What we achieved without strike —Ugboaja, NLC secretary
The new general secretary of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Emmanuel Ugboaja, faced his first major test since his emergence in August this year when the organised Labour, led by the NLC issued a strike threat over break in negotiation on the issue of consequential adjustment arising from the N30, 000 new national minimum wage. For two weeks, the strike threat resulted in another round of negotiations and overnight meetings between the Federal Government and Labour, which eventually led to the resolution of the looming crisis. In his first major interview, Ugboaja speaks on his emergence, plans, the NLC factions that left to form United Labour Congress (ULC) and the recent resolution of the minimum wage crisis. SOJI-EZE FAGBEMI brings the excerpts:
HOW will you describe your appointment as the general secretary of the largest trade union centre in Africa?
I see it as a humbling experience. It is a career height for me. But on a personal note, it has been a humbling experience. When you work hard, the dream and joy of every worker is to be able to make it to the zenith and it is not everybody that can get there. So, ordinarily it’s a feat everybody hopes to attain. But getting there, you then realised it is quite humbling. The task is enormous but one is happy that, that opportunity has been provided. So, it is a humbling experience to now answer general secretary of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC). It comes with it expectations much more than anybody can imagine. People look up to you, both the regular workers, the Nigerian working people and their families, look up to you to deliver, and the expectations are high in Nigeria for some succour.
At this critical time, as you said, Nigerians and stakeholders in the Labour movement expect much from you. Where will you start and how will you handle the pressure?
It is to really go to the basis because I have come to the realisation that people have less knowledge of what the trade unions are, much less what the NLC is. The NLC means different things to different people, and one needs to have a clear understanding of what the NLC is, for one to then appreciate the direction to go. So, clearly the takeoff point is going to be to get people to understand the organisation that is called the Nigeria Labour Congress and then get to improve on the membership density of the affiliates that make up the NLC and the Nigeria labour movement.
The NLC is definitely the face of the labour movement in Nigeria, and the perception out there is that the movement of the Adams Oshiomhole era is not the same labour we have today. And generally, there is this belief that the labour movement has since been very docile, and nothing has changed even with the present leadership. What is your view on this and how will you work to change the perception?
We have grown to do more work and the burden has increased; but unfortunately, the people’s perception, which is critical, has not favoured the amount of work that has been put in by labour in all fairness. Also, the Bible will put it as “time and chance.” Time and chance in this instance, means the issues that have played out have not been very favourable to labour. Labour has done the same set of things it did in the past but there is a growing expectation because when it did it, it did it when you might say people were in the dark that such was possible. Now, people have seen that what labour did in the past was possible and they are asking for more. So, it is this challenge of providing more. Those specifics are still being provided, but the need to provide more is where the perception of not doing enough has come. For labour to be able to provide more, there are certain things we need to do and part of it is what I call going to the basis. We need to increase our membership density to be able to influence because we are a pressure group. We can only make it as a pressure group if we have mass strength. So, we need to improve on our mass strength. That is a top priority. We need to improve on our communication with the people. Now, that communication has become very fast. Within seconds, news spreads. Now anything that is happening, the news is out even before you can get a response. But if the response is not there through WhatsApp, Facebook, etc, and you are not responding as fast as the information is flowing, if it keeps happening, then the perception will be that you are not performing. But clearly, we are determined to move with the tide; we are determined to do what will make people change their perception of us not doing enough; of us not being there; of us not measuring up to expectations.
But you were losing members due to one crisis or the others; the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) and National Union of Electricity employees of Nigeria (NUEE) are examples. One of the reasons the negotiation between you and your previous affiliates that left to form the United Labour Congress (ULC), has not succeeded was the engagement of a former general secretary, but since your coming has changed that, do you see this as opportunity to reconcile?
Clearly, one determination will be to relate with our brothers; we have never stopped relating, it is only the formalisation has been a challenge. We will continue to move in the direction of where we will not only be one family, but people’s perception of us as one family will also match the reality. The determination is not just in affiliate number but also in the membership of the affiliates. The drive is to grow the membership of the affiliates, while not losing sight of the need to relate and get our brothers to see the need for us to get closer and bigger. Capital in merging, capital is consolidating, we can’t be breaking up while capital is consolidating. It might not be a good strategy to be breaking up to confront capital. If capital is consolidating, then we as the working people also need to consolidate. I know my brothers will see it in that light and clearly, it is going to be easier for us to formulate a working relationship; to formulate a clear platform to operate harmoniously to be able to confront capital. If capital is consolidating by merger, we can’t be seen to be breaking up. If capital is consolidating across borders, we cannot be seen to be breaking up within borders.
Your colleagues that left the fold about five years ago accused the NLC of a hardline posture, that it’s not ready to shift grounds on issue. You were to hold a joint May Day this year, but a day or two to the event, they said you were not ready for a kind of give-and-take arrangement. Do we continue like this or find a way forward?
Definitely, that is the hallmark of unionism. The irony of it is that all the people involved are normal unionists; everybody has the union blood running in him and part of it is the skill, the capacity for negotiation; the capacity to drive collective bargaining. The truth is that the human interpersonal relationships are also helpful. Clearly speaking, a lot of water has gone under the bridge. To even think that we were going to have a joint celebration showed the positive intentions and the positive direction we want to be moving. Clearly, it is a task one intends to throw himself in; to see if we can get back. Fortunately, all the key players are people I have closely worked with; people I have related closely with. I know what is holding us back on both sides is not huge. It is a bridge we can comfortably walk across. It is something that is attainable. Coming back together to work as a team on behalf of the Nigerian working families is something that is very realisable.
Are you assuring Nigerians that with your coming, it will come to fruition?
I am going to work hard in that direction. Like I said, the truth is that you are relating with unionists that have heavy capacity in negotiation and bargaining. We all share the same fears of the workers being swallowed, having the wrong end of the stick; and that common determination will have us work together. We are not going to achieve much if we are pulling in different directions; if we are not holding each other’s waist in this thug of war. I will do my best because there is nobody in any of the two leaderships that I cannot have a breakfast, lunch or dinner with. There is nobody in both sides I cannot call by 6am or 12 midnight. We will see something positive comes out of it.
What of the long delay in the implementation of the N30,000 new minimum wage?
It is unfortunate; it is part of what I have to also work hard for us to change the face. It only reflects the level of development of our industrial relations practice. The minimum wage is in existence in Nigeria; it is a law. What we have had is the challenge of the Federal Government to reach an understanding with its employees as to what will be the consequential adjustments, having brought Level One officer from N18,000 to N30,000. It is the challenge of having a mandate to meaningfully discuss, to meaningfully dialogue with the representatives of workers that had stalled it.
But there is nothing that has said states should wait for the Federal Government to decide how it pays its own employees before they decide how to pay their own workers. In the private sector, there is nothing that says you have to wait for the Federal Government negotiation with its own employees on how to actualise the implementation of the Act. Unfortunately, the way the minimum wage issue has been handled over the years has made it to look as if the Federal Government has to set example.
Yes! The Federal Government has to live by example because Labour is under the Exclusive list; by being the first to implement. That has always been the standard but unfortunately, this government has not followed that part. The NLC only intervened, we have played our role; we have done what we are supposed to do. That was why I told you that part of the challenge I’m facing and I have to handle head-on is for people to understand what the NLC is; what the labour movement is and how we work. The truth of the matter is that we have some affiliates of the NLC involved in the negotiation. We have about one-third of the affiliates of the NLC that are involved. But people have failed to understand that the NLC has earlier played its role; the minimum wage of N30, 000 had been gotten. It is already operational in different sectors of the economy. In the manufacturing and construction sectors, there are no issues there.
But you have just concluded the issue of consequential adjustments after days of marathon meetings with the Federal Government. How did you feel after the whole process?
It is a huge burden taken off our shoulder. It is not an ordinary feat, considering the state of the economy, the growing disposition of the government with regards to cost-cutting and cost-saving. So, it is something we are glad we were able to achieve without having to go on strike.
Are you satisfied with what you have got or been able to achieve?
Sure, in the circumstances we are. There is no rule that says wage review will not happen even next year. What we did was to get some consequential adjustments with regards to the minimum wage, but workers still reserve the right to demand negotiation for improvement in their wages at any time they perceive the economy is doing well and can accommodate new wage level.
What next, and where is the next battle line?
The next battle line is at the state level, undoubtedly the states.
How are you going to handle it?
The minister (of labour) said that they would communicate to the states to help guide them. We are also going to do the same to our own state structures to help guide them. We expect our people at the state level to work on that. Some states might be able to get their government to do better; some might get a lesser package but our attitude is that each must be a product of collective bargaining.
But it is not compulsory that all the states must follow this template?
No! It has never been automatic that you must implement what the Federal Government does. Some states do higher, some do lower but it serves as guide.
Before now some states were not paying workers’ salaryand Nigerians have been accusing the NLC of keeping quiet and not doing anything on the plight of the affected workers?
Anybody that says the NLC is quiet will be unfair to the congress but the truth is that the Nigerian society needs to be challenged because it’s not the NLC that will allow a governor that has not paid salaries, that has put people in penury and has brought untold hardship to his people, but only for you to hear that he has been announced as returned elected. You will then wondered, who elected him? Who did the voting? You can’t place that on the door step of the NLC. Even though we are struggling, we are trying to enlighten people. The truth is that from all the reports we have as regards the 2019 elections, you realise we are getting more challenged in our electoral capacity. So, until people know that it is electorally suicidal not to deliver on the dividends of democracy, as long as people can get away with being in power and not delivering on democracy dividends, the challenge is not ours. The workers were screaming, we have had strikes. If you go on strike, the person who has not paid you for six or eight months, the weapon of strike is basically meaningless to him because what we have in those states were looters, who are not interested in the workings of the public system. If they are people that are interested in the public system, going on strike will make an impact because it is then you will realise the challenge of absence of regular services that are supposed to be provided by public service provider. But we have a trend where people run absentee government; all they do is to come to Abuja, collect money and head for Europe or Asia. You know we are in trouble in a situation where people tell you they need to charter an aircraft to and from Abuja, when workers that are providing public services are being owed salaries, you then realise that we have our mentality completely jaundiced, and that is bigger than a trade union issue. It is a societal issue but because the trade unions are the integral part of the pressure groups in the society, we are liaison with other civil society to begin to demand genuine governance.
Where will you place the state of the nation’s economy?
We are clearly not doing well. You don’t need to be an economist to know that we are not doing well. We have crisis all over the place; farmers were not going to their farm. You heard the Katsina State government negotiating with bandits to allow people go to their farm. If people don’t go to their farm, we don’t know what they willbe able to add to the economy. You heard the sites of mining being shut down in Zamfara State; we are losing what mining would have contributed to the economy. The challenge of electricity is not helping the small cottage industries; insecurity is not helping a free flow of services. So, it will be funny for anybody to think we are doing well economically; we are not. The factors are there; the challenges stare us in the face. The manufacturing sector is battling with the challenge of power and other basic infrastructure in terms of road network to be able to move the goods, both raw materials and finished goods. You realise we are not competitive enough, and when we are not competitive enough, then our population won’t be an advantage. Rather, outsiders are taking advantage of our population when ordinarily, our population would have been a boost to our economic growth in terms of diversity, in terms of the number of people with skills and ability. But clearly, our economy is challenged right now.