We will engage new govt on policies affecting workers, says Ajaero
Joe Ajaero is the new president of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC). He spoke with GLORIA NWAFOR on some of the challenges facing Nigerian workers, expectations from the incoming administration and plans to revive trade unionism.
How would you assess the just-concluded general elections?
The elections have come and gone. People should take their grievances to court. They can equally protest if they are not satisfied with the outcome. As far as the NLC is concerned, this country must exist. Let me score the Labour Party very high. They have performed creditably well and have come up to be the voice of the masses even in the National Assembly.
They will speak against and stop anti-labour issues. The people elected can hold the National Assembly accountable. We are going to speak to them and present our charter of demands, while we do our union job. We will organise the Labour Party to take over leadership in the country and we urge all workers to be patient. It is going to be owned by labour.
A new administration will take over on May 29, what agenda would you be setting as a union?
The NLC Central Working Committee (CWC), National Administrative Council (NAC) and every organ will meet, articulate our position through our charter of demands and forward it to the president when he is inaugurated.
This is because workers’ issues are generally on the front burner through demands for a good wage, decent work environment and social welfare. In a country where you don’t have a good transportation system, electricity, proper medicare and education sector is on low performance, the workers suffer more. When you look at all these aggregately, you will see that the point of the new minimum wage is more than necessary now. The N30,000 minimum wage cannot take anybody anywhere.
These are some of the issues that are obvious today before we will come up with some policies that workers are dealing with now, such as privatisation policy, deregulation policy, outsourcing and concessioning, among others. These policies imposed on us by successive governments are affecting the worker and we wish and pray that they will be eliminated.
You can’t separate the rights of workers from the condition of service. It is drawn from the fact that these workers have the right to fair and living wages, as well as being provided with good conditions of service. We are going to engage government on policies affecting the Nigerian worker. If you look, now is a transition period. We await the next administration to take over to engage them in this process.
You recently embarked on a working visit to some unions, what was the outcome?
The tour is fact-finding for us to assess the state of things and condition these unions are operating. That will enable us to get the raw facts on how to serve them better.
We should not just assume we know their problems but by coming close to them, we get acquainted with their problems and take them back to our organs and deliberate upon for us to know the best approach to solve their problems.
Trade unionism is gradually facing extinction as a result of casualisation and outsourcing, through which many workers have been reduced to slaves via contract and casual employment. What is the NLC doing to tackle the menace?
Some workers earn as little as N15,000 with no conditions of service, medicare and pension. All these things, we are going to face squarely. Most employers don’t allow workers to belong to unions. It is only when you belong to a union that your interest and welfare will be catered for. All those issues will be tackled.
Some of the unions are at the point of extinction because of workplace tyranny. We have to put a stop to it. If we do that and empower the unions, make them strong and vibrant, then they will be in a position to serve their members. Note that whatever is affecting the Nigerian worker is also affecting the NLC. T
his is a burden that the NLC must carry. Then the issue of minimum wage, the pay that cannot take you home. So, these are some of the issues that we will have to contend with as a movement.
The NLC is also ready to fight anti-labour governors for neglecting the welfare of workers. This is not an era where any governor will insult us. Any governor or anybody that wants to punish workers should be ready for war because we will not allow it.
We are out for serious business. All inhuman working conditions or anti-labour activities, most especially from the governors, will no longer be acceptable. Many organisations have been destroyed as a result of anti-labour policies. Workers are always at the receiving end. Workers create wealth and it is time for us to also enjoy the wealth. We are ready to engage the incoming government. Workers are ready to be involved in governance. The era of sitting down and looking is over.
No time for patience or laziness again. We are ready to take our rightful place and that is why we are going to engage government when it takes over.
The leadership of the NLC will seek platforms to lift workers from the shackles of poverty. We will not betray that trust! We are committed to pursuing the interests and desires of workers and by extension, the majority of the masses. We, therefore, pledge our loyalty to the NLC, workers, the masses and Nigeria. Our thoughts and our actions shall be propelled by this avowal.
We are re-invigorating the anti-casualisation committee of the NLC, especially areas of Lagos, Port Harcourt, Kano and other industrial areas. In Kano State alone, we have over 26 companies that have refused unionisation. We have to set up an anti-casualisation committee to engage them. Casualisation is a monster that is almost killing the unions and if we don’t fight it, it will destroy us.
What should we expect from some employers who do otherwise, especially with the current challenges workers are experiencing?
The employers that are doing the wrong things should between now and next three months, correct their steps. We shut down Abia and Imo States. How can a worker work for 17 months without salary or pension? It has nothing to do with pedigree this time around. Our activities in the next few months will determine how we want to address these issues.
You cannot isolate the NLC from the challenges of the country. As of today, we have this challenge of scarcity of cash, which is affecting the worker. When we are saying that the worker doesn’t have enough, even the little that he is getting, even that N1,000 that he has, to access it is very problematic. That is one.
Secondly, even when he manages to access it, the purchasing power has been grossly eroded based on inflation and other factors. You can see that buying petrol now is a problem. A worker’s salary of N20,000 or N30,000 could go into buying fuel because of the cost of Premium Motor Spirit (PMS), paying electricity tariff and it won’t even be enough. These are challenges that are real.
They are not only affecting the worker, they are affecting the generality of the populace. Note that whatever is affecting the Nigerian worker is also affecting the NLC. This is already a burden that the NLC must carry. That is the greatest burden as I see it.
Then the issue of minimum wage, the pay that cannot take you home. When you compare the minimum wage with the cost of living, it cannot balance up. So, these are some of the issues that we will have to contend with as a movement.
You mentioned that privatisation of government entities is a scam. Could you explain?
The policy of privatisation is anti-worker. Let the Federal Government tell us any company that is privatised and doing well. Who are the owners of the companies that have been privatised? It is a scam because if you privatise, we should know the owners of such privatised entities. For some of us in the power sector, some of us don’t know the real owners of Egbin Power Station, Eko Electricity and Ikeja Electricity.
It shouldn’t be a secret if it is not a scam. Who are the owners? If you sell a government public corporation, you should be able to tell us the owners of such companies and who you sold it to.
How is NLC tackling oil theft, considering how much has been lost in the sector?
That is an issue we will collaborate with our colleagues in that sector to have a committee that will give us accurate information on what actually is happening there.
There are a lot of regulations and laws that are not labour-friendly in the Petroleum Industry Act (PIA). What is your take, as well as on subsidies that have gulped trillions from the nation’s economy?
The focus is just on the communities on how they will share oil money, but not on how to protect workers’ interests. Ministers of Labour and Petroleum have never come to our rescue when it comes to bad and anti-labour policies in the oil and gas sector. Today, we are being told that the refineries are undergoing rehabilitation, which is true, but with the speed at which it is being done, we can’t vouch for the integrity of the process anymore.
At every point, they continue to shift the goalpost and milestones of the processes. The Port Harcourt refinery was supposed to have started work in March by the initial plan and time frame we were given but we don’t know what is happening anymore.
Information reaching now is that it might take off in June. Initially, it was supposed to be in January, they moved to March and now June. The inconsistency is giving us concern, not to talk of Warri and Kaduna refineries.
Our concern is that most of our workers are in those establishments and their jobs are at stake. Even the contract workers’ jobs are also threatened by the level of uncertainty. We are not going to fold our hands; we will face them strongly to the right quarters. With the delays, the contractors are asking for variations.
When the government has paid about 70 per cent of the contract sum, why are they asking for variation and additional payments? If Port Harcourt is to start by June and they have not awarded Warri, one wonders if Port Harcourt will be able to serve Nigerians. Let these refineries work first; subsidy will be useless if the refineries are working. Subsidy has gulped trillions from the nation’s economy.