/COVID-19: Labour movement, safety and job security, by Rufus Olusesan
COVID-19: Labour movement, safety and job security, by Rufus Olusesan

COVID-19: Labour movement, safety and job security, by Rufus Olusesan

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RUFUS OLUSESAN writes on what Labour movement in Nigeria should do to protect Nigerians in general from the painful effects of COVID-19 and the measures put in place to contain it by the government.

It is no more news that Covid–19 is a pandemic that is spreading around the globe, originated from Wuhan in China and has infected and killed many in Europe, Asia, America, Africa including Nigeria.

Globally, the pandemic has exposed capitalism for having paid a greater premium to the private accumulation of capital and profit as against adequate investment in social services such as healthcare delivery services, education, food production, potable water, electricity etc. As a consequence of this failure, the global economy is vulnerable and has entered a recession with its attendant job losses, scarcity and inflation.

In response to COVID -19, President Buhari announced first 14 days’ lockdown in Lagos, Ogun States and Federal Capital Territory, Abuja that began on March 30, 2020 which was renewed for another 14 days. Easing lockdown process was fashioned out, though, spreading of COVID-19 continues unabated. There are also different degrees of restrictions and lockdown across the federation. As at 13th May, 2020, 4,787 are infected, 959 discharged while 158 deaths have been recorded so far in Nigeria. The global infections stand at over 4.3 million while global deaths are over 292,292 while around 1.5 million people recovered.

The federal government announcement of the lockdown without consideration to our economy wherein the majority of the people are peasant farmers, petty traders, artisans, bus drivers, casual workers left the mass of the people groaning under more poverty.

Workers and the poor observed the lockdown rules by staying at home but the government failed to provide adequate palliatives needed for a successful lockdown. Government palliatives available were not adequate and some were hijacked by the ruling elites for either their family or party members leaving the poor working masses to wallow in more hunger.

Arising from economic disruption from COVID-19 which forced demand for oil downward and the oil war between Russia and Saudi Arabia led to crashing of price, the Nigerian federal government reviewed the country’s federal budget from N10.50 trillion to N10.27 trillion and is proposing further cuts of N1.5 trillion; the government equally reviewed oil benchmark from $57 per barrel to $30 per barrel. Just to remind us, larger percentage of the budget will be financed through borrowing. The over N200 billion cuts in the 2020 budget largely affected the working class and poor as the privileges of the ruling elite remained intact.

Government has officially devalued Naira from N360 to a dollar to now N380, it has grave consequence on the economy during and post COVID-19 pandemic as it will give rise to inflation, rise in cost production and attendants increase in the cost of living.

Workers and the poor observed the lockdown rules by staying at home but the government failed to provide adequate palliatives needed for a successful lockdown.

The ruling elites in its vicious and callous outlook will be out more than before to attack the rights, privileges and interests of workers both public and private sectors  of the economy.  Kaduna State government has announced plans to deduct 25% of workers’ salary as a contribution to the state’s Covid-19 Emergency Fund; Lagos Airport Hotel sends workers on three months compulsory leave without pay; Arik Air which is presently benefiting from N300 billion bailout has sacked 90% of its workers and has cut the salaries of the remaining 10% by 80%; management of Airport Hotel has placed their workers on three months leave without pay, many private companies are currently paying fractional monthly salary of different degrees, some employers have adopted no work, no pay policy. The attack is endless.

Labour unions in Kaduna State have rejected plans by the state government to deduct 25 per cent of workers’ salaries to contribute to the state’s COVID-19 Emergency Fund while Kogi State government announced 20% cut in workers’ salary.

The 30,000 minimum wage signed into law since April 18, 2019 is currently under threat more than ever before as most states are yet to implement it and many states will refuse to pay workers salary while guaranteeing the jumbo salaries, allowances, unaccounted fabulous security votes and privileges of the political office holders which constitute huge drain on the public funds.

Government and private sector employers will force the working people to bear the consequence of COVID-19 economic crises. This time around, NLC, TUC and ULC must mobilize the Nigerian workers to defend 30,000 minimum wage, forcing government and private sector employers to implement it without retrenchment or loss of jobs. The trade unions should be prepared to lead a struggle against this widespread sacks and fractional salary payment.

The letter of program of action written by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) to Mr. Boss Mustapha, Chairman, Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 on COVID-19 pandemic is a welcome development but if such program is left to the government without struggles, it will never materialize.

With COVID-19 lockdown and its consequences coupled with the low oil prices, a deeper recession is not only sure, it poses a dangerous trend to job security more than what was experienced between 2008 and 2010 which led to closure of factories and job losses.

COVID-19 lockdown according to Dr Timothy Olawale, Director General, Nigeria Employers Consultative Association (NECA) in The Nation Newspaper of April 24, 2020 declared that to minimize the potential of job loss, NECA suggest as the practice in other climes, that government augment payment of salaries of workers’ of companies that are worst hit by the impact of the pandemic by at least 50 to 70 per cent for the next four months. This statement amounts to calling for a bailout of private companies. Under capitalism, the private sector leads the economy, private companies only exist for profit making alone, as soon as there is an economic crisis, the private companies begin to opportunistically beg for bailout from the government. Where now is the profit made and why can’t it be channelled towards paying salaries to guarantee the welfare of workers.

With COVID-19 lockdown and its consequences coupled with the low oil prices, a deeper recession is not only sure, it poses a dangerous trend to job security more than what was experienced between 2008 and 2010 which led to closure of factories and job losses.  NLC, TUC and ULC must braze up to defend workers for the challenges ahead of COVID-19 backlash.

The medical workers in the frontline against COVID-19 are not adequately encouraged, motivated and protected to do the job. The entire healthcare delivery service is in shambles. The lesson from COVID-19 is the fact that there may be a time when the ruling elite will be forced to seek medical attention in Nigeria without the usual expensive medical tourism. Shocking is the fact that our healthcare delivery service is so vulnerable that a state like Nasarawa does not have a single ventilator.

As workers braze up for the task ahead, we must struggle to defeat neo-liberal policies and capitalism. This can only be achieved, if the working class can form and build an alternative pan Nigeria mass working people political party to struggle for the socialist transformation of the country while the major sectors of the economy are nationalized, planned and placed under democratic control and management of the workers and consumers for the betterment and needs of all. This is the only way adequate investment in healthcare, education, jobs, transportation, housing, food and other basic amenities will be achieved.

What labour movement should demand and fight for:

  1. N100,000 monthly special COVID-19 allowance for health workers who are in the frontline and regular testing for health workers in the frontline.
  2. A compulsory special Life insurance policy scheme for health workers especially those in frontline while compulsory Group life insurance to other categories of workers as enshrined in Section 4 (5) of Pension Reform Act, 2014 (as amended).
  3. Provision of safety kits including face mask, globes, hand sanitizer, hand washing facilities etc., for workers in all factories and government institutions as well as in communities. Observation of physical distancing measures in workplaces and factories.
  4. Payment of N50,000 to working class and poor households to cushion the effect of COVID-19 lockdown.
  5. Fighting for immediate payment of all outstanding salaries and allowances of workers both in the public and private sectors of the economy.
  6. Reduction in salaries and allowances of public office holders to the earnings of skilled civil servants, thus creating more money to pay 30,000 minimum wage and fund budget for the betterment of all.
  7. Granting of tax waivers to small and medium businesses, lowering of interest rate through the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), provision of restructuring of existing loans. This is imperative with a caveat, no retrenchment of worker or loss of job as a result of COVID-19 pandemic and economic crises.
  8. No to job losses or pay cuts on account of the COVID-19. End casualization now, for the government to guarantee all employment and nationalise any company that retrench or fail to pay its workers.
  9. For 3 months’ payment relief of public utilities such as Electricity, LAWMA refuse payment etc., for workers and the poor.
  10. Democratic management of palliatives with inclusion of labour movement representatives in the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 at all levels.
  11. In order to contain COVID-19 backlash, organized labour needs to reactivate its organ link with Civil Society through the revival of Labour – Civil Society Collation (LASCO)
  12. For freedom of the press and the right to freedom of expression and association. Respect for the fundamental rights of citizens even while battling the virus.

*Olusesan is the National Chairperson, Campaign for Democratic and Workers’ Rights (CDWR)