Comrade (Dr) Tommy Etim Okon is the National President of the Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria (ASCSN). In this interview with CHRISTIAN APPOLOS, he speaks on workers’ experiences in 2022 and action they must take in 2023 to better their living conditions.
What is your rating of the living condition of Nigerian workers in the year 2022?
Well, let me say that it was a turbulent year for the workers, a very hard year indeed. When you look at the socio economic challenges viz-a-vis the static income in terms of the minimum wage, and the economic mix, the environment that we operate in, it has been a very tight, challenging and difficult situation for workers.
You can see in recent times the high cost of food items, transportation, even rent. And these are the mix which the worker can play around. You must be able to accommodate your family, must be able to provide food for your family, must be able to pay for transportation to and from your office. So, these are the issues which have been of enormous challenge to Nigerian workers.
Again, you also look at the health situation, the epidemics from one virus, and all those sorts of challenges. So, when you aggregate them and you compare what workers take home, it becomes a cause of worry. So, Nigerian workers never felt or fared well in 2022.
Regarding the upward review of Nigerian civil servants’ salary, some labour leaders have tagged the statements of the Minister of Labour and Employment as inconvenient. What is your take?
We are still very hopeful; coming from the government, especially in the character of the Minister of Labour, he knows what he is talking about. We are also patiently waiting because we know that there is a wage harmonisation committee that is still working.
We have also learnt to silently discuss the issue because when it comes to the public sector, they make announcements and the whole thing keeps dominating the public space. Before you even see the money, inflation has eaten it. Maybe this time the government wants to be silent and do the needful without much noise as done in the private sector, even though sometimes the government uses propaganda machinery to boost whatever they are doing. So, I want to believe that the process is ongoing and at the appropriate time, the announcement will come on board.
What are your expectations in 2023?
We have seen the budget presented; there is nothing much to be expected because you cannot set that agenda for the next government. Every government will set the agenda based on their manifesto. So, it is expected that the new government will set an agenda and it is also expected that workers will be alert and also live to their responsibility by ensuring that they get their PVC and vote for the government they want because if workers stay aloof, they don’t need to complain. But if you make use of the powers you have to vote for a government that you believe will care for the workers’ interests, I think that is where you can make your presentation and I stand by it.
In 2023, we see hope but the hope is based on how much workers are able to turn out with their voters’ cards to vote because if you want to vote out a bad government, it is not by shouting, it is not by protests. In Nigeria right now, we have an opportunity to vote out a bad government, especially a government that does not wish well for Nigerian workers, and the only weapon we have is our PVC. I believe very strongly that the horrible living conditions workers face will form the basis for them to come out en masse to exercise their voting rights for a government that will treat them better.
Who is your union’s preferred candidate in the 2023 presidential election?
At the appropriate time, we will give workers direction. I am sure that each of the candidates knows that the interests of workers are paramount. And as a government, if you want to survive, you need workers that have the energy, workers that will operate in a good environment that are also competitive in terms of socio economic needs. So, at the appropriate time, the association will direct its members.
What kind of candidate are your members looking to support?
We want a candidate that has the capacity, capability, honesty and based on his past records, friendly to workers. And if we have that, I think we are okay because the problem of this country is leadership. When we get a leadership that can turn the opportunities we have in this country for the betterment of the citizenry, I think we are good.
Away from the 2023 election, the decent work agenda is an issue that is making waves in the world of work. What does decent work really mean for a Nigerian worker, especially in the civil service?
I am very familiar with the Decent Work Agenda. But to be practical, it means provision of a conducive working environment, wage protection, and the wage being such that it can enable you to care for your family. These are indicators of a decent work: you have a living wage, conducive working environment and availability of working tools.
So skills, environment, and the economy play a major role in the actualisation of a decent work agenda. Skills should be built to match what is required by the employers, workers must operate in an environment that enables opportunity for productivity and growth, and an economy that enables a worker to meet his or her socio economic needs. That, to me, is the basis on which a decent work agenda rests.
Talking about skills, what is your union actually doing for its members in terms of skills?
Unionism is about educating the workers. We have workers’ education in the form of conferences and seminars, bringing in developmental issues and industrial relations. We are at the top of this. And again we are ensuring that our workers are well skilled to match the 21st century workforce. These are things we do, and that is why even in association, we make sure we create the enabling environment for our units to organise seminars, even our branches and chapters. We organise seminars, trainings and conferences.
Your union was in the news sometime ago for a leadership crisis. What should your members and Nigerians at large know about the leadership tussle in your union?
The slogan of workers’ unions is ‘struggle continues’ and ‘forward ever, backward never.’ We don’t go back; we move forward. And in struggle, you will continue to do that. We are moving forward and every leader knows their followers. And when we talk about industrial relations, they run through organs. We have the CDC, we have the NEC which is the ruling, decision making body.
Once NEC ratifies any decision, the only organ that can upturn it is the national delegate conference that comes every four years except where there is a need for an emergency. So, whoever is parading himself without the endorsement or the confirmation of the NEC, is just a waste of time. Besides that, nobody can force themselves on people. If the people say they don’t need you, I think the best option is for you to just stay.
I repeat, every follower knows their leader, and as far as I am concerned, I am holding on to the helms of affairs because the NEC decided so. And I am serving out my tenure that will end in 2024. Whatever anybody is going about to say or do is just a distraction tool which will never work.
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