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Supporting employees, protecting jobs amid pandemic 

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Notwithstanding the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic that had brought unprecedented challenges for businesses both locally and globally, its impact on businesses has resulted in a global shutdown, frustrating business operations, investments and supply chains.

Undoubtedly, since the outbreak, unemployment rate globally had skyrocketed exponentially by huge health and economic crisis.

Indeed, report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), had said that in the second quarter of the year, about 195 million jobs without policy measures would be at risk globally.

Experts are of the view that right policy direction by governments and businesses to mitigate the labour market crisis, economic losses and challenges is pertinent.

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They argued that even as employers and organisations try to keep businesses afloat and also obey the directives of government, the need to also ensure job security of the employees is paramount.

The ILO identified sectors, which are most at risk to include accommodation and food services, manufacturing, retail, and business and administrative activities.

Director General of ILO, Guy Ryder, who noted that workers and businesses are facing catastrophe in both developed and developing economies, sought for solutions that would help all segments of the global society, particularly those that are most vulnerable or least able to help themselves.

For instance, as the month draws to an end, The Guardian gathered that some employers are not willing to pay salaries, while some said they can only afford to pay half salaries since there has not been any financial inflow into their organisations.

They submitted that the directives of government and the declaration of a lockdown, as one of the measures to curtail the spread of the coronavirus, though commendable, have negatively affected their businesses and the economy at large.

The decisions of some companies not to maintain the salaries of their employees are controversial in terms of their turnover and dividends maintained for the shareholders are a priority.

While about 20 million jobs risk to be suppressed in the African continent, according to a study published by the African Union, experts maintained that it is right that employers are to honour their obligations to their employees, as long as the employment contracts subsist.

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According to them, it is the responsibility of all organisations to help where they can during the pandemic, even as the line of vision should always be to seek the preservation of employment.

“Achieving what is economically feasible and socially desirable will be the balance that will guide our social plan when necessary. Therefore, we will adapt our working organisation to different solutions of legal permissiveness, particularly shift work, reduction of working hours, redeployment of staff, telework, said Mamour Diallo, Human Resources Manager at Four du Khalife from Sénégal, recently.

They said the parties are expected to keep to the terms of the contract, which could be varied upon agreement.

But in a situation of “force majeure”, where the parties are well aware as in the case of COVID-19, they further said the parties should take steps to aid the growth and continuous existence of the companies and also ensure job security of the employees.

Director-General, Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Association (NECA), Timothy Olawale, told The Guardian that to ease payment of salaries by employers during the lockdown, Federal and states government must provide bailout and assistance to businesses, just as it is done in other climes.

He also urged the Federal Government to provide a subsidy scheme geared towards compensating companies whose inflows have been affected significantly.

According to him, this is to aid the continued existence of companies and its apparent inability to meet financial obligations including payment of salaries.

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In the coming days, he stressed that hard and difficult conversations and decisions would have to be made by organisations, whereby, employers may exercise the option of proposing or negotiating with the relevant employees, directly or through their trade union a variation of the employment contracts to provide for reduced working hours, pay cuts, part-time work, leave without pay, or other interim arrangements suitable to the employer to navigate the COVID-19 crisis.

He said: “The critical and most fundamental consensus should be that everyone must sacrifice in one form or the other in order to overcome these difficult times. The level and quantum of sacrifice will be according to the peculiarities and level of risks of bankruptcy or business closure faced by the organisation. This is due to the fact that the coronavirus is neither the fault of the employers nor the employees but an incident that occurred and affected employment contracts.”

A Lagos-based lawyer and expert on labour matters, Paul Omoijiade, quoting Section 95 of the ILO Convention, which protects the income of workers, advised employers to re-appraise their strategies during lockdown for effective service delivery.

Since financial inflow has reduced for most organisations, he maintained that bailout is a way out to reflate the economy, adding government can inject funds so there would be no total shutdown, noting that where there is serious economic dislocation, it could result into serious political crisis.

In its position, the United Labour Congress (ULC), while appreciating the worries of employers and the sacrifices they have made to defeat the pandemic, challenged them to pay their workers as part of their continued contribution to the entire effort.

ULC argued that any employer refusing to pay or micromanaging workers’ benefits is not only acting illegally, but is also committing a sin before the Almighty God.

The implications of such actions on the workers, their dependants and of course the economy itself, the union said, is dire.

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President of ULC, Joe Ajaero, bemoaned employers, who are busy contributing huge sums of money to the government and turning back to claim that they cannot pay salaries, maintaining that it is contradictory.

For employers, who insist on not paying, he asked: “Where do you expect the affected workers to get money to fend for themselves and family? How do you expect them to fund their movement to and from work?

“The simple thing is that such employers may be barking at the wrong tree; a case of misplaced aggression. They should have been asking government for support instead of trying to punish workers.

“We call on the Federal Government to immediately seek ways of releasing COVID-19 bailouts to genuine employers of labour to assist them restart their businesses which will be beneficial to the entire economy.

“The ULC on its part is preparing a list of conditionality that must be met by the social partners – government and employers before they ask our members, who are not already on the frontlines to come back to work. There must be a new deal for all workers in the federation as we exit COVID-19 battle,” ULC said.

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