‘Why labour suspended strike against electricity tariff hike, deregulation policy’
The General Secretary of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Emmanuel Ugboaja, in this interview with Collins Olayinka, explained why the planned strike by the organised labour against hike of electricity tariff and full deregulation of the downstream sector of the oil industry failed to fly.
I am sure you are aware of misgivings expressed by Nigerians on the manner the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) suspended the planned strike against the increment in the pump price of petroleum and electricity tariff. What were the processes that led to the suspension of the action on that crucial night?
First, we should start by appreciating why the labour movement issued a strike notice; why the trade unions opted for strike rather than dialogue. The straightforward answer would be that the other party (government) was not available to dialogue. If the other party was not available, you bring out your ultimate weapon, which is strike, to pull them out to make dialogue take place. We wrote to draw the attention of the government through different communication channels to express our discomfort with the twin policies of increment in electricity tariffs and petroleum pump price. There was no response from government. We had our organs’ meetings and the meetings authorised us to issue an ultimatum to government if they don’t come to the table, we would be forced to withdraw our services. Government kept away. So, it was that pressure that made us to start organising ourselves the way trade unions organise. We reached out to our members; we reached out to organs and mobilised for a strike to draw the attention of employers/government.
When government, like any regular employer will do, realised that the trade centres were serious, they decided to come to the table to negotiate. It was going to be absurd that government will, after we had accused them of lack of access and openness, come to the table for negotiation, then we will then say no we were not interested in discussing. For us, that was an improper thing to do. You will recall that President of NLC is currently the President of ITUC global. It would be ridiculous for the President of workers worldwide to say that he is not interested in dialogue.
The process that we all knew before now was that labour was going to consult its organs and get approval before going back to the meeting to ratify the agreement. It was said that labour relocated its organs’ meeting to Aso Rock. What is your comment on this?
The fact of the matter was that the Sunday meeting was the third meeting we were holding. It was at the second meeting that it was agreed that people should take their positions back to their principals. We then agreed that if the negotiating teams come back for the third meeting, agreement could be reached. That third meeting ought to have taken place on a Monday. But the government was pressurised by what will happen to the country if labour was to commence its strike. So, government was determined to have the matter resolved without the strike option. So, rather than wait till Monday, government brought the meeting forward to Sunday. But we adjourned that meeting on Thursday for people to go back to their principals. Government on that day said the President was out of the country and they needed to see him. That was why they were not sure of having access to the President before Monday. That was why they fixed the meeting for Monday so that we can see him at the weekend. When they realised that we would go ahead with our strike, I guessed they were able to access the President that weekend and having got the mandate of the President, they scheduled the meeting for Sunday night. We already had our position because the issues had been narrowed at that Thursday meeting. So, we had a situation where if they got the mandate of the President to accept the pressure we had mounted, then there will be a leeway of resolving the matter before Monday morning when the strike was scheduled to begin. That was what played out.
Each time labour declared a strike; it always cited its collaboration with civil society groups. At what point were the civil society groups consulted before the strike was suspended?
At no time in any of the discussions had we carried civil society groups to negotiations. We always had meeting with relevant civil society players, but it is always the NLC negotiating team that goes ahead and do the negotiation. So, it was trade union negotiation; it was a trade union meeting. At the meetings, none of the civil society groups addressed the congress as it used to be. The issue of having a joint civil society/labour meeting did not arise. Under normal condition, we used to have late Gani Fawehinmi coming to address our organs. We used to have interested civil society people like Dipo Fashina who feel passionate about the country address meetings. But in this instance, nobody came to address the organs of Congress. It is funny for people to say there was a joint negotiating team. But we always believed that people that believe in what we are doing, the way we offer hands of fellowship to civil society groups, they should also offer to us when we need it. No one should interfere in organisations’ internal workings.
Now that labour has accepted deregulation of the downstream petroleum sector where market forces will henceforth determine the pump price, does it not mean that labour has lost the plot finally?
It is not about losing the plot finally because part of the challenge over the last three decades of engagements with government over the matter, it has always been a one-track solution where a couple of Naira is taken off the pump price and the issue still remained. Check our literature of this struggle and you will see that we have been very clear that any attempt at resolving high price of petroleum without the refineries working will not endure. We can never have any win in a situation where we rely on importation. What Nigerians call deregulation is importation. That cannot be on any strength of imagination be deregulation. We have made that point consistently. Our affiliates in the sector have made that point clearly. The drive has been how do we get the country to genuinely produce refined products. That should be the driving force and in all the work we have done, it has been on how to pressurise both private and public sectors participation in the production of refined products in Nigeria. We have argued that the government refineries should be put to work and the private sector players should be encouraged to come into the sector to also help what government is doing through our own refineries. I have never believed in import-driven process of pricing. That is why most of the time what people are happy about has never resolved the issue. With the direction we have taken now and our affiliates in the sector involved in the monitoring and evaluation of the rehabilitation process of the refineries, we seem to be headed in the right direction. If we get around processing crude oil locally, we would not be talking about international prices. We would be talking about a product that is refined in the country because by-products will help create jobs and increase activities within the economic space. For us, what we got on the table with regard to the oil sector was commendable.
While labour was focussing on petrol and electricity, Naira has also been devalued which reduced the value of the N30,000 minimum wage. Was this captured in the negotiations?
I am glad you captured the situation succinctly. Why did the labour cry out? Labour cried out because we had just got some reprieve courtesy the increment in the minimum wage and now confronted with these twin increases take away what we had got. That was the basis of our crying out. Labour was simply asking for a dialogue. If it took us dialogue to get minimum wage and it is taking lack of dialogue to erode the minimum wage, government should explain the rationale behind the move to the working people. That was why we insisted that government needs to be on the table with us for a dialogue because the two policies were not on the table when we were discussing minimum wage. If the issues had been on the table when we discussed minimum wage, the result would have been different. There is the need for government to have resources, but there is also a need to have some palliatives to cushion the effects of the increases. That was what brought about the third leg of the agreement, which had to do with a commitment of government to help facilitate more mass transit buses. That was what led government into disclosing its plans on housing programme where workers will be allocated a certain percentage. The only business that civil servants can engage in is agriculture. Government expressed its readiness to give loans to civil servants in that regard. These are clear gains. For workers, we did not come out empty-handed. That was more beneficial to workers than being on the streets protesting, a situation that will result into removal of a few Naira from the pump price and electricity tariff.
What is the situation with electricity tariff now, especially in view of expiration of the initial two weeks moratorium?
It is one of the biggest ironies of government when people say government is a continuum. What the last government did concerning the so-called privatisation of the power sector was a complete rape of the Nigerian people. The last government promised that the privatisation of the sector will lead to efficiency, creation of more jobs and influx of investment and herald economic progress of the country. None of the promises happened. What happened was that the entities were given to local politicians and their friends. No single expertise has come in. No single foreign investment has come in. Not one equipment has been replaced by the DisCOs. What we had was a fraud. We were aware that the groupings that the DisCOs projected to manage the new hike in tariff was not workable. There was consensus on what next to be done for the country to get out of the quagmire it found itself. Labour is a partner in progress. Labour is looking for the good of the country and the working people. We then insisted that DisCOs needed to suspend the hike. The least we could ask for would be two weeks for us to take a transparent look at the whole scenario together and verify whether the data the DisCOs have brought forward was real. If it is not real, it means they can’t defend the need for a hike in tariff. But if what they did is real, it will be transparent to everybody because it was not done transparently before. We are hopeful that the end-product will throw up a balanced situation because DisCOs will come to the table, consumers as represented by the trade centres will come to the table and government will also be there. That will allow everyone to have an understanding of what is going on.
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