Labour leadership under COVID-19 emergency – Part 2
In Nigeria, the lockdown affected productivity and stymied all forms of economic activities with consequences for livelihood. According to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics, out of the 1,950 households which it surveyed nationally, 42% of the respondents who were working before the outbreak were no longer working with the advent of COVID-19. Truly, COVID-19 took a toll on the Nigerian economy as the price of oil plummeted while productivity declined. For a country with about 93 percent of the workforce in the informal sector, the effect could only be imagined.
In a seeming convergence of capital and social welfare, many countries have intervened to cushion the effect of the lockdowns on socio-economic activities with unemployment benefits and other sundry social interventions. For example, Algeria enacted a law on the disbursement of $20 billion and $11.5 billion as unemployment benefit as well as transfer to poor households respectively. Argentina government took similar step that included a forbearance policy that ensured the provision of utility services for households in arrears. It also initiated price control measures concerning food and medical supplies and export restrictions. On its part the United States enacted an act, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economy Security Act (CARES Act) with a financial component of about $2.3 trillion, and another US$8.3 billion “Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act that provides for 2 weeks paid sick leave; up to 3 months emergency leave for those infected (at 2/3 pay); food assistance; and transfers to states to fund expanded unemployment insurance”.
Nigeria was not left out of the pack, even though its intervention was riddled with corruption. It took two major channels, namely, cash transfer and food ration and citizens initiative. During lockdown government pledged measures to “preserve the livelihoods of workers and business owners to ensure their families get through this very difficult time in dignity.” This became operational through the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development. Precisely on April 1, 2020, the Humanitarian Affairs Ministry began to disburse the sum of N20, 000 about US$ 52 to families registered in the National Social Register of Poor and Vulnerable Households set up by the incumbent administration in 2016 to combat poverty. It was expected to span four months. Government initiative received a boost from Coalition against COVID-19 (CA-COVID) was even sired, and well-meaning Nigerians, and the international community donated cash and material to ameliorate the plight of the Nigerian people. It ended on sad note. As observed elsewhere, “For a country so tainted with corruption, it was predictably going to be a different ball game. Officialdom set in and took charge of the distribution of the palliatives to the people. Palliative went with the noise with which it came. The corrupt elite could hardly get things done properly. As it turned out, much of the palliatives were hoarded by those whose task is to ensure the wellbeing of the masses of our people. The hen would soon come to roast.” The #EndSars protest prized the lid on corruption concerning COVID-19 palliatives.
However, the pertinent question is: what role has the labour leadership played in the prevailing health emergency? To be sure, a major response from the labour circle is contained in the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Association (NECA), the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) of June 15 June, 2020, jointly referred to as the “Parties”. The following items passed for labour response to the plight of Nigerian Workers under COVID-19:
The parties agreed to work together for a collective understanding of the impact of the Pandemic on the health of Employees and Companies. And in doing so, identify joint actions and initiatives aimed at limiting the deterioration of economic activities and creating the conditions for a viable post COVID-19 rebound of businesses and avoid disasters in terms of Employment.
The parties agreed to work together to engage and prevail on Government to provide necessary economic stimulus packages to businesses, particularly, in the most hit sectors of the economy, to wit; Aviation, Hospitality, Tourism, Manufacturing, and transportation among others.
The parties agreed to jointly work with government and stakeholders on issues thrown up by the emerging new World of Work and Business in the fight against the COVID-19 Pandemic and its impact on Business.
The parties agreed to initiate joint reflections, accompanied by proposals on strategies for creating and developing employment in Nigeria for onward presentation to Government.
Social workers agreed to be committed to promoting Occupational Health and Safety at work.
It is further agreed that the parties shall consult among themselves before taking any measure to prevent loss of jobs in the private sector.
The parties agreed to maintain this collaboration, post COVID-19 to address issues of joint concern to the parties for the promotion of enterprise competitiveness, decent job creation and job protection, and economic prosperity of Nigeria.
On the above, the participants at the Trade Union Congress workshop held on July1, 2021 informed that a year after there had been no follow-up.
As Colin Crouch has rightly noted, an increase in the overall level of unemployment weakens the union since it is partly dependent on the conditions in the labour market for its strength. COVID-19 induced job losses are counterproductive to the strength of the workers. Nevertheless, ILO has pointed the way for labour leadership, the state and owner of capital in four pillars, namely, stimulating the economy and employment, supporting enterprises, jobs and incomes, protecting workers in the workplace, and relying on social dialogue for solutions. Without doubt, COVID-19 emergency has affected both the demand and supply-side of the labour market, forcing enterprises to shutdown, engendering job and income losses. And if the state and the owner of capital might be able to solve a monumental problem that COVID-19 is, social dialogue is required. For working class leadership, it is a call to duty, a kind of collective bargain that ILO has defined as the dialogue on the working conditions of the workers and the terms of employment. As the working class struggle to overcome the challenges of COVID-19, it is important to bear in mind the admonition of Crouch to the effect that union systems’ ability to deal with constraints including force majeure would depend “on certain dispositions and capacity to take initiates.” That disposition should be a nurturing of critical consciousness that appreciates causality. Let me end this conversation with the exhortation of Marx and Engels, “Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.”
Professor Akhaine delivered this paper at a Workshop Organised by Trade Union Congress of Nigeria, Ikeja.