Angry Workers Protest as Oshiomhole Explains Tough Economic Conditions
Angry workers on Monday protested the tough economic conditions in the country, disrupting the rally organised to commemorate the May Day at the Eagle Square, Abuja.
The workers complained about what they described as the insensitivity of the federal government to their plight, describing the absence of President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo at the rally as ample evidence of their disregard for labour.
Their protest forced very important dignitaries, including the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki; Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Yakubu Dogara; Minister of Labour and Productivity, Senator Chris Ngige; and former governor of Edo State, Adams Oshiomhole, to leave the event abruptly.
Many of the workers told THISDAY that while they could understand the absence of Buhari, who was presumed ill, they objected to Osinbajo’s preference for honouring an invitation to attend a lecture in Lagos instead of honouring them at the May Day rally.
What was more annoying, they said, was the decision of the Labour minister to ask Ms. Biola Bawa, the acting Permanent Secretary of the ministry, to read his speech.
But speaking on Arise TV, a sister broadcast station of THISDAY, on Monday, Oshiomhole, also a former labour leader, asked the workers to exercise patience, saying the Buhari administration was doing its best to attend to their welfare needs.
The ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), he said, was pro-poor and willing to ensure that the fortunes of the nation’s work force changed for good.
He, therefore, pleaded with them to engage rather than confront government, explaining that the economic crises was a direct consequence of the mismanagement of the economy by past governments.
Notwithstanding the protest at the rally ground, cheery news came to the workers from Buhari that his administration would approve the final recommendations of the committee comprising government and labour representatives for the constitution of a new national minimum wage committee to set a new minimum wage for workers.
The committee, he said, would start work on the workers’ demand within the next three months.
He made these pledges in his May Day speech, which was made available to journalists in Abuja on Monday by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr. Femi Adesina.
He promised to take steps towards providing palliatives to workers with a view to ameliorating their living conditions.
While enjoining the workers to cooperate with his government in its commitment towards building an egalitarian society, Buhari assured the workforce that his government would deploy every power at its disposal to improve the welfare of workers.
He said: “Government will take necessary steps to implement the final recommendations of the main government/labour committee as it relates to the setting up of New National Minimum Wage Committee and needed palliatives in order to reduce the discomfort currently being experienced by the Nigerian working class.”
Buhari, who said the government stood in solidarity with workers all over the world, also commended what he described as the steadfastness of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) “in ensuring that this year’s celebration is observed under peaceful and harmonious industrial relations’ atmosphere”.
He said the commemoration of the workers’ day reminded everyone of the sacrifices and contributions of workers towards the economic growth of the nation.
He described the theme of this year’s May Day anniversary, “Labour Relations in an Economic Recession: An Appraisal,” as apt in view of the recession being witnessed by the country at the moment.
He also said the careful selection of the theme underscored the concern and commitment of the organised labour in working with his administration to bring Nigeria out of recession.
Problems had started at the Eagle Square event centre, where the NLC expressed the workers’ frustration that no concrete step had been taken by the federal government on the demand for the harmonisation and implementation of a new minimum in the country, at around 12.05pm when the distraught workers refused to listen to Bawa, who wanted to read the speech on behalf of Ngige.
They insisted that the minister who was to represent the president must read his as well as the president’s speech.
Ngige was scheduled to read Buhari’s speech but could not as the workers, feeling slighted disrupted proceedings despite appeals from him, Oshiomhole and labour leaders, including the NLC President, Ayuba Wabba.
The workers demanded that the federal government must begin the immediate implementation of the minimum wage.
An attempt by Ngige to address them on their demand was rebuffed by the workers, who started chanting “ole, ole ole, ole ole” or “thief, thief, thief, thief.”
Subsequently, the workers walked out of the venue, leaving Saraki, Dogara, Oshiomhole and other dignitaries with no other option than to be evacuated, while policemen were quickly deployed to restore law and order.
“Federal government has been fair to workers and it showed it by releasing bailout funds to state governors,” Ngige told a scanty crowd that was left at the venue, adding: “Part of this government’s fairness has been demonstrated by our firm commitment in making sure that no worker is laid off. What happened today is simply that this place was infiltrated by non-workers.”
Ngige condemned the action of the workers, saying it did not represent the mind of Nigerian workers he knew.
He said: “What happened today is simply that this place was infiltrated by non-workers. And as you know, there are some factionalisation within the Labour federation in Nigeria. So what is playing out here today as I was made to understand from intelligence report is that this May Day gathering was infiltrated by people that do not belong to the Labour Union.”
The minister urged workers to be patient with the minimum wage demand, assuring them that the minimum Wage Negotiating Committee would start functioning within the next quarter which is in the next three months.
He also assured the workers that the backlog of promotion arrears and repatriation allowances, relocation allowances and other allowances that are due to them as emolument would be paid soon.
“My message for the workers is that they should be patient, they should give us some time. Within the next quarter, the Minimum Wage Committee will start functioning within the next quarter which is in the next three months. The backlog of promotion arrears and repatriation allowances, relocation allowances and other allowances that are due them as emolument will be paid,” he assured.
Earlier, the NLC President Wabba painted a gloomy picture of the Nigerian worker.
In his address titled: “Labour Relations in Economic Recession: An appraisal,” he accused the federal government of reneging on its promises for palliatives after the fuel subsidy removal.
He also called for the immediate implementation of the national minimum wage, the Economic Growth and Recovery Plan, as well as the revival of the Ajaokuta steel plant.
Wabba said: “As we all already know, Labour relations in times of economic crisis are often turbulent. We have had continuing crisis of non-payment of wages, allowances and pensions almost across board. Even with two bailouts by the federal government and Paris Club loan refunds to states, as at this May Day, about 12 state governments still owe their civil servants several months of unpaid wages, pensions and gratuity.”
He regretted that the debtor states had deliberately sought not to prioritise payment of workers’ salaries and entitlements, adding that reports at the NLC’s disposal indicated that part of the problems of states was their debt burden.
Wabba said cutting down on cost of governance and keeping security vote at not more than 5 per cent of the state’s revenue would go a long way in making resources available to address the current situations in most states.
On his part, former Edo State governor Oshiomhole told Arise TV that Nigerian workers were facing very difficult times due to the present economic recession in the country but noted that the situation was a response to the mismanagement of governance by past governments.
He noted that what the Buhari government was trying to do was to check the excesses of the past and make sure that Nigeria was not made a dumping ground and to ensure prudent management of resources so that the workers and other Nigerians would enjoy better economy and improved welfare in future.
He lamented that most of the states’ workers were owed, some up to 12 months. “So people are hungry and angry, but no matter whatever your grievances are, you must listen to your employer,” he said.
Oshiomhole said that the Nigerian workers are trying to determine their wages through the demand and supply mix, but noted that it was not the salary demanded by the workers that was paid to them but what they were able to negotiate with their employers.
He said that workers celebrate May Day to remember those who have lost their lives fighting for the welfare of the workers and noted that in capitalism the economy is characterised by boom and burst.
He explained: “But when there is crisis everybody is expected to make sacrifices but who and who should make these sacrifices and for how long is yet to be determined. Many factories have closed up and many workers have lost their jobs, but you have to realise that there was a government when Dunlop and Michelin relocated from Nigeria despite the huge demand for tyres in this country.
“And ironically these companies left at a time when there was a boom. So what we are seeing today started a long time ago, but the present administration wants to ensure that Nigeria is no more a dumping ground. When they dump their goods here they create jobs for their own people.”
On the question of minimum wage, the former governor said that N18,000 was not a living wage and that was why as governor, he increased the minimum wage in Edo State to N25,000 but noted that such amount was not a living wage too.
He however remarked that no one actually earned a minimum wage because no worker was on grade level 1, adding that those who earned such low income were the vulnerable that should be protected, noting that responsible employers should pay a living wage.