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The freedoms of unionisation: A case study of MTN vs NLC


An official of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Oyo State Chapter, locking the MTN office gate at Ring Road during the picketing of the office in Ibadan.

Nigerian labour unions have always confounded me. As a teenager, it struck me as weird that the Academic Staff Union of Universities, which both my parents belonged to, could go on strike for months and demand to be paid notwithstanding, ostensibly because research does not stop during strikes.

As a lawyer, in my early years of legal practice, I worked with the firm’s aviation practice partner on a dispute between an airline and NUATE, the Nigerian Union of Air Transport Employees. We frequently had meetings with the NUATE executive committee, apparently comprising full time aviation sector employees who also seemed to carry out union business full time. They deployed violence to press home their demands, not unlike their umbrella body, the Nigeria Labour Congress in its recent face-off with a multinational mobile network operator.

It is curious that multinationals always seem to be first in the firing line of these unions. On this occasion, the purported reason for the targeted action is that the operator in question ‘treats its workers like slaves,’ ‘disregards trade union rights’ and ‘the casualisation of workers is unacceptable.’ According to the NLC, the mobile network operator ‘must obey the laws of the land.’ It goes without saying that they must but what labour laws exactly do the unions rely on when they make these allegations?

There are about eight pieces of federal legislation which are generally accepted as making up the body of Nigeria’s labour laws, but the most relevant to the issues at hand are the Labour Act of 1971 and the Trade Unions (Amendment) Act of 2005. The NLC also tries to rely on ILO Conventions 87 and 98 (on freedom of association and collective bargaining rights) but these have largely been codified in the two Acts previously mentioned.

“Casualisation” is essentially the practice of hiring fixed-term or non-permanent staff into a company, or outsourcing certain functions so that they are performed by an independent contractor. The downsides, from an NLC perspective, are the lack of job-security and the benefits enjoyed by full-time staff, such as medical insurance and pension contributions. It should be noted that casualisation is not limited to any one industry. The question, from a legal point of view is, does any of Nigeria’s labour laws prohibit casualisation? The answer is a clear no, as the laws are silent on the issue.

Most companies resort to temporary or outsourced staff for functions that are not central to their business (e.g. customer service or short term projects) and it is in fact a popular cost-saving measure adopted globally. Chances are that everyone who knows people working in the US or Europe knows about “contracting” and how widespread it is. Anyone who follows business trends will also be aware of outsourcing and the vistas it has opened for companies who provide ancillary business or support services.

The second leg of the NLC grouse is that the operator has prevented its workers from unionising and joining the Nigerian Labour Congress. The Labour Act is clear that it is unlawful to prohibit a worker from joining a trade union by the terms of his contract of employment. However, the Trade Unions Act is also clear that membership of any union is voluntary and no one is to be forced to join a union or victimised for refusing to become a member.

Various reports of the “picketing” that took place in Lagos suggest that the premises were forcibly sealed and some property vandalised. None of the reports include a statement of any sort from the staff of the company, who a simple online search will reveal have a thriving staff association, indicative of a truncated yearning to join to the NLC.

The history of the labour congress is one of playing a significant part in putting various governments under pressure. However, we are all witnesses to probably the greatest counter-revolutionary sequence of events ever, with a previous congress president becoming the chairman of a major political party. We are also witnesses to the government’s frequent admission of being unable to bear the brunt of the nation’s development on its own. Indeed, we have seen the impact of adverse business conditions, with the very recent closure of a $300m production line at a fast-moving consumer goods company, barely one year after it was launched with great fanfare.

What should perhaps concern the NLC more is that automation and artificial intelligence are coming and they will make many ‘casual’ and permanent roles redundant in the near future. The NLC and the casual staff in question might be better served taking legal action against the company, if they truly feel there is a legal basis for their protestations. Perhaps the National Assembly might also be lobbied to pass legislation that clarifies where Nigeria stands in the global tide of affairs.

The federal government must also make its stand on the issue clear. If the government is to be taken seriously on its commitment to improving the ease of doing business, particularly with its much-touted disposition to foreign investment, it must come down on the side of business against highhandedness, misinterpretation of laws and the ease with which unions can vandalise property in the name of workers’ rights.

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