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Hurdles for labour ministers as stakeholders set agenda

By Collins Olayinka (Abuja) and Gloria Ehiaghe (Lagos)
27 August 2019   |   3:33 am
In a country where one in every five persons is unemployed, its development challenges are often formidable. But that is the scenario in today’s Nigeria. The festering social upheavals are clearly a manifestation of a society that is unable to keep the majority of her citizens engaged in productive activities.

Chris Ngige, Minister of Labour and Employment.

In a country where one in every five persons is unemployed, its development challenges are often formidable. But that is the scenario in today’s Nigeria.

The festering social upheavals are clearly a manifestation of a society that is unable to keep the majority of her citizens engaged in productive activities. Therefore, the officials that are saddled with the task of job creation have their hands full.

The re-appointment of Dr Chris Ngige, as the Minister of Labour and Employment, and Sen. Tayo Alasoadura as the Minister of State came at a time of diverse issues. On their hands are: pending minimum wage, woes of casual workers, fears of massive job cuts fuelled by the economic downturn, and the inability of employers to pay salaries and emoluments of workers promptly.

With the experience garnered during his first coming as the Minister of Labour, there is no doubt that Ngige is no stranger to the challenges and also, the intricacies inherent in labour administration in Nigeria.

However, stakeholders have urged both Ngige and Alasoadura to hit the ground running, but with the buy-in of unions, employers, workers, among others.

Regarding the controversies that dogged his first term in office, former President of Trade Union Congress (TUC), Peter Esele, said the minister must learn from his first term and apply the lessons in order to deliver a stable industrial atmosphere where employers and workers would interrelate without suspicions.

Esele said: “Let us hope that both labour and Ngige have learnt from the last altercations they had and see how they can work together. Whatever people do, they do because of certain principles. On the part of labour, they have a set of agenda, which is to defend and protect the interest of the working class.

“I also believe that it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Labour and Employment to protect workers and create a conducive atmosphere for employers to operate without any hiccups. Therefore, the relationship between employers and workers is symbiotic. So, the government should be the mediator between employer and employee without taking aside.”

Esele added that the government must respect the laws guiding labour relations in the country.

“What we have had in recent past is that the government itself has been the one breaking the rules and laws. The minimum wage is yet to take off four months after the President signed it into law. The ministers must now move fast and ensure that the new wage floor becomes operational within a few weeks. It is left for the government to respect its own laws so that there won’t be any need to talk about Ngige or Ayuba Wabba every time,” he said.

He said further that the take-off of the new minimum wage would engender mutual trust between the ministers, employers and workers.

“The minister should ensure that he gets workers on his side by simply following the law and the law is that the minimum wage is N30, 000 and that government should pay. Once this is done, workers would be able to trust and rely on him, which I consider very vital for productive negotiations to take place whenever there is the need for one,” he said.

Esele also stressed the need for the ministers to rejuvenate the inspectorate department of the ministry in order to bring orderliness and sanity to work environment.

“The two ministers must work assiduously to revitalise the inspectorate division of the federal ministry of labour and employment. Once that division is up and running, they will be able to police the work environment and make sure that workers work in an environment that is safe and does not threaten their wellbeing.”

He said that there is also the urgent need to build the capacity of labour officials on negotiation skills.

“The ministers should also organise training and retraining sessions for the workers in that ministry on negotiation skills. Most of the problems that snowball into full industrial disagreements stem from lack of tact in the way negotiations are done by the ministry official who is either too junior or does not have the necessary skills to conduct negotiations.

“That is why the government finds it difficult in most cases to honour agreements. While labour always comes to the negotiation table with their best 11, the government brings officials that are not only junior but are most often ill-equipped and not up to date on negotiation skills.”

On his part, the President of the United Labour Congress (ULC), Joe Ajaero, urged the labour ministry to be proactive, prevent industrial disputes and disagreements at infant levels before they escalate into a full-blown crisis.

He said the ministry must begin to pay attention to the work environment to ensure that there are efficient health and safety measures to reduce industrial accidents, while obsolete laws should be reviewed in a progressive and dynamic manner that will be favourable to all the social partners.

Ajaero urged the ministers to create policies for robust industrial relations, as well as to formally register the ULC, by ensuring the trade union movement is democratised and liberalised.

“We would request that efforts are made to ensure that the nation runs a more inclusive and democratic trade union movement thus a liberal, just and fair industrial relations clime in Nigeria. It is only by doing this that we conform to our traditions as social partners and a democratic nation. Any form of dictatorship or bandage anywhere enslaves all so, the undemocratic practices within this sector must be purged through your concerted effort.

“Those on whose shoulders societies change positively are always resisted by those who benefit from the decaying old order. We, therefore, urge them to dig deep and resolve to liberate Nigerian workers who have suffered unduly under the yoke of deprivations in our workplaces.

“We look up to their leadership. Nigerian workers, who we represent, are hopeful that they will do better this time. Nigerian masses believe that the minister’s return is a good sign that things may get better.”

Similarly, the President of Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), Williams Akporeha, while congratulating Ngige on his re-appointment, said it was a clear recognition and deserving reward for his monumental contributions in engendering industrial peace and harmony among trade unions and entire Nigeria’s workforce in line with the laudable policy of the present administration.

Akporeha, however, challenged Ngige and Alasoadura to nip casualisation in the bud in the oil and gas sector.

The NUPENG boss described casualisation as another form of modern-day slavery in the workplace.

“We gave it to him that he is a pro-worker minister, and that stand should continue so that Nigerian workers will have a sense of belonging and ensure that casualisation is resisted because we continue to see casualisation as another form of modern-day slavery.

“That is one area we want him to look at so that any worker can see the impact of his labour, and not otherwise. Most companies outsource every part of their jobs in order to make more money using Nigerian workers. Our challenge in the oil and gas sector is the issue of casualisation, which we urge the minister to tackle in his second tenure,” he said.

The Director-General of the Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Association (NECA), Timothy Olawale, on his part, urged Ngige to work very hard towards ensuring industrial peace.

Olawale said NECA would be willing to play whatever role where necessary.

Among his expectations, Olawale said: “The institutions of labour that are effective that are supposed to add value to the labour and industrial relations such as the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) should be made to be active and to perform its role by meeting regularly, so it can tame all issues of industrial crisis before they become real problems.

“Of course, social dialogue is very important. From time to time, he should engage stakeholders and social partners and ensure that he carries them along in the implementation of government policies, especially those that will affect the real sector of the economy. The reviews of our labour laws, which are abused and need urgent action of the National Assembly, should be prioritised between now and 2020.

“Lastly, reconciliation is equally very important, especially the friction between the ministry under his leadership and the organised labour. Both of them should come together as one family and form a unity of purpose. There must be reconciliation among all parties within the labour circle so that we can forge ahead for national development.”

In welcoming the Minister back, Trade Union Congress (TUC) has urged the two Ministers to tackle casualisation, outsourcing and pension.

TUC said: “It is imperative to state here that we are not happy that some months after the new minimum wage was approved by the Federal Government, the issue is still foot-dragging over parity. His presence must make a difference.

“Other hurting issues include casualisation, outsourcing, pension, and so on. The strength of any union is their number. Unfortunately, our members are losing jobs in droves. This has to be checked if we must put a stall to acts of criminality. Posterity will be fair to him if he protects and creates more jobs instead of losing the existing ones. We must not forget that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.

“There is serious task ahead but we shall continue to count and trust in his wisdom, adroitness and proficiency to provide the Midas touch needed to positively turn around the ministry for the good of all.

We urge him to work to review our labour law to curb the excesses of employers who are deeply involved in anti-labour practices. They must be adequately punished to deter others from embarking on such a predatory venture. These and more we ask for.”