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Kaduna workers crisis: New approaches to labour disputes

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Kaduna State Governor, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai. Photo: TWITTER/GOVKADUNA

The Kaduna labour dispute have thrown up an emerging scenario where workers and employers have to be more tactful in resolving disputes, such that facts are properly disputed on the negotiation table.

At a time when the capacity of the employer is genuinely stretched, how should both sides trade their facts and data such that minimal losses are incurred on the two sides, and in the larger interests of society?

While labour unions seek to uphold rights of workers, they also need to understand the peculiarity of the present circumstances of many states, who have to contend with low internally generated revenues, dwindling revenue from Federal Account Allocation Committee (FAAC), repayment of the loans borrowed from the CBN in form of the budget support facility and productivity challenges from many workers.

A lawyer who is a specialist in employment and banking issues, Paul Omoijiade, advocates adherence to extant statutes.

He said: “Laws must emanate from the way of life of the people. Laws must also consider the history of the people. If a law was crafted to create a dichotomy between the dispute of interest and dispute of rights under the Trade Union Amendment of 2005, you discover that as far as workers are concerned, they do not see any dichotomy. When a law is enacted that does not consider the socio-economic interest of the people, that law will only be disobeyed by the people.”

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He further stated that the government relying on laws to mitigate strike would not count for much unless the government focuses on sound economic policies and industrial relations policies, saying: “If all the workers in Nigeria go on strike, will the government put all of them in jail?”

However, he explained that strike has limitations under the law.

“There are limitations to strikes within the law. Under the labour law, unions have the right to call out their members to withdraw their services. But there is a dangerous dimension where unions go out to lock down offices and shut down facilities. Workers have no right to lock out their employers because where workers go on strike, management members can decide to render skeletal services. That is why certain individuals are not allowed to join unions because of conflict of interests. Under the Trade Dispute Act, employers are the ones that are allowed to lock out employees. Also, where employees stop work, employers have the right to apply the principle of ‘no work, no pay.”

He was quick to blame successive governments’ refusal to implement agreements as one of the major causes of “confusions in the industrial space” as far as the instrument of strike is concerned.

“All in all, there has been a new dimension to industrial disputes in Nigeria because over the years employers or government create the impression that the only language they understand is the use of force. Where dispute resolution mechanism or procedure is robust to allow both sides ventilate their grievances, parties will not want to resort to unorthodox means.

Over the years, the government no longer respects agreements and workers resort to the banging of tables and shutting premises,” he stated.

Speaking on the industrial action that rocked Kaduna State recently, Omoijiade said the failure of the state government to follow extant rules on redundancy was responsible for the strike.

He stated: “The issue that happened in Kaduna was a simple one that involved retrenchment without complying with the labour Act on the issue of redundancy. If an employer wants to sack workers, it must discuss with their unions to negotiate the exit package. But that was not done.”

He held that while workers have the right to withhold their labour, they do not have the right to shut down public utilities such as electricity and water supply.

What does the law say about the labour centres declaring a national strike? Omoijiade explains: “Under the law, the NLC and TUC do not have bargaining power with government or employers except they are authorised to do so by the trade unions. If the unions come together and request the help of the labour centres, in that case, both the NLC and TUC have the legal power to intervene and even call out members on strike.”

A former activist, who craved anonymity faulted the tact adopted by both sides during the Kaduna strike.

He said the crisis was accentuated by the bruised ego of the Kaduna state governor, Nasir el-Rufai during events that eventually led to the strike.

“In the case of Kaduna, the ego of the state governor was bruised. No one goes to the negotiation table with a man whose ego has been bruised. The governor would rather die than have the four thousand sacked workers return to work. Therefore, if labour wanted to prosecute such action, it must have a lot of connections within government and outside of it.”

He also faulted the methodology used by the Kaduna state government to downsize its workforce, saying, “I know it would have been difficult for labour to go on strike if the parameters that were used to disengage workers were put on the table for labour to interrogate. If examinations were conducted, were the results made available for the unions to see? On both sides, a lot of things were not done to the standards expected of labour dispute resolution.”

He also argued that throwing 4,000 workers into the unemployment market at once was going to be injurious to the Kaduna State economy.

The activist advocated training and re-training of workers that no longer fit into a particular sector into other areas.

“I do not think throwing 4,000 workers out of work is going to be good for the Kaduna State economy. If we consider dependents, the number of sacked people would be more than 20,000. What happens to their wives, children, parents, in-laws, sisters, brothers, even friends that get help from the sacked workers? Governments exist for the benefits of the people. Government cannot run like private enterprises. The government does not run to make profit its primary purpose. The government runs to make life bearable for the people. El-Rufai cannot behave as if he was elected to make profit.”

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Yes, he was not elected to pay salaries only, but enhancing the standard of living of the people is one of the most important tasks of the government he heads. Training and retraining of sacked workers must be a part of the negotiation skill unionists must include in the package when they negotiate. Management will not give them something that is not requested for,” he said.

He insisted that labour must take advantage of the digital age if it wants to remain relevant and prosecute its struggles differently within emerging parameters.

His words: “Labour must prioritise education, information and technology. What is wrong with labour using Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and other social media outlets to explain their challenges to their members and Nigerians? This is what should happen. Labour must never shut its doors to negotiation or prolong its stay on the streets unnecessarily. In coming to the negotiation table, labour must ensure that the ego of the other group is not bruised in such a way that the two of you can’t see eye to eye. The other side to the negotiation is very important with the right network and the right contacts and could develop the capacity to deploy them when necessary. Labour must also command the respect of the management, government and their members. They must also be genuinely interested in the good of the whole. For instance, in a redundancy scenario, labour should never insist on the retention of workers that are deemed no longer good enough for their organisations. In letting the person go, it is now the responsibility of labour to ensure anyone exiting employment gets his or her entitlements. That way, labour gets the respect of the management as well as its members.”

“With the negative impact of COVID-19 on means of production and reduction in the resources available to governments worldwide, the organised labour needs to train and retrain its members on negotiation skill and understanding of data to protect jobs.”

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