On May 1, 2019, workers all over the country trooped out to observe the Workers’ Day, being a day set aside to celebrate workers and highlight the challenges they face in their various vocations. This piece was, indeed, inspired by the sense of outrage at the way and manner workers are treated so very unfairly. It is correct that in most other nations of the world, the principles of law being applied to resolve industrial disputes may well be the same as are applicable in Nigeria, the difference being in the vibrancy of their labour unions and civil society organisations. The fate and destiny of workers, especially those in the private sector, where the master and servant policy is dominant, lie in the hands of labour and the CSOs. The Labour Act recognises collective bargaining as the process of arriving or attempting to arrive at a collective agreement, between labour unions and employers of labour, for the benefit of workers. Although this has been achieved in some specific areas such as the banking sector, petroleum industry, steel and textile sectors, there is so much more to be done for workers, by the labour unions.
Going by the Labour Act, a collective agreement means an agreement in writing, regarding working conditions and terms of employment, concluded between:
(a) an organisation of workers or an organisation representing workers (or an association of such organisations) of the one part; and
(b) an organisation of employers or an organisation of representing employers (or an association of such organisations) of the other part.
From the above, power has been handed over to labour unions and CSOs, to rescue all helpless workers from unfavourable conditions of work and the seeming helplessness of the judiciary in this regard. It is gratifying to note for instance, that medical doctors have some general guidelines for the engagement of all medical personnel as to their wages and conditions of service. This is not so for lawyers for instance. I believe that the Nigerian Bar Association, for example, can embark upon some collective bargaining on behalf of all lawyers in private or public employment, on the nature of salary payable and their conditions of work. Should any lawyer in any employment earn less than N50,000, even as a youth corper? Should he not be entitled to a car after some years of dedicated and diligent service? What about lawyers in government employment? What kind of allowances should they earn?
I am aware that law teachers have since succeeded in protecting their members who teach in the tertiary institutions. A special law was enacted to allow them appear in court to prosecute and defend cases, while still retaining their jobs as teachers. That way, they are able to align knowledge with active legal practice, and be abreast of latest legal principles as applicable in the cases that they handle, which will in turn benefit the students under their tutelage. They earn more money, get job satisfaction, enjoy career advancement and even become role models to their students, in the process. Many law teachers are successful legal practitioners indeed, with some of them rising to become Senior Advocates of Nigeria, right from the classroom. Nigeria benefits from this, even more than the teachers, as even private practitioners now apply to teach in the universities, given the attractive conditions of service. But should this apply to lawyers alone? Why won’t medical practitioners, engineers, surveyors, accountants, etc, benefit from this laudable scheme?
The average worker will agree to any slavish condition offered by the employer, just to get a job and make ends meet. It is then the responsibility of the labour unions and CSOs thereafter, to come to their aid, to help negotiate better pay and better conditions of service, without any fear of victimisation, from the employer. This is where the unions and associations can become more relevant to their members. Why should a lawyer be chasing his client to recover money for services that he has faithfully rendered? Why should any doctor lock up a nursing mother and her baby in the hospital, as a means of recovering his fee? The associations should have a committee or task force that members can report to for prompt assistance in the recovery of their fees.
Now back to labour issues. I make bold to state that the pitiable plight of workers in Nigeria today is traceable to the inefficiency of the labour unions. Take for instance, the issues of casualisation and outsourcing of workers, under which the worker ends up being shortchanged with just half of the wage payable. It is only fair and balanced, to demand a maximum period for casualisation and outsourcing. If the worker is not expected to partake in the end profit of the organisation where he works, then justice demands that he should be well catered for with appropriate wages and better conditions of service. And since he cannot engage his employer as an individual worker without suffering some casualties, it is expected that the unions should come to his aid to help negotiate this across board, so that all workers in his category can equally benefit.
The courts have through their recent decisions, indicated the readiness to enforce collective agreements, brokered on behalf workers by their unions. So, whereas there is no single law to protect all workers presently, it is the responsibility of the labour unions to work out a template that will cover workers in all categories of employment and demand its implementation through collective bargaining with the employers’ associations. This has been sanctioned by the Labour Act and the courts are only waiting to enforce all such mutual engagements.
Why should organised labour step in to take over the contracts of individual workers? The circumstances prevailing in Nigeria demand such intervention, very urgently. The conditions for the engagement of workers are inequitable, most times. Every unemployed person needs a job, practically speaking. So, at the point of employment, the worker has no bargaining power, in the real sense of the word, but rather to accept whatever is thrown at him by the employer. He cannot negotiate appropriate wages or even the conditions of service, as most employers have fixed terms for their vacant positions. And even after the initial engagement of the worker, he still cannot assert any right or power of negotiation for better conditions of service, without incurring the wrath of the employer. The fear of losing the job alone, is enough restraint for any worker to embark upon any agitation for better wages and working conditions, how much less when the worker is being owed months upon months of salary arrears.
The fact that an employer can be indebted to a worker for a whole year without paying his salary is enough indication of the kind of rights that workers are free to exercise, in the workplace. Or else why should anyone still be serving in an organisation that is unable to guaranty his take home pay for even one month? Labour needs to intervene to balance the equations; the professional organisations of lawyers, doctors, engineers, accountants, surveyors, etc, must step in to rescue their younger ones, by setting the minimum standard for their engagement, in any circumstance. Is it not better to be regarded as unemployed than to be employed and be in hell?
Whereas employment is still a matter of agreement between the employer and the worker, based on the terms mutually agreed upon by the parties, there must be some minimum operating standards, for such engagements. After all, there is a minimum wage policy, so it is possible to extend it to lay down a general condition of service, as a template for employment. A person who has rendered service in advance should not be owed the salary for that effort at all. It is unfair and ungodly. This indeed is at the root of corruption, as we all go around pretending that N30,000 can sustain a worker for a whole month, in the present day Nigeria. How much will he spend on transport, on electricity, on hospital bill, on the education of his children, and to feed his family? Don’t we all go to the market to know the galloping cost of things? And we end up cheating ourselves as a people because in almost all the organisations, the average worker has one thing or the other that he is engaged in outside the official job, to sustain himself. Most especially in the public service, the workers are hardly around in their offices and on their seats, as most of them have private shops, some have converted their cars to warehouses, while some others are running around as agents and vendors for all manner of products, to balance the uneven scale.
It is not just enough to have labour organisations throwing semantics and organising processions and jamborees, all of which have become rather ritualistic. There must be a conscious engagement by organised labour to rescue all workers. For how long should casual labour endure? How many days in a year should any worker enjoy as holiday? What is the consequence for owing workers salary? And when such is to be paid eventually, should it attract any interest? Should there be a constant audit of companies, firms and other private entities to determine their staff strength? What is the minimum number of staff a lawyer requires to open a law firm? How many workers should an oil company engage and retain in order to secure an oil mining licence? What should be the staff strength of a GSM operator?
We must move to the content of industrial relations to properly determine the appropriate template to be adopted in tackling unemployment in Nigeria. It is unacceptable to have portfolio companies declaring huge profits without sharing their earnings on wages and emoluments, in the name of outsourcing vital and essential services. Many foreign companies have littered our country with expatriates at the expense of our qualified personnel and labour is just there, content to be sowing uniforms and aso ebis, for ceremonial parades of hungry workers upon empty stomachs, year in year out. Enough is enough! Give us a law of employment, through conscious and meaningful struggle!