THE workplace is an arena where workers and employers are the major stakeholders.While the workers exchange their expertise for pay, employers seek good returns on their investment to sustain the confidence of shareholders.
In this arena also, government assumes a dual personality as it constantly regulates the relationship between workers and employers as well as functioning as employer of labour. While workers are represented by the labour unions to protect and promote their interests through collective bargaining processes, unions sometimes abdicate such roles.
Indeed, Adams Oshiomhole as the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) never shied away from calling out workers on national protest against increment in the prices of petroleum products. And in many of those protests, government reviewed prices downward. Then came Abdulwahed Omar-led leadership whose diplomatic style was questioned even by Oshiomhole who declared at numerous fora that labour’s voice was loudly silent on national issues.
Though the leadership of the NLC under Ayuba Wabba has been embroiled in leadership tussle with some unions that felt aggrieved at the end of the last delegates conference, the leadership position the central labour centre and its Trade Union Congress (TUC) counterpart led by Bobboi Kaigama took on the mass sack of workers by the Imo State government has rekindled hope that labour is gradually rediscovering its voice on national discourses.
Just before it mobilized its members to storm Owerri, the Imo State capital, NLC had warned that it would not accept the way government was treating workers in the state. In an unequivocal term, NLC had flayed the shooting of a Medical Doctor by an armed Policeman during a peaceful protest by members of the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) in Owerri.
The labour central body observed that even in wars without rules, medical doctors and other health workers enjoy the singular distinction of protection and preservation by combatants on either side, saying for the police to therefore fire live ammunition at peacefully protesting doctors asking for their legitimate rights runs counter to any known rule of engagement.
While the NLC wrote letters to President Muhammadu Buhari and Inspector General of Police, Solomon Arase stressing the need to caution Governor Rochas Okorocha against using police and other unauthorized armed men to brutalize workers, it resolved to ‘occupied Owerri’ until the sacked workers are recalled.
This action was indeed unknown to the immediate past leadership of Congress when governors that declined to implement minimum wage were freely allowed to reign.
On Tuesday last week as labour unions’ leaders were trooping into town in preparation for the picketing of Government House on Wednesday morning, words filtered in that the Governor had invited Wabba and Kaigama for a meeting in company of other leaders. But that invitation was turned down by the NLC and TUC on account of not only late, but suspect.
He added: “Yes we got the invitation for a meeting after most labour leaders had already arrived town. We felt that such a meeting was too late besides, it was after our first meeting with the governor that he went ahead to sack more than 6,000 workers spread across 19 government parastatals. How could we have trusted him that he would be sincere in implementing the agreement reached? So, we then decided to go ahead with the picketing.”
Addressing mammoth crowd that thronged the NMA Secretariat on the Port Harcourt road in Owerri, Wabba urged offices to close shop saying the state capital was under picketing.
“Let me say it very loud that any bank that opens in Owerri today (Wednesday) is ready to distribute free money to people. Any petrol station that opens is equally ready to sell petrol to the populace free of charge because the whole town would be picketed today. No business premises are allowed to open for operation today,” he said.
Indeed, for labour leaders who decided to fly into Owerri on the same Wednesday morning were stranded as the Owerri airport was shut down. The three major airlines that operate at the airport were diverted to the Port Harcourt airport.
Speaking at the rally, the General Secretary of National Union of Garment and Textile Workers, Issa Aremu, who lauded the tenacity of labour and the high quality of leadership that was provided for the protest, said there is urgent to set up machinery for the prosecution of employers that fail to pay workers salaries as at when due.
He said: “Any employer that cannot pay salaries has no business presiding over any enterprise. According to the National Minimum Wage law, any employer that does not pay salaries is liable to three months in prison. The Minister of Labour and Employment is empowered under the law to drag such employer to court including governors.”
Aremu also condemned payment of pensions to former governors, which he said is not pensionable under the law because such positions are political appointments.
He further noted that it is a sad commentary that Nigerian political leaders have shown more wickedness to their people even than the colonial master who never defaulted in the payment of salaries.
He added: “Pa Imoudu led a struggle against Cost Of Living Allowance (COLA) in 1948 which was about the fact that the salaries were not enough, not about non-payment. Why are the Nigerians political leaders wicked to their fellow countrymen and women?”
The agreement read in part: “That the committee agreed on immediate recall of all suspended workers of Imo State notwithstanding that the parastatals in the opinion of government should have been more productive; that the gross revenue of government from all sources will be verified every month by the joint committee of government/labour.”
It was also agree that both parties will reach a comprehensive agreement while no public servant will be victimized in any way as a result of the action or in-actions leading up to the dispute and the resolutions.
After marching for about two hours from the NMA Secretariat, labour then ‘occupied’ the front of Government House, where they pledged to stay until the sacked workers are recalled. But after staying there for about four hours from 11am to about 3pm, good news emanated from government that it had signed an agreement for the recall of the workers.
Wabba and Kaigama then decided to sign on behalf of labour outside amidst cheers from the protesters. Wabba stated that labour decided to sign its portion of the agreement outside of the Government House because it wants the workers to be a part of the process.
Speaking after labour signed its portion of the agreement, Wabba said labour would soon move against states that owe workers’ salaries.
He said: “For now, this is the worst case scenario we have witnessed. No state governor has pronounced the sack workers on the radio. We are going to look at states that owe salaries and treat them on their merit. This action also shows labour’s movement determination to defend the interests of all workers in the country because we are not slaves.”
While expressing the readiness of labour to resist unfair labour practices, the NLC Chief stressed the need for employers of labour in the country to respect terms and conditions of employment.
His words: “What is very clear is the fact that once workers are determined and united, no force on earth can stop them. It is also demonstrates the fact that workers are not slaves. Employment is a contract and employers of labour including our governors must continue to respect terms and conditions of employment. Our laws must be respected. The era of announcing sack of workers would not be tolerated. We have committee of NLC and Trade Union Congress (TUC) working on the disbursement of the bail out, but that is not the case in Imo state.”
He added labour would henceforth ensure that no worker leaves the service without due processes are followed, saying, “we will not accept a situation where workers would be disengage via radio announcement.”
On his part, Kaigama said ‘occupy Owerri’ signals the readiness of labour to take on any employer that treats workers with levity.