Editorial: The protest rallies by Labour unions

Lagos: THOUSANDS of workers in Lagos under the umbrella of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and other civil society groups marched on Wednesday May 13, to protest against what they say is the poor performance of government. The proposed protests to be staged in different parts of the country, are being organised against the background of the federal government’s deregulation of the downstream sector of the oil industry which has resulted in scarcity and a rise in fuel prices.

Other critical grievances include the establishment of a revised new minimum wage set by organised labour at N52,200. The unions also want a wholesale adoption of the Uwais committee’s report on electoral reform. They accused the federal government of pursuing ‘obnoxious’ anti-people policies and warned that if there was no positive response to their demands, they would declare a total nationwide strike thereafter.

Speaking on the occasion, the President of NLC, Comrade Abdulwaheed Omar, said that Nigerian workers are demanding ‘job creation, stimulus package and salary increase in response to the global economic crisis; end to privatisation and liberalisation, credible anti-corruption agenda, as well as fixing of the Nigerian refineries and the rail transport system’.

Government’s response to the warning protests typically came too late. In the wake of the Lagos demonstration and others planned for Asaba, Ibadan, Kano, Enugu, Maiduguri, Makurdi and Abuja, it hurriedly summoned the NLC to a meeting. Government has set up a tripartite body consisting of members of the NLC, the Nigerian Employers Consultative Association (NECA) and its own representatives to thrash out an acceptable minimum wage for the Nigerian worker. Government representatives are sounding conciliatory even though nothing of substance has been conceded. In truth, the quality of life of the Nigerian worker has gone from bad to worse as inflation continues to gnaw at his income. The minimum wage at the current rate of exchange is worth just about a dollar a day and there is nothing to cushion the hardship endured by the worker. Power supply is still almost non-existent, infrastructure is in shambles and fuel and food prices have been on the rise.

On the all too important matter of deregulation to which the NLC is vehemently opposed, Government is maintaining a fuzzy and unhelpful line. Put simply, if a product is subsidised and at some point that subsidy is removed, someone has to pick up the shortfall. If no one does, the price of that commodity would rise at least in the short run. If deregulation increases the pump price of petrol from N65 a litre to, say, N100 (54%) given the multiplier effect of this product, can the economy survive the inflationary jolt? Furthermore, what would deregulation mean to the man on the street?

Why should he pay more? Will paying more lead to the full rehabilitation of the four comatose refineries? Will it lead to the building of more refineries, how many, and within what time span? Is it wise to embark on deregulation at a time when governments all over the world are scrambling to introduce stimulus packages to help their citizens? With 85 per cent of our petroleum needs imported from high cost producers abroad, who really benefits from deregulation? These are questions begging for answers. Given the paucity of information from Government, Nigerian workers will appear to be justified in resisting a medication that promises no cure.

The Labour Unions are also opposed to the privatisation of the refineries. But it will be up to Government to convince them otherwise. In the mean time, policy formulators must bear in mind that affordable fuel is just about the only ‘dividend of democracy’ that the ordinary man enjoys for being born in an oil-producing Nigeria.

The issue of electoral reforms though somewhat removed from the bread-and-butter issues for which industrial unions are known can be justified on the grounds that good governance and enlightened policies can only derive from free and fair elections. It is a reflection of the highest form of patriotism for organised labour to insist that this country for the sake of its future should not be subjected to another round of electoral fraud and violence.

Ordinarily we would have persuaded the NLC that this is not the most auspicious time to contemplate going on strike as government is evidently suffering from the effects of the global economic meltdown and a sharp drop in oil revenue. But nobody else is tightening their belts from public servants to overpaid legislators down to councillors in local governments. Everywhere there is profligacy, corruption and lack of accountability. For the Nigerian worker to moderate his demands, government must show that it is also tightening its belts and plugging the many loopholes for graft in its administration. Sadly there is no evidence yet of frugality in the management of the nation’s resources.

The spectre of industrial action at this time of global economic recession with so much unemployment and poverty had compelled government officials, legislators, members of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Nigeria Police, to condemn the NLC. But in the end, the Lagos rally was most peaceful. Everything went smoothly with one report claiming that police hostility dissolved into collaboration when they cheered the protesters.

Lagos State Governor Raji Fashola and his deputy, Sarah Sosan, were among those who attended the rally. The NLC should ensure that all other planned rallies are just as peaceful. In the meantime, government should further explore the option of dialogue with Labour.