Labour loss: Why Nigerian workers may continue to suffer despite their huge number

In recent times, the labour movement in the country has become fragmented as a third force seeks registration. SOJI-EZE FAGBEMI writes that the signs are ominous, as the nation’s workforce are already at the receiving end of poor leadership would continue to bear the brunt of the ongoing crisis.

THE Labour movement in Nigeria today is a divided house, broken into two:

The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) with a third emerging group, United Labour Congress (ULC), seeking registration, which might just be the final nail in the coffin of the country’s labour movement. The ongoing crisis among the three, according to insiders, has been described as a development that threatens the unity of Labour, and could be detrimental to its responsibility of protecting the interests of workers.

Besides, the dimension it has taken in the past few weeks according to stakeholders, is “very worrisome and dangerous.” Labour leaders and workers who expressed concern over the development told Sunday Tribune that it will give the government and employers of labour an opportunity to further divide the group and oppress the working population.

These signs are already visible. In recent weeks, the NLC, TUC and ULC have inundated the Minister of Labour and Productivity, Senator Chris Ngige, with letters, whose purpose was to outplay rival parties in the struggle for recognition.

In a recent communication with the Minister, the ULC took a swipe at the Registrar of trade unions, and the Ministry of Labour, for surreptitiously revealing some top secrets about planned registration, to the NLC and TUC.

The NLC and the TUC had earlier written the minister, in what the ULC described as a swift move to stop its registration as the third federation of trade unions in the country.

The crisis, which is threatening unity and solidarity in the Nigeria labour movement started after the last national delegates’ congress of the NLC. Two of the leading contestants in the NLC elections, Comrade Joe Ajaero, the General Secretary of the Nigeria Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) and Comrade Igwe Achese, the President of National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Employees, rejected the outcome of the elections, and opted to form a factional group.

While several attempts and efforts at reconciling the two parties by the veterans of Nigerian labour movement failed, Comrades Ajaero and Achese, led a few other unions to float another federation and commenced the process of its registration. Both Ajaero and Achese told Sunday Tribune that the ULC has more than 12 affiliate unions required by the extant labour law to form a labour centre and secured registration. Some of these affiliate unions, they claimed, were those which decided to opt out of NLC and TUC. They also include few others who were not affiliated to any of the two centres, while others were already processing their registration.

However, the NLC and the TUC in a joint letter to the labour minister, warned against the registration of ULC, along with others they described as “mushroom/shell trade unions” in order to avert anarchy in the industrial relations system.

In the letter entitled “Need to avert anarchy in the industrial relations system in the country: Mushroom /shell trade unions,” and signed by the President of NLC, Comrade Ayuba Wabba and the President of TUC, Comrade Bobboi Kaigama, they made reference to the provisions of the Trade Union Amendment Act of 2007, and why the ULC should not be registered.

Quoting the relevant section of the extant labour law, they claimed further that the activities of ULC is illegal, adding: “The Trade Union Act CAP T14, LFN, 2004, Section 3(2) provides thus: ‘But no trade union shall be registered to represent workers or employers in a place where there already exist a trade union.”

Piqued by this development, the ULC, in a letter dated 13 February, 2017 and signed by its President, Comrade Ajaero, accused the registrar of Trade Unions and workers in the Ministry of Labour and Productivity of compromising the process of Labour registration.

Describing the NLC/TUC letter as most “unfortunate and imperious,”  Ajaero expressed worry that the Presidents of NLC and TUC who pride themselves as comrades and democrats would “descend to this depth to urge the Government not to allow Nigerian workers to freely seek new platforms for democratic expressions as enshrined in our Constitution and freely guaranteed by natural laws.”

Stakeholders in the labour movement were united in their belief that the crisis is one that blows an ill wind. According to the Executive Secretary, Organisation of Trade Unions of West Africa (OTUWA), Comrade John Odah, it will create avoidable destruction in Labour movement.

“Of course, it creates avoidable destruction. Under normal circumstances, those who won the election ought to be thinking of how to solve the many problems confronting the workers but they spent the better part of two years looking at their back, and then having to contend with this false illusion that there is a division within the rank.

“So, in another two years, I am not sure that Ayuba and members of his team will not have an alibi if they do not fulfil their campaign pledges. I hope they would not attribute it to the fact that they have been detracted all this while.”

Also, the newly appointed General Secretary of Senior Staff Association of Statutory Corporation and Government owned Companies (SSASCGOC), Comrade Ayo Olorunfemi, regretted that while employers and government were building forces against workers, trade unions are becoming fragmented on a daily basis and that the current crisis was making Labour to lose its relevance among the Nigerian masses.

“As a matter of fact, the employers and government all over the world are consolidating and forming themselves into conglomerates; unfortunately…  if the trend continues, it will be dangerous for people in Nigeria. In other countries, their institutions are highly strengthened to defend and protect the workers and the citizens; whereas in Nigeria, our institutions are not strengthened, coupled with the fact that there is corruption all over the place,” Olorunfemi said, adding that the crisis should have been resolved amicably and that workers would be worse off due to the division.

Similarly, a labour leader, Comrade David Ehindero, who launched a book entitled: “Developmental Unionism,” on Wednesday in Abuja regretted the fragmentation in the Nigeria Labour movement, saying workers would be at the receiving end.

The confrontation at the leadership of the Labour movement according to him will not only affect them in coming out boldly to fight for the workers, but will diminish their stature locally and internationally.

Ehindero, who appealed to Labour leaders to view Labour movement from the perspective of developmental unionism advised Labour to “set aside our differences for the sake of the Nigerian workers.”

A civil servant with the Federal Ministry of Information in Abuja, Mr. Akintunde Martins regretted the on-going crisis, while expressing sadness that workers are suffering for this lack of unity. According to Martins, “the Labour movement’s primary objective is to protect, promote and enhance workers’ welfare but I don’t see them performing this objective with a crisis-ridden and divided house.

“The Labour movement itself will also suffer from the crisis because they are gradually losing the confidence of the people; hence the NLC is finding it difficult to organise a successful national strike because workers no longer see them as promoting and representing their interest. This is why their call to workers recently to down tools and stage a protest were ignored by the workers,” he said.

Also, Yetunde Mosugu, a lawyer and public servant with one of the Federal Government agencies in Abuja said the crisis is as a result of selfish interests on the part of labour leaders. She also lamented that the overall effect will be on the workers.

“The crisis rocking the labour movement is as a result of selfish interest of stakeholders. The person who will suffer the most is the average Nigerian workers who will be on the receiving end of the wrong doings of the factional parties,” Mosugu said.

Mr Silas Udenze, a teacher said workers have always been at the receiving end of any crisis within the labour movement and the present situation will not be an exception. Udenze, who teaches at a secondary school, located at Life Camp Abuja said what led to schism within Labour cannot be in the interest of the generality of workers.

“The eventual floating of United Labour Congress by the General Secretary of National Union of Electricity Employee, NUEE, Mr Joe Ajaero, would, no doubt, further polarise Nigerian workers. NLC was a house divided against itself, and definitely wouldn’t stand. The struggle for leadership has always been the bane of growth in most organisations.

“The Nigerian workers would continue to be at the mercies of individuals like Ajaero who stand to reap benefits for themselves, instead of the collective goods of the entire workers,” he said.