Nigeria: Another round of betrayals!

The demand for a 12.2% increase in the minimum wage, casualisation and pensions betrayed!

"From this moment, the preoccupation of my colleagues and myself is to look at the future with principled optimism since my election is a collective verdict"

That was the Nigerian Labour Congress' (NLC) president, Adams Oshiomhole, four years ago. Events have given the lie to that assertion, as betrayal followed betrayal. On all fronts workers continue to confront the same old challenges: starvation wages, casualisation, pensions, retrenchment, privatisation, fuel price hike, etc.

These challenges had called forth, since 1999, three general strikes: one in 1999 over the minimum wage and two in 2000 and 2002 over fuel prices. In spite of the betrayals by the labour bureaucracy these actions, brought about by pressures from the ranks, made significant achievements. Once again we are called forth to join the ranks for fresh battles.

Pensioners

Sometime ago, the NLC president promised a comprehensive nationwide action aimed at putting an end to the disturbing problem of non-payment of pensions and other terminal benefits. This is yet to materialise. Across the country the conditions of pensioners continue to worsen. "Despite seeing himself as a collective labour product", says Christopher Njoku, a retiree of the Nigerian Railway Corporation, "Oshiomhole and the NLC have abandoned pensioners. They now do their own things and allow the state to walk pensioners into untimely graves in their numbers as if these retirees were never active participants of the labour struggle."

The life of a typical Nigerian pensioner reads like a sad movie. Here's a typical case: Pa Jeremiah Ogunbiyi spent 36 years of his life working with the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC). Afterwards he retired, with the mistaken hope of a post-employment life. Two years after there was no gratuity, no pension... and he was hypertensive. While waiting in line during one of the numerous screening exercises he was forced to undergo before approval could be granted, he collapsed and died, having been made to stand a long while in the blazing sun without ever enjoying the fruits of his labour." (from The Week, April 23, 2001).

His case is not unique. Across the country pensioners confront a similar fate. Everywhere pension funds have fallen victim to the greed of the capitalists, a greed that has condemned working class families to a life of abject poverty, sickness and death. The amounts involved are huge... billions. Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC) N 6 billion, Nigerian Airways N4.5 billion, National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) N4.5 billion, Nigerian Port Authority (NPA) N5.5 billion, Jebba Paper Mill N4 billion (source The Week, April 23, 2001). The list goes on. According to the estimation of the Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE) over N50 billion may be involved. This problem is further worsened by privatisation.

This story goes back in time: there was the Nigerian Provident Fund (NPF), which suffered a similar fate. For years huge sums were accumulated by the fund, but in the end pensioners whose sacrifice created these sums never saw them. Rather, those in charge of the fund made themselves rich at the expense of the pensioners. The changes that were occasioned by workers' agitation proved cosmetic as the National Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF), that assumed the place of the NPF, followed its footsteps, collecting for years dues from every worker in the country without paying out any to workers who were denied not just employment but even the consolation of their rightful contributions - never mind the non-implementation of increases in pensions.

So who pilfered the over N50 billion workers' pension fund? And what is the labour bureaucracy doing about it? Furthermore, with the massive retrenchment that attends privatisation of government corporations how do workers get back their money, more so as the privatisation exercise enters its second and critical stage? Surely, Adams Oshiomhole in his capacity as the NLC president, member of the technical committee on privatisation and chairman of NSITF must have something to say about this. But what does he say about other issues?

12.2% increment in wages

Earlier on, the NLC threatened to call out workers on a one-day warning strike to press home demands for the agreed 12.2% pay increase by the government. It was too good to be true. Like the proverbial leopard that never changes its spots, the NLC, despite widespread support for this action called it off a day to the expiration of the threat alleging agreement on the part of government to fulfil its obligation.

Hours after this assertion the government went on the air to announce it had never entered into any agreement whatsoever with the NLC to pay the said sum. Significantly, the NLC leadership pretended not to have heard this and kept a criminal silence.

On July 10, 2001, as part of its ongoing agitation for a 25% increase in workers' salaries, it planned a one-day national warning strike to press home its demand. However, this too, was suspended on the eve of the proposed date.

According to the NLC president, this was to allow a conducive atmosphere for negotiation to take place. And so, it abandoned a position of strength and weakened its ability to effectively negotiate. But, what was criminal was the endorsement of the NLC of the government's claim to be unable to pay the 25% increase.

Why is the NLC always eager to accept government's promises when, from experience, it is clear that the government never keeps its promises? An apt answer was presented by Frank Kokori, former secretary-general of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), "Labour cannot do more than what it is doing right now because the economy is in distress." This type of attitude is self-defeating.

Casualisation

Another thorny issue is the question of casualisation. Despite the numerous Conventions and Declarations about 'abolishing' it, modern day slavery has made a gigantic come back in the guise of contract labour. This is the norm in most modern-day industries where the practice has witnessed the near, if not total, extinction of junior cadre workers. This practice is so common because, from the point of view of the capitalists, it is convenient and cheap as casual workers do not enjoy the full benefits of their employment, such as medical tests for example. A case in point is the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) which has plans for massive retrenchment of workers who belong to trade unions.

This trend became visible in the 1980s when the government clamped down on the trade unions and over the years it gathered momentum with most contract workers spending years without being converted to permanent status. This is in flagrant violation of all existing labour laws. Alarmed by this fact the NLC, in order to protect its base is organising the picketing of work places guilty of violating these laws, but, as usual, the method leaves much to be desired.

What we confront is a basic question: Why is the NLC so comfortable being on the side of the government, at the expense of workers, who continue to suffer under the labour leadership's "principled optimism?"

May 2003