The President of Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) and National President of Food, Beverages and Tobacco Senior Staff Association (FOBTOB), Comrade Quadri Olaleye, speaks with Tribune team of SOJI-EZE FAGBEMI and ADETOLA BADEMOSI, on various national issues affecting Nigerian workers and the nation in the face of COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 has caused serious havoc globally, how has this affected Nigerian workers?
It is no longer news that the negative impact of COVID-19 on the world has affected every facet of human life but it has affected workers mostly because the modus operandi in the world of work has changed. To start with, currently only about 40 per cent of people that used to work are now required for the present operation. Before COVID-19, we had issues of automation of production processes, we had the issue of robots taking over people’s jobs and we had other issues of technology that is reducing the number of workers required in a work place. While we were still looking for possible ways to ensure that we don’t throw a lot of people into the labour market, the issue of COVID-19 came and further established the fears of labour centres and the Federal Government.
COVID-19 has thrown a lot of workers into unemployment. Many have been sent home as a result of redundancy, termination of appointment because employers of labour, including government have now seen that they might not need the number of workers they had been using before, coupled with the fact that people don’t really have to converge in the office before they can work; people are working remotely. It benefits the employers because workers use more man-hours when they work from home. You hardly can know the time you are supposed to terminate your job for the day, so you work for the whole day. A lot of our members have lost their jobs as a result of this, while there is a lot of pressure on those people that are left behind, they work twice their normal working hours. So it is a negative effect.
Is the effect of COVID-19 enough justification for salary cuts and laying off workers even in the food sector where you are the union’s national president?
We know how important the food sector is. Even during the lockdown, they were allowed to work to provide food for the nation. Despite that, some of our employers decided to cut salaries by 10 per cent or whatever percentage, claiming it is as a result of COVID-19. They said they were unable to sell what they produced because of the inter-state lockdown and as a result of that, they could not get their goods and services to other states. They claimed that if they were not selling, they could not cope with payment of salaries. Also, the social distancing as prescribed by the government that only 40 per cent of people should be allowed to be at work at a certain time is also a factor because it means only 40 per cent of the workforce could work. What then happens to the remaining 60 per cent? They said they cannot continue to pay full salaries to the remaining 60 per cent who are not at work. We went to discussion with them because you cannot blame the situation on anyone. We assume it is going to be for a short time. You will agree with me that under the provision of declaring profitability, you will have some percentages you have to reserve for unforeseen circumstances that may come up later. You don’t declare everything as dividend so it is high time for the companies to look back to these reserved funds to use it to cushion whatever they are losing now to ensure they continue paying salaries. It is high time we started looking at that.
How can Nigeria tackle the economic crisis posed by the pandemic?
You will agree with me that the only body charged with the responsibility of moving the economy forward and making it active is the government. That has to do with government policies and steps. I mentioned that earlier that in the process whereby the government was telling employers to maintain social distancing and equally told the employers that only 40 per cent of their work force should be on the production line or at work place; that means that government is telling employers to start sending away 60 per cent of their work force. It is a policy that government should leave with the employers of labour to decide how they want to run their operations but that they should maintain social distancing. It was totally wrong for government to say that only 40 per cent should be working, it means that government has automatically sacked 60 per cent of Nigerian workers.
You also remember that the Federal Government went to the National Assembly to review the budget because Nigeria has been badly affected by the fall in crude oil price, and government reduced the budget drastically to ensure that we fit into the present reality. But there are lots of government expenses that need to be reviewed or cut down but they were not touched. We are talking about cutting unnecessary allowances, estacodes and the rest. Yes, COVID-19 was not caused by anybody but we have an advantage. The cost of governance should have been reduced during these last three months. It should have been a saving that should be used to rescue the economy. It is the responsibility of government to come up with policies. Yes they came up with the issue of palliative and stimulus but we know, in Nigeria we are good with making policies but the problem is our implementation level.
Unfortunately, the government is taking the decision alone without consultation. By the International Labour Organization (ILO) standard, the ILO advises all member countries to have a tripartite involvement, which is the government, employers of labour and Labour. But I am telling you that as at now, nobody knows what the government is doing. We have written series of letters to government on how to go about the palliatives to ensure they go to the right people, investors, and not to the political investors. We know that we have a lot of political investors in this country. Before COVID-19, we knew the number of investors in the country, but the roll call has increased by 50 per cent of what we used to have. So, it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that people who are going to benefit from the stimulus are genuine business owners. It is the responsibility of the government within the tripartite to negotiate with employers of labour, on possible ways to create more jobs but these, we are lacking at the moment. There are many government programmes that are supposed to stimulate the economy by concentrating on the infrastructure and putting the infrastructure in the right places. Fix up the refineries and many others and the economy will become active again and after COVID-19, Nigeria will bounce back.
The mainstay of our economy is oil but the crash in oil prices is affecting the economy, amidst increase in fuel pump price. How will labour react to this?
We all know that what we have in the oil sector is not subsidy. The subsidy is a political language, everyone knows that it was just a means of siphoning money In this country. Now that the crude oil price has fallen in the world market, we wrote to the government that this was the best opportunity to remove the fake subsidy from the system. Now that we are removing subsidy, if subsidy was real, it should have been savings for us. We told the government that now that they are stopping subsidy, let us think of what we would use the savings to do. Let us use it to fix our refineries, use it to fix our hospitals. It is only in Nigeria that we are not making anything positive as a result of COVID-19. All countries across the world have been able to improve their health system, they have been able to concentrate on rebuilding hospitals especially government hospitals. But we are only spending money on isolation centres, we are not using the opportunity to build new hospitals or to revive any hospital. So the money saved from subsidy should have been used for that. Since the price of crude fell in the international market, it is supposed to affect the local consumption of PMS. The price of PMS is supposed to come down at the same rate. We have written to the Ministry of Petroleum and we have been in discussions and we hope that they will listen to us.
As you mentioned earlier, what about the sorry state of the refineries?
We told them to use subsidy to fix the refineries. If this is done, it is going to be a great advantage to us. Presently, we are having capital flight because we take crude oil abroad and we suffer to get the product back to this country by forcing ourselves to buy dollar. But when we fix our refineries, it means that we can refine the quantity that we need to use in this country. And we can supply to West African countries. Even if we are not making any external attraction, we are building our internal system. The oil sector can even employ more than what we have at the moment if the refineries are fixed and it will also stabilize the price of PMS. We should not be talking of importation of PMS and other products but because we did not put our refineries in order. In one of our discussions, I asked the minister the stage the modular refineries they promised when they came on board were. He gave some responses that there were a lot of modular refineries that had been approved, they promised to arrange for us to visit the refineries to be very sure that they have those refineries but we are still waiting. We need to witness that truly they have licensed a lot of modular refineries. With the modular refineries, we would be able to create more jobs and maintaining the percentage of workers that we have at the moment.
But the government is talking of renovating the refineries and thereafter selling them to private investors. What is the position of TUC?
I am sure they will not try that. One of the reasons they got our votes was because they promised they would not sell the refineries. So it will be a betrayal of trust if they are now selling refineries after they got our votes. It is practically wrong and TUC will revolt. We will not allow that to happen. It is our national property, by selling the refineries to a private person; it means they are throwing a lot of people to the labour market.
Since you became the President of TUC, how is the synergy and relationship between the labour centres in the country?
The relationship is very cordial; we work together most of the time. Comrade Wabba and I do discuss the steps to take on many national issues but you will agree with me that even twins that were born the same day cannot agree all the time 100 per cent. So, we have our areas of disagreement, which is normal and that is why we have different labour centres in the country. So, we cannot be 100 per cent in agreement but I can tell you that most of the times we are in agreement, we work together and the synergy has been very good.
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