By Owei Lakemfa
It appears that Nigerians are fairly attuned to the new sing-song that the country needs to move from consumption to production. However, discussions at a conference on Wednesday, August 16, 2023 once again brought to the fore the belief in some government and employers’ circles that the wilful and conscious deprivation of workers’ constitutional and human rights would not affect production. In fact, in some cases, they believe that the abridgement of such rights is good for business and governance.
The setting was the 45th anniversary of the Food, Beverage and Tobacco Senior Staff Association, FOBTOB, held in Lagos, and the immediate trigger was the paper: “Enforcing Workers’ Right In Nigeria” by Mr Andrew Egboh, Director in the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment.
Now, the United Nations, UN, states that: “Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more.”
Mr Egboh, while not seeming to disagree with the UN, told Nigerian workers: “Fight for your Rice before your Rights.” So, how are workers to allow themselves to be dehumanised just for food? How are they to accept servitude and loss of the right to association, socio-political rights and safety at work just to hold on to their jobs?
The discussions dovetailed into the Export Processing Zone, EPZ, a geographic Customs area of import and export of goods without payment of duty. The issue is that the EPZ areas are treated as independent territories where the Nigerian Constitution and laws such as the right to unionise are observed more in the breach. The basic question was: why is the Labour Ministry virtually absent in the EPZs and workers can be treated like slaves?
In trying to explain its role, the Ministry claimed it granted employers in the EPZ only five years ‘freedom’ from unionism. First is the mindset that workers exercising their fundamental human rights to assembly is injurious to production, so the employers in the EPZs need to be shielded from unions.
Secondly, how can any institution, government or agency ban Nigerian workers right to freely assemble when the Constitution is very clear on such matters?
Section 40 of the Constitution states unambiguously that: “Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons, and he may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any other association for the protection of his interests.”
So, if the Constitution is the supreme law in the country, any abridgement is unlawful and illegal. This precisely is what some employers, including those in the food and beverage sector, are doing. Such employers hold that while newly employed junior workers can belong to the in-house union, their senior staff counterparts cannot. Some ask workers who want to belong to the union to apply or fill forms, while some employers make it known that unionism is not encouraged.
Despite these illegal and unconstitutional practices being rampant, the Labour Ministry which has the duty to enforce the Constitution and labour laws, stands aloof. Ironically, the employers freely belong to their employer unions.
The Labour Director also advocated that Labour should be de-regulated and removed from the Exclusive List in the Constitution. This is an old quest from colonial times when the British colonialists rejected minimum labour standards in favour of every employer treating workers anyhow they deem fit with no minimum wage, annual leave or health and safety standards.
To deregulate labour would mean that while one state can pay the Minimum Wage of N30,000, another would have the powers to pay N5,000 monthly. Ironically, the same labour officials peddling this, would not accept lower salaries were they posted, say from Abuja or Lagos with a high cost of living to states with low cost of living. In a country where all National Assembly members earn equal pay irrespective of where they come from, and all governors earn equal pay irrespective of their state income or cost of living, it is illogical to campaign that workers have differing wages depending whether they are federal, state of local government employees.
In taking a broader look at issues, FOBTOB President, Jimoh Oyibo, who is also a Deputy President of the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria, TUC declared: “We are all Nigerians, and all we desire and demand is good governance. When the nation’s President made the first gaffe, in his inaugural speech, by declaring that subsidy was gone, he did not realise the domino effect of his statement, no longer as an aspirant, but as an elected President. We all agree that the subsidy scheme as practised in our country is a scam, but we expected a responsible government that cared for the people to understand that some things needed to be put in place first before the sudden removal.”
Comrade Oyibo added: “The fact that the Naira was allowed to float alongside the subsidy removal is like double jeopardy for the citizens and FOBTOB supports the call of the labour centres to shut down the country if any further increase in the price of petroleum products is implemented.”
My basic submission at the conference was that the difference between the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, and TUC is primarily one of nomenclature. I argued that both are labour centres in the same country representing the same workforce and faced with the same socio-economic and political challenges.
I also posited that the classification of workers into parallel ‘Junior’ and ‘Senior’ categories is a colonial inheritance reinforced by military regimes.
I argued that a worker is a worker irrespective of categorisation; the bottom line is that he is a wage earner. Secondly, that the Working Class is a single entity struggling for better life for all. Thirdly, that there are unions like Amalgamated which unionises workers from Grade Levels 1-17. There are also unions in the NLC from its inception such as the Nigeria Union of Journalists, NUJ, and the National Association of Nigeria Nurses and Midwives, NANNM, which are outright senior staff.
There is also fact that while the NLC was designated a labour centre for “Junior Staff”, no President of the NLC in its 45 years of existence has been a junior staff. Its founding President, Comrade Hassan Sunmonu was an engineer in the Federal Ministry of Works when he was elected in 1978. His successor, Alhaji Ali Chiroma was the Principal of the School of Health, Borno State when he was elected in 1984.
Based on these, I moved that the NLC and TUC should merge into a single central labour organisation.