‘Govt has ignored organised labour but we are resolute’
National President of the Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria (ASCSN), Dr Tommy Okon, in an interview with labour writers, gives an update on the ongoing negotiation between organised labour and the Federal Government, as well as the most suitable palliative, considering the current cost of living. GLORIA NWAFOR was there.
Has the government jettisoned organised labour in the ongoing negotiation framework to cushion the fuel subsidy removal effect?
This is a trying time for organised labour and the entire labour movement in the country. Since the inaugural speech of President Bola Tinubu, it has been a work-work and talk-talk with organised labour and all affiliates of the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) and the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC). The removal of fuel subsidy is an albatross to the smooth interaction and interface with the government, especially when it comes to issues of workers’ welfare. Fuel is an important ingredient, especially in the Nigerian context, because that is the mainstay of the Nigerian economy.
Subsidy was removed through the pronouncement and nothing to cushion the effect of the removal that left the entire workers in the country in limbo. Eventually, the government invited us; we proceeded and a committee was set up to look at what palliative would be provided to cushion the effect of subsidy removal, and we also followed the committees and sub-committees. I tell you categorically that I am a member of the sub-committee on cost of governance, but as I speak, the meeting of that sub-committee has not taken place and the committees were given two months to submit reports.
But we woke up to read that Mr President has taken a step to approach the National Assembly for N500 billion approval to pay N8,000 to 12 million households, and I can tell you that such a policy was not in the best interest of the economy. We feel that it would have been proper for Mr President to have waited for the committee to submit the report because that is the principle of collective bargaining and social dialogue on consultation, but that was swept away by that singular act. It, therefore, means that Mr. President acted in a fair wind. He is acting for the people and not for the people to think for themselves.
When you look at the N8,000 for a household of say about four persons, the last conditional cash transfer cannot attest to the fact that any household benefited, and when you look at the social register, you look at the credibility of the social register. When you put all these together, you still go back to what we suspected the trust deficit, because we have had this trust deficit in the past, where the government will say one thing and they will do another thing. It would have been more honourable for the government to have waited for the committees to submit their reports and then set a template for implementation. That would have the buy-in of the Nigerian workers through their representatives.
When this was going on, the government knows that organised labour is not happy, because organised labour has not been reached out to. The next storyline we heard was how they have to roll out all the palliative government had in stock. Then the fundamental question is why were we invited to an open discussion? And if we did not attend a lot of people, who do not understand will say the union jettisoned the invitation by the government to discuss, whereas there is no better way to arrive at a conclusive collective bargaining without discussions.
That is where we are and we feel that there is no point for us to be a member of such a committee. We are not happy that the government has jettisoned our involvement in the committee without waiting for us to reconvene so that they can have a very robust input but the government is now doing what they like because they want to paralyse the labour movement. They have gone to the National Industrial Court (NIC) to get an injunction so that we don’t go on strike, it is worse than dictatorship.
Has labour pulled out of the ongoing negotiation?
We have not pulled out of the negotiation with the government but we are disappointed that government decided to ignore organised labour and decide on their own. We are not happy about it. As we speak, there is no correspondence to call us back to the negotiation table to discuss and conclude what will be the best way forward. We have advised our members to remain resolute and believe in us as elected representatives and to also believe in Nigeria.
What would have been organised labour’s suggestion on the palliative since labour kicked against the N8,000 conditional cash transfer?
Even N20,000 for the poorest of the poor households would not solve the problem associated with the removal of fuel subsidy. The earlier Nigerian leaders realise that the better for all. Also, the earlier Nigerian leaders realise that no advice from the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will better the lots of Nigerians, the better for us. You can’t lend us money that is not meant for productive ventures and ask us to distribute the money. Does that make any economic sense?
The major challenge we have now is transportation and once it is taken care of, it will reduce the cost of goods and services. Why can’t government go into procurement of mass transport vehicles and then distribute them to states, and the states in turn will distribute them to the local governments? That will have a positive effect that will cushion the transport challenges associated with the removal of fuel subsidy. Once that is done, you can easily hold N1,000 and go and come back with change. That will pay better than the issue of distributing money. In the alternative, the government could also cluster those in the informal economy, who are into the productive venture and then pump in money there. That will have a turnover effect that will make them employers of labour. That can also reduce unemployment and also give them the capital they need and economic strength, which is money.
Recall what happened in the school feeding programme that became so very shameful that even when schools were closed due to COVID-19, leaders were feeding children in their parent’s houses. If the government doesn’t know how to reason, let them allow young people who are driven by 21st-century technology, because what happened in 1999 is no longer fashionable now. You may be a good leader in 1999, but today, the country is more scientific, we don’t do analogs for today’s leadership. Modern-day leadership is best leadership with certain principles, where you have availability, accessibility and accountability; you have to understand that.
Our thinking is not the distribution of money but letting there be a provision of those infrastructures that can be able to sustain the economy and make the economy live so that people who work in the economy can also have something to fall back on.
Part of labour’s demands is a salary increase of N200,000 as recommended by the TUC when fuel subsidy was just removed and fuel price sold for about N500. Today, it is over N600 with the recent increase. Is the recommended N200,000 still valid?
On the N200,000 wage increase by TUC, automatically, the current socioeconomic realities have eroded that. It means government should look at other allowances to cushion the effect before arriving at the issue of salary increase. With about 22.8 per cent inflation, that will affect even the salary increase to the extent that we should not clamour for a salary increase. If a worker does not have the purchasing power how can he take care of bills?
Government should look at allowances and incentives that are not taxable and not just salaries. What stops the government from providing fuel or transport allowance and others that can make the worker the purchasing power that will have a positive spillover on the economy? This is because if you are paid well, you can save and when you save the banks will have money to borrow from the manufacturing industry and the economy will continue to boom, it is elementary economic sense. That is logical.
How is labour going to include the private and informal sector workers to benefit from the negotiation?
When you look at the public service, it is what happens that drives the economy. Once the public service receives a pay cheque, automatically, the informal sector starts booming, because they will have the purchasing power that will have a spillover effect, and it is also the same government policy that drives the informal economy. Our request for a living wage also takes care of the informal economy. The government also should have the willpower to cluster these people and throw investment on them .
Even the private sector depends on the government. You see a lot of wait by the private sector for the government to announce the budget to know where to go to. I tell you that a lot of people in the private sector earn more than those in the public sector. The salary of a director in public service is not up to N500,000 but managers in the private sector earn over N1.5 million with many allowances that even extend to family vacation. Even the contributory pension scheme in public service is worse. There is an enormous difference between those in public service and the private sector. Whatever you earn in public service, you take all to the private sector to spend. It is the government that drives the informal economy. When it is well with the public sector, it is automatically well with the private sector.
How does organised labour intend to regain public confidence?
Ab initio, we mentioned that there is already a trust deficit and we have had our fair share of it from the last administration but they assured us that this one is going to be different, but we have just seen the direction they have gone. We don’t need to be convinced, because as of today we are no longer convinced that the government meant well for the Nigerian economy. On the issue of redeeming the image of organised labour, we are law-abiding citizens. You don’t expect 21st-century labour unions to act like labour in the past, who bounce tables. We approach the government with our scientific way of engagement. It is very disappointing that the government supposed to believe in social dialogue is acting in this manner. We also want our members to know that we are not recalcitrant and we are law-abiding. Since the government has gone to court to stop us, we are also engaging them in court. The matter is in court and at the appropriate time once that matter is vacated, we will know whether the labour you used to know is like a dog that backs without biting.
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