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Labour continues strike deadlines, economic hardships deal workers deepening blows

As the economic crisis bites harder, workers under the aegis of the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress, are waiting for the Federal Government to take concrete actions on the Memorandum of Understanding it signed with labour leaders, DEBORAH TOLU-KOLAWOLE writes

These are not the best of times for Nigerians, including workers with the inflation going up and eroding their purchasing power. The Federal Government’s removal of the subsidy on petrol further drove Nigerians to poverty. This has pitted the government against labour unions.

The President Bola Tinubu-led Federal Government, in a bid to avert a planned nationwide strike by organised labour, comprising the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the promise of implementation within 30 days.

Earlier, before the agreement was signed, and with one voice, the organised labour announced the decision to shut down economic activities nationwide from Tuesday, October 3, 2023, following what was described as failed negotiations with the Federal Government following the removal of subsidy on Premium Motor Spirit, which has led to an unprecedented hike in the cost of living.

The strike, which would not later hold, would have been the first time the two labour centres would embark on a nationwide strike with a united front, unlike previous times when one of the two labour centres would pull out or fail to embark on a show of solidarity with the other.

Beyond jointly pursuing this fourth industrial action since June, when the petrol subsidy was removed, both labour groups resolved their differences and were ready to press for common demands from the Federal Government in addressing their concerns and providing relief measures to Nigerians.

Addressing a joint press conference in Abuja before the planned indefinite strike was shelved, NLC President, Joe Ajaero and his TUC counterpart, Festus Osifo, said the National Executive Councils of both congresses in their various meetings analysed the current situation in the country.

They noted that they took into cognisance the extensive hardships and deprivation afflicting citizens across all states of the federation and unanimously condemned the apparent lethargy and tardiness in handling the consequences of the price hike on Nigerians.

Ajaero, who spoke on behalf of the labour centres, maintained that the councils deliberated on the continued refusal of the Federal Government to engage in meaningful and constructive dialogue within the ambits of good faith given the 21-day ultimatum and the subsequent successful two-day nationwide warning strike of September 5 and 6, as well as other meetings that were supposed to demonstrate the preparedness of Nigerian workers to push through their decision to embark on an indefinite nationwide strike.

However, in a move to avert the strike, the President, during his October 1, 2023, Independence Day address, announced a wage award.

In the MOU signed, the following agreements were reached: The Federal Government grants a wage award of N35,000 (thirty-five thousand Naira) only to all Federal Government workers beginning in the month of September, pending when a new national minimum wage is expected to have been signed into law.

Findings by our correspondent revealed that this had been implemented as a memo from the National Salaries Income and Wages Commission notified various government-owned ministries, departments, and agencies of its implementation.

It was also noted that a minimum wage committee shall be inaugurated within one month from the date of this agreement. However, this has not been constituted.

It was also noted that the Federal Government suspended the collection of value-added tax on diesel for six months beginning in October 2023; this was also included in the recommendations of the Presidential Committee on Tax Reforms.

The MOU also notes that the Federal Government accepts a vote of N100bn for the provision of high-capacity Compressed Natural Gas buses for mass transit in Nigeria.

Provisions are also being made for an initial 55,000 CNG conversion kits to kick-start an auto gas conversion programme, while work is ongoing on state-of-the-art CNG stations nationwide. The rollout aims to commence by November, with pilots across 10 campuses nationwide.

It was further agreed that the Federal Government plans to implement various tax incentive measures for the private sector and the general public.

In light of the leadership crisis rocking the National Union of Road Transport Workers and the purported proscription of the Road Transport Employers Association of Nigeria, the Federal Government commits to handling labour matters in line with relevant International Labour Organisation Conventions and Nigerian Labour Acts. A resolution of the ongoing impasse is expected by or before October 13.

The issue of outstanding salaries and wages of tertiary education workers in federal-owned educational institutions is being referred to the Ministry of Labour and Employment for further engagement.

This has, however, been looked into; however, the government only agreed to pay four of the eight-month withheld salaries of the period ASUU was on strike.

The Federal Government agreed to pay N25,000 per month for three months starting in October 2023 to 15 million households, including vulnerable pensioners.

The Federal Government also agreed to increase its initiatives on the subsidised distribution of fertilisers to farmers across the country.

The organised labour also told the Federal Government to urge the state government, through the National Economic Council and Governors Forum, to implement wage awards for their workers. Similar consideration should also be given to local government and private sector workers.

Furthermore, the Federal Government committed to the provision of funds as announced by the President on August 1 and broadcast to the nation for Micro and Small Scale Enterprises.

The beneficiaries of MSMEs should commit to the principle of decent jobs. It was also agreed that a joint visitation would be made to the refineries to ascertain their rehabilitation status.

Finally, it was stated that the NLC and TUC agreed to suspend for 30 days the planned indefinite nationwide strike scheduled to begin on Tuesday, October 3, 2023.

But the NLC recently accused the Minister of Labour and Employment, Simon Lalong, of deviating from the agreement.

In a statement issued by the General Secretary, Emmanuel Ugboaja, the NLC vowed to continue to stand by the democratically elected NURTW leadership and work with them as the legitimate representatives of workers in the transport sector.

According to the Labour Centre, the current effort by the minister to scuttle the deal with the Federal Government is a clear indication that the government’s negotiation is not in good faith.

It said every avenue would be explored to shield the trade union movement from what it described as emerging irresponsibility.

The statement, titled “Minister Lalong’s reckless move to undermine the critical labour-Federal Government agreement of October 2, 2023,’’ read, “In a shocking turn of events, the Federal Minister of Labour, Mr Lalong, has thrown a spanner in the wheel of the implementation of the Labour-Federal Government Agreement by his unmasked partiality in handling a critical item in the agreement, which is the apparent government meddling in trade union matters by siding with people who had illegally seized the National Union of Road Transport Workers, NURTW, headquarters with police support.”

Also, the Head of Protocol and Information of the Nigeria Labour Congress, Benson Upah, said in an interview with our correspondent in Abuja that the congress expected the government to act faster and do better.

On whether organised labour was satisfied with the implementation of the MOU, Upah said, “No, we are not. The government could do better and faster. We issued a statement a few days ago in which we expressed our displeasure with the Minister of Labour and Employment.”

Following the declaration of subsidy removal by the Tinubu administration on May 29, 2023, there has been a hike in the cost of living.

For instance, as at August 2023, the National Bureau of Statistics in its report said Nigeria’s inflation continued its acceleration as it hit 25.80% in August compared with a rate of 24.08% in July 2023 as the food inflation rate in August 2023  rose to 29.34% on a year-on-year basis.  On a year-on-year basis, the headline inflation rate is 5.27% points higher compared to the rate recorded in August 2022, which was 20.52%. The report noted that the headline inflation rate (year-on-year basis) increased in August 2023 when compared to the same month in the preceding year (i.e., August 2022), the report  said, “In August 2023, the headline inflation rate increased to 25.80% relative to the July 2023 headline inflation rate which was 24.08%. “

Commenting on the development, The Head, National Coordinating Centre, United Action Front of Civil Society, Wale Okunniyi, said, “ It is unfortunate that while the arbitrary fuel price hike in the name of subsidy removal on premium motor spirit has pushed most Nigerians below poverty line, government continues to play the ostrich in spite of the promises made to labour leaders on the need for upward review of workers’ wages, inclusive palliatives to citizens, among others.’’

“The inhuman policy of arbitrary hike in fuel price has further impoverished and pauperised millions of households, who were hitherto merely coping with meagre wages and incomes for their livelihoods.

“It is regrettable that rather than prioritise reduction in the costs of governance, the Tinubu administration is deliberately indulging in over-bloated appointments as typified by the appointment of the highest number of ministers and the largest cabinet yet in Nigeria history. It is also regrettable that the National Assembly  recently arbitrarily allocated public funds to its members.”