IDEAS Radio 1 May 2020

IDEAS issues, Nigerian Workers and COVID-19

Chukwudi Ezugwu: 99.3 Nigeria Info, your number one talk station!  Welcome to Public Square, and it’s time for IDEAS with Ayo Obe.  I’m really very sorry for bringing it to you later than usual, but technology and all the attendant issues.  I’m hoping that Ayo Obe is on the line.  

Ayo Obe: I am.

CE: Good evening Ayo Obe, and welcome to 99.3.

AO: Good evening Chukwudi.

CE: Thank you very much for your patience , so sorry about the delay.  First …

AO: Not at all, well done to you!

CE: Thank you so much.  First, before we go into the conversation, let me start off by saying: Happy Workers Day to you!

AO: I wish you a very Happy Workers’ Day, especially those of you who are really keeping the ship afloat in these difficult times.

CE: Now … now before we go into the main issues in the subject, I would like to ask: A lot of Nigerian workers … look at  May 1st, many look up … many look forward to May 1st for just the public holiday: Oh, we’re going to get a day off work, we’re going to stay at home, and then it’s back to the struggle, a luta, 365 – 366 days until the next celebration the following year.  I would like to ask … Ayo Obe, with a lot of the work that you have done over the years, do you think we will get to the point where the Nigerian worker, and indeed, workers across the world, would beat their chest and say: the very essence of  May 1st is, we are celebrating all that we have done, and it is not just a rallying cry for the struggle to continue because there are certain barriers that we just cannot break down?

AO: Well Chukwudi, I think that what is really important if workers want to make May 1st a real celebration about what they have achieved in the year before, rather than what was suffered … a hundred or fifty years ago, is that they should not forget themselves as workers for the remaining 364 days.  And their unions also, should not only be reactive, they have to be proactive about workers’ rights.  And as we get into the discussion, I think we’re going to see that there are areas where workers and their associations … because it’s not only trade unions, professional associations, traders’ associations and so on, they all have to be a bit proactive about demanding the seat at the table where the decisions that affect the lives of Nigerian workers are being made.

CE: Thank you very much.  I say, I guess this sets the tone for our conversation.  Now let me create the background.

Now next week, the 4th of May to be precise, Lagos, Ogun and the Federal Capital Territory would begin a modification of the Federal Government-imposed Lockdown.  Now one sector whose voice has been somewhat muted in Nigeria’s battle against the Corona Virus Disease has been that of organised labour.  As the country joins the rest of the world in marking International Workers’ Day today, let us consider whether there are any IDEAS – talking about issues bordering on Integrity, Democracy, Ethics and Accountability – of particular concern to workers and organisations set up to fight for their interests in the COVID-19 crisis.  Now, with that, I would like to ask: What have we heard from trade unions and professional associations on the COVID-19 crisis thus far?

AO: Well, I think Chukwudi, that what has struck me has been actually how little we have heard from the organised trade unions, organised labour, in this crisis.  We’ve heard from organisations like the Nigerian Medical Association, which is a professional association, but as I said, it’s still for workers, and they had expressed their views on bringing in of Chinese doctors.  But the medical profession generally, had been a bit more proactive, they made a joint statement, that was the Nigerian Medical Association, the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria and the National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives, that was maybe about two weeks or so ago, and they made their demands about what was required as regards … not just that fact that health workers are on the front line, but that they expected the government to take specific steps in regard to their protection, and making sure that it’s possible for them to work.  You know, making pharmaceutical products available, making personal protection equipment available, and so on.  And actually, what they said was:  

“We do not want health workers who save lives to be called heroes.  They are not heroes!  They are professionals who claim and deserve respect, dignity, the right to protection, recognition, decent wages and decent working conditions.”  

So they said that this is what they want, you see … that as they say, “Fine words butter no parsnips”.  That they need concrete measures to protect them.   But by contrast, I think we’ve seen that the labour organisations, specifically the Nigeria Labour Congress, the Trades Union Congress, they haven’t really been making their voice heard.  They’ve only reacted when it comes to issues like the … reduction in … proposed reduction in workers’ salaries, for example, in Kaduna State the government said it has already implemented that, the workers gave ultimatum: Reverse that!   Other governments that were considering it, the workers have said: Don’t even try it!   And meanwhile today, the voice of the Nigeria Labour Congress is saying: Implement the N30,000 per month minimum wage.

But what I noticed Chukwudi, was that when it comes to the specific reaction to the Corona Virus pandemic, organised labour is not there.  You had the Presidential …

CE: Task Force.

AO: …  Task Force for the Control of the Corona Virus 19 Disease, the …  you know, they have a committee and the Task Force, various committees, organised labour is not there.  Various ministries, but even the Minister of Labour is not on that committee  then again,  the private sector coalition, organised labour is not there  in that committee, it’s leaders of banks and so on.  Yes there are health care professionals, there’s even the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Federal Ministry of Health, but the workers themselves are not there.  And so I think that this is an area where labour should not say that … they should not be reactive.  I mean if Kaduna State was considering reduction in salaries, as other states are, it shouldn’t just be labour shouting from the sidelines and saying: Don’t try it!  or Reverse that!  Rather, labour should be insisting that: Before you do anything, call us for discussion, tell us what your problems are, and let us see how we can work out what is the best approach in these situations.  And I think that has not been …  that has not been  happening.

CE: Hmmm.  Now let’s talk about what issues face workers  as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.  Now we have seen President Muhammadu Buhari  saying … we have to ensure that we maintain physical and social distancing, and people need to restrict movement.  But essential workers are out there doing all that they can to see that our lives are a whole lot better, even with the whole situation that we are dealing with.  Now, let’s look at the issues that workers are faced with as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

AO: Well Chukwudi I think it’s important that we recognise that when it comes to the Nigerian work force, it’s only a very small percentage that is unionised, okay?  But nonetheless, the organised labour ought to speak – not just for its members, particularly when it comes to the Nigeria Labour Congress, it needs to speak for the entirety of the Nigerian work force.  So that if it knows that, for example, we are going to be observing social distancing, that means that some areas of the economy that depend on people gathering together, whether it is sports, whether it is restaurants and so on and so forth, that they need to be thinking about: How do the workers in those fields, in those areas survive?  When markets are being closed, or they are being asked to be  to undertake … mobile markets for certain days, organised labour needs to be there.  And again, even the Presidential directive that has given a curfew: of course I … we are talking about Lagos and we know what the transport situation is, it’s difficult, and we also know that because it’s expensive to live in Lagos, many workers have to live very far from the places where they work.  And what is organised labour doing about the transport needs and so on?  They should be at the table saying – not just complaining – but making concrete suggestions about what can be done, what modifications might be made that will allow workers to attend work.  

For example we know that the … the International Labour Organisation has made it clear that the … that workers … or employers rather, they need to undertake workplace risk assessments.  They  should be taking measures now to see: How do we train our workers in this social distancing and being able to work at the same time?  What are we demanding in terms of – if we are returning to work, personal protective equipment?  And so on.  Let’s not forget that in some countries, for example, I’ll just give the example of the United States where workers … the President had ordered that workers in the meat processing industry must go back to work, and the workers are saying: But the conditions under which we are expected to work are not …  are not going to protect our health.  In Britain, you have ambulance drivers – the ambulance driving profession had been privatised and … farmed out so that an ambulance driver is saying: I need personal protection equipment.  And their employers are not ready to provide it for them.  So we should not wait for such disaster to overtake us before the Nigerian organised labour comes up and says: This … these and these are what we need.

CE: Alright.  Now let’s look at workers, and the fact that from Monday the 4th of May … a lot of workers will be returning to work.  Now what should they be looking forward to?  Talking about organisations like the NLC, TUC and other professional associations?

AO: Well, as I said, as I’ve already mentioned work place assessments and so on, but another issue, not just from state governments, but in the private sector, that workers are facing is salary issues, salary cuts.  That’s those who still have jobs to go to, some of them will be facing salary cuts.  And although we do hear of large organisations, as I said, government, banks … other … big organisations talking about wage cuts; the fact is that most of the people who are employed in Nigeria are employed in very small or medium scale industries or enterprises.  And those employers – with the best will in the world – will be facing challenges in meeting their payroll – not just this month, after a month of shut down – but even going forward.  And so that is going to be something that Nigerian workers are facing.  And I think that as the government is talking about palliatives, labour needs to be at the table insisting that palliatives are not just for until the lockdown ends or lockdown is eased, but that it may be necessary to continue these palliatives.  And labour needs to be realistic in assessing the needs of workers, so that when it comes to the table to discuss these matters, it should be able to talk from a position of authority: That we have identified those workers who are at risk.

Again, the government has, the National Centre for Disease Control has set up, or Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (sorry), has set up … lines that people can call,  whistle-blowers to say – not just  to report your neighbour or that person who is having a party – but also to talk about what is happening in their work places.  Workers need to be educated about these things by their trade associations, their unions and so on, that you are entitled to be provided with facemasks and other forms of protection … people being screened as they enter premises, having to use hand sanitizers and so on.  All of those things are something that … if you’ve been paying money into a professional association or a trade union, this is the time when you expect them to step up to the plate and justify the investment that you have made in them.  As I said, it’s no longer a matter of Labour just being reactive: Don’t do it!  Don’t try it!  Rather, labour should be saying: Bring us in at the ground floor so that we can discuss these things  …  We know that there are problems, definitely we all know that there are problems, Nigeria’s income is going down, but we want to be able to be included in the suggestions, so that it’s not just that workers are told that “This is the sacrifice that you will make”,  but rather, that it something that we have all agreed we are going along with it.

CE: Alright, thank you very much for sharing and I’m very certain that a lot of Nigerian workers will say: Yes, we are hopeful, moving forward the problems are there, the solutions to these problems are there.  Hopefully when they are implemented, life will be better for the average Nigerian worker.  Thank you so much Ayo Obe for sharing your insights with us.

AO: You are welcome Chukwudi and keep up the good work.

CE: Thank you so much.