By Okiemute Esiri, Juliet Ogaga, marvellous Okuku and princewill Ogu
May 1st marks another Workers’ Day. Before the COVID-19 pandemic altered the story last year, a day known as May Day was observed around the world with a funfair.
But it is not just COVID-19 that has made the celebration less unforgettable for Nigerian workers; the past year has been plagued by several ills, ranging from inflation, which has put the cost of food out of control for the people, to high energy costs, such as exorbitant power bills and skyrocketing fuel pump prices, to unemployment and others, all without corresponding earnings.
All of this together tagged this year’s May Day theme, “COVID-19: Socio Economic Crisis – Challenges for Decent Job, Social Security, and People’s Welfare.”
There is no question that Nigerian workforce have been overworked to the point of exhaustion, as the N30,000 minimum wage will no longer satisfy the needs of the ordinary man, who now lives in poverty and is on the verge of starvation despite working. It is not limited to public-sector employees, but also includes their private-sector counterparts.
Some elites, on the other hand, believed that workers ought to take control of their own fate and stage a revolt against the capitalist class.
The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC), in a joint address to Nigerian workers at Eagle Square in Abuja to mark this year’s celebration, directed workers in states where governors were not paying the minimum wage to immediately down tools and commence an indefinite strike.
President of NLC, Ayuba Wabba, and his TUC counterpart, Quadiri Olaleye, said: “We demand an upward review of salary of core civil servants to narrow the gap between their emoluments and those of employees in other segments of the public service. We implore the federal government to once more direct the Office of the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation to set up a committee to undertake this review.
“For Nigerian workers, it has been a catalogue of workplace and trade union rights violations. First is the criminal refusal by some state governors to pay the new national minimum wage and consequential increase in salaries thus violating workers’ rights. We have already directed all our state councils to declare strike actions if any governor remains adamant about paying the new national minimum wage.”
Reacting, President Mohammadu Buhari said the 36 governors of the Federation were bound by law to pay the N30, 000 minimum wage. According to him, any governor not paying the new wage was breaching the new National Minimum Wage Act, signed into law by him, in April 2019.
The World Bank estimated last year that the COVID19 shock would drag around 5 million more Nigerians into poverty by 2020. While the number of impoverished Nigerians was estimated to rise by around 2 million before the pandemic, this is now expected to rise by 7 million, with the poverty rate increasing from 40.1 percent in 2019 to 42.5 percent in 2020.That is an underestimate about what workers, who make up the majority of the workforce, are going through today, when the nation has relapsed into another recession in less than a year.
Due to the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nigeria’s Organised Private Sector OPS (OPS) said it lost 74.2 percent of its participants.
According to a survey conducted by the Nigeria Employers Consultative Association (NECA), 74.2 percent of businesses have ceased operations as a result of COVID-19. Mr. Taiwo Adeniyi, the Association’s President, stated that a survey of companies was undertaken with the aim of determining the precise effect of COVID19 on businesses in order to help NECA’s advocacy activities, among other things. The survey also showed that 15.8% of businesses are either entirely on site or teleworking.
He said “Over 90% of surveyed businesses said insufficient cash flow was a barrier to operations, and over 90% said demand for their products and services had decreased significantly,” he said.
“With many businesses closed down and many others on the verge of bankruptcy, we had urged Government to give attention and support to businesses to ensure their survival and competitiveness.”
For the majority of last year up until today, unions have been busy bargaining with employers over an escape plan for their workers who are being retrenched on a regular basis as a result of the pandemic’s detrimental effect on the economy as a result of the mandatory lockout.
Bill to Increase the Minimum Wage
The feathers of Nigerian workers were recently ruffled by a Bill aimed at destabilizing the Minimum Wage and exacerbating workers’ sufferings, but the Organized Labour fought back hard, with the two centers mobilizing their supporters to shut down the National Assembly.
Despite the fact that the federal government has begun paying the N30,000 minimum wage, over 18 states have yet to do so, with others attempting to return to the old wage. The bill, according to labor, was introduced by governors in order to delay payment of the new wage, further impoverishing jobs.
Several employees have lost their jobs over the last year, and organizations that wanted to send workers home or halve their wages have refused to recall them. The Airport Hotel in Lagos had ordered some of its staff who had been at home due to lockdown to go on a three-month leave without pay around this time last year, without paying the March wage.
Sheraton hotels in Lagos and Abuja have told their employees that they would not be paying in April. This is despite the fact that Arik Airline has laid off some of its employees. About 10,000 people lost their employment in the chemical industry, while more people would have lost their jobs in the banking sector if the Central Bank of Nigeria had not intervened, as the Access Bank attempt was thwarted.
Despite this, Oyinkan Olasanoye, President of the Association of Senior Staff of Banks, Insurance, and Financial Institutions (ASSBIFFI), has stated that the sector is still not a gold mine for employees.
According to her, workers in the banking sector may be at the receiving end of the pandemic, even though there is present understanding that the employers should not unilaterally disengage the workers.
“The effect of COVID-19 pandemic on our sector is so much and wide. During the lockdown, our members have been working remotely and not all of them have been recalled back. The truth is more people may lose their jobs as the employers have discovered that they can do with few. This year they will end up making more profits as they have been able to cut down cost.
“But this is done at the detriment of the workers, it’s affecting our work time balance, there is the health issue as our members are exposed to so many hazard counting mutilated money. There is no increase in our medical facility and unfortunately despite the fact that we are always on duty, widely exposed to COVID-19, government do not consider us as essential workers.”
Segun David, president of the Chemical and Non-Metallic Products Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (CANMPSSAN), said some employers used the pandemic to improve the lot of their employees, while others did the opposite by doing a slew of activities that were detrimental to workers’ development under the guise of COVID-19.
“For instance, a lot of companies downsized arbitrarily and indiscriminately, while some even went ahead to reduce the salary of workers. Now that things have improved reasonably, those salaries were not reversed.
“Also, we saw where a majority of companies declared huge profits than they usually made in recent past. But most of them to date have not done salary appraisals and yet, they are declaring huge profits.
“These profits, if I may say, part of it was gotten as a result of suppression of workers, because some of them did not increase salary, some employees retired and there were no replacements, they froze promotions and in all these, they counted them as profits, not even considering the workers that worked for them to make these profits,” he said.
In light of the country’s socio-economic condition, including workers’ health and the national minimum wage of N30,000, David said it was time for labor leaders to rise to the occasion once more to save Nigerian workers.
“Going down memory lane when the minimum wage issue was being discussed with the Federal Government then, the exchange rate was N360 and petrol price was still N97. But now, the dollar is almost N500 and the petrol price is N165. These developments have thrown a challenge to labour leaders to once again rise to the occasion.
“Apart from inflation and exchange rate, the high level of insecurity in the country has made it difficult for an average worker to get things at ease, which had made things go above the reach of the common man.”
“We need togetherness and unity. We must be able to point out to employers when they err for them to make adjustments.”
As Nigerian workers gathered around the country to commemorate Workers Day under the auspices of the National Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC), one message was clear: to avoid further attempts by those in positions of power to drive them off the edge.