The month of April has been a turbulent one in government- workers relations. In at least three key sectors – health, judiciary and education – federal public sector workers have downed tools this month. It started with the National Association of Resident Doctors. The strike lasted for 10 days.
As the tumult deteriorated, the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria launched theirs over service conditions. Last weekend, the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria also gave the Federal Government a seven-day notice to address its grievances or have port operations shut down. Negotiations with striking polytechnic lecturers are still on at present.
In Nigeria’s labour climate, industrial actions have become major features, with different associations and unions across various sectors employing strike action usually as a last resort to press home their demands for issues related to wage increment, better welfare, correction of certain anomalies affecting the workplace, among other working conditions.
Usually, before downing tools, workers would have expressed their discontent, complaints or grievances. If workers’ discontent and complaints are not effectively resolved or well managed, they can lead to grievance which metamorphoses into trade dispute and full scale industrial action.
Part of the crisis in the Nigerian labour force could be traced to the 70s, 80s and even up to the 90s where there were statistics showing not just the number of people employed or those out of jobs, but also the labour disputes. At these periods, the annual report of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) used to have a specific section for industrial relations. That was when labour was taken seriously as an important factor of production and development. But these days, attention seems to be focused on other factors of production to the detriment of labour which many believe are partly the cause of the agitations and conflicts in the labour movement.
In recent times, Nigerians have had industrial actions both in the public and private sectors oftentimes arising from disagreements. Among the champions of industrial actions have been the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Trade Union Congress (TUC), and some of the affiliate unions like the educational and health sectors.
As stated earlier, lately, there have been industrial actions initiated by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), Non-Academic Staff Union of Universities (NASU), as well as the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics (ASUP).
The health sector also experiences regular industrial actions. The private sector is certainly not left out, as members of the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN), Nigerian Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE), among others, also resort to industrial actions in a bid to get the attention of their employers or the government.
Similarly, the union of the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) recently called off its industrial action that disrupted the registration process for persons who have not received their National Identification Numbers (NINs). This was largely attributed to the failure of government to meet its financial obligations to the Commission.
Strikes take place in many sectors of the economy but industrial actions that happen in both the educational and health sectors have become systematic in terms of the frequency of occurrence. The educational sector has witnessed incessant strike actions across all tiers of the sector. There have been series of strike actions especially in the tertiary institutions which have caused huge setbacks in the sector. Just last year in December, ASUU suspended its 9-month strike after it reached an agreement with the federal government.
The health sector has also witnessed frequent industrial actions that involved all categories of health workers. Sadly, the strikes almost always result in the closure of public health institutions preventing Nigerians access to quality health care services.
Reports show that from around 1993, there seems to have been a steady struggle within the unions and the various categories of workers in the educational sector. The same contestation or rivalry is present in the health sector between doctors, nurses and other medical personnel. This development has created in these sectors a system that is innately unstable and will continue to lead to some of these disturbances and strikes.
The government is not left out of this mix. Arguably, over the years, there have been failures of industrial relations practice largely on the part of the government. Collective agreement is reached through a process of negotiation. But if the terms of the agreement which are regarded as binding are ignored and not implemented, there is going to be violation leading to frequent shutdowns and industrial actions. The major cause of crisis between the government and ASUU has been the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which is more obeyed in the breach than in compliance. This could be the reason the agreement has been described at best as a contract of imperfect obligation.
Many years ago, it was unthinkable for academicians to belong to a union. But they used to have associations of professionals. But due to declining funding and poor allocation to education, poor remuneration for the lecturers, among other factors, academicians saw the need to become full blown members of trade unions which were affiliated to the NLC in 1986.
Part of the conflicts being faced in the labour horizon, in this case the public sector, using ASUU as an illustration, is the dual role of government as a sovereign and also as an employer. This is premised on the fact that government as an employer has, to some extent, failed to honour its position as an employer and rather relies on the state power or its power as a sovereign. In other words, there is government as a sovereign, and also government as an employer. But when government as a sovereign does not want to act as an employer, there will be chaos on the labour front.
This is sometimes confusing to those who are observers in labour matters with regard to the employment of federal universities’ lecturers for instance. It is believed that lecturers are hired by the Governing Councils of each of the universities, and as such, their appointments are statutorily flavoured. This means that their engagements could be linked to the Act setting up federal universities.
In reconciling the idea of a sovereign or sub-sovereign, and an employer not willing to be bound by the obligations they have entered into, there is a need for some clarifications. Federal universities staff go on strike because their earned allowances and salaries have not been paid. State universities’ lectures whose employers are different, also join the strike even though state governments are not owing them.
The reason is that there is only one union, ASUU, that caters for academic staff in general in the country. And so, it is not difficult for ASUU to mobilize workers in the state. In a country like ours where manpower is important, the federal government should be forthcoming to fill the gap that is left behind by the states. The state lecturers are feeling the brunt the same way the federal lectures are. They have a common interest.
What is playing out in the university community is the crisis of unilateral discussion where government reaches out to ASUU and NASU separately. The spirit of collective bargaining should be applied. There should be a framework in which there will be collective and fundamental understanding to discuss from day one. And when disputes arise, they are collectively resolved.
There are other factors responsible for frequent industrial actions in the country, as identified by experts. They include policy inconsistency, poor remuneration, low level of motivation, crisis of compensation, unfair treatment, poor application of collective bargaining and collective agreement, lack of active social dialogue, among others.
These primary drivers of disputes bedeviling the workforce can be categorized into dispute of rights and dispute of interest. Dispute of right has to do with respecting pre-existing agreements between workers and their employees or government. For instance, failure to pay workers’ salaries could lead to work-to-rule. For dispute of interest, attention is paid mainly to some external matters such as a campaign for the revival of moribund establishments. For instance, for almost 20 years now, there has been a struggle to bring to life the textile industry where about 45 collective agreements were signed in the past 40 years. That means almost every year, there were negotiations.
Industry watchers believe that increasingly, the share of wage income in the national economy is going down drastically, and with rising inflation, devaluation of currency, inequitable distribution of resources and reduction in purchasing power, workers’ pay hardly take them home. Workers live on their pay and if they are not paid on time or not paid at all, it becomes a crisis.
Nigerians are witnesses to the obviously unstable industrial landscape in the country, as there is hardly any season that passes by without reports of unions or associations embarking or calling off industrial actions.
Sometimes, government does the needful only after long periods of strikes. For every prolonged strike action, we are all losers. These strike actions, apart from reducing productivity, often paralyse activities in various sectors with telling consequences ultimately on the nation’s economy. It is difficult to accelerate national development without a motivated workforce in terms of remuneration, training, among other conditions.
In terms of negotiations in order to achieve industrial harmony, government negotiators should not be in a hurry to reach agreements with labour on account of public pressure, so as to call off the strike. Put differently, agreements shouldn’t be reached by parties on the negotiating table to buy peace which in turn lead to chaos. That means it’s hitherto a decision arrived at without plans to meet the obligations based on what the issues are. This smacks of lack of sufficient training, hence the need to institutionalize or professionalise industrial relations and collective bargaining process.
Time has come to revive the bargaining structures. There should a framework to prevent unnecessary work stoppages but if they happen, measures should be in place to handle them in a creative manner that they won’t be mutually disruptive. The National Advisory Labour Council has been institutionalized and made up of tripartite agents namely, government, employer and labour. This institution needs to be resuscitated so that labour-related problems will be proactively discussed to stem the tide of industrial actions.
It is counterproductive to abandon social dialogue and replace it with monologue in which case directives, including anachronistic method of salary fixing, are handed down to workers regardless of the conditions under which they work. Negotiators have to obey the sanctity of collective agreement which entails protection of workers’ welfare.
The major desire of the employer is to have increased turnover on investment especially in the private sector. That will stabilize their ability to maximize profit. On the other hand, there is the workforce whose ardent desire is to have take-home pay that will actually take them home. Within these altitudes, there should be compromises in terms of mutual respect for collective agreements.