engage fresh graduates? New people are not getting jobs while those employed are being sacked.

“Yearly, graduates are churned out of higher institutions without any feasible plan to fix them into jobs. The situation is getting worse daily. We must address this challenge otherwise an army of rebels, armed robbers, militants and bandits will continue to be created. We need to plan now before it is too late,” he said.

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