COVID-19 and Virtual May Day, By Comrade Issa Aremu

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Greetings; 

Today I join all workers of the world on the occasion of 2020 May Day. As the Vice President representing our beautiful continent, Africa, on the Executive Committee of IndustriAll Global Union founded in Copenhagen, Denmark on 19 June 2012, I bear witness that this is the first time of virtual May Day in 8 years. May Day used to hold on the streets through solidarity matches and protests. 

First virtual in 40 years in Nigeria, 130 years globally  

In 130 years of May Day celebration, this year’s is the most precarious, in a global lock down! In 1980, PRP state governments in Kaduna and Kano under Governors Balarabe Musa and late Alhaji Abubakar Rimi respectively progressively declared May Day a public holiday. In 1981 following the agitation of NLC led by its pioneer President, Hassan Sunmonu, President Shehu Shagari  declared first of May, public holiday to celebrate dignity of labour. In the past 40 years (and during my 35 years of trade unionism), this is the first May Day without open manifestations by workers world wide. No thanks to COVID: 19 pandemic! 

Covid-19 cases

Globally, 3,147,626 Coronavirus Cases had been reported, with  218,187 deaths. In America alone, coronavirus cases passed the 1 million mark and deaths almost doubled Africa’s at 58,220, (more than lives lost in the Vietnam War!) according to Johns Hopkins University. In Africa, there have been 34,924 Confirmed coronavirus cases, Confirmed 1,529 coronavirus deaths and 11,336 recoveries. In Nigeria, as at Wednesday, there were 1532 confirmed cases, 255 recoveries and 44 deaths. 

Kano: An injury to all 

Kano, an industrial city raises a specter of pandemic within a pandemic. This is NOT the time for blame game. Needed is solidarity to save lives and livelihoods. All Nigerians must rise in solidarity with Kano people and government to stop the scourge of mass deaths. We commend the interventions of the Federal government in Kano.

The dead are humans, not numbers

The dead and recoveries are not just numbers but  fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers , health and medical, media  workers, factory and service workers, statesmen, government officials, sportsmen and women, musicians with shortened aspirations. Collapse of livelihoods stares the living through closures of factories, loss of jobs and incomes deepening poverty.

New working relations: New questions begging for answers 

Is virtual May Day a passing fad or a new normal? Physical distancing affects mass rallies as much as it affects any mass  gatherings of workforce. The world of work can hardly be the same again. Smart work or hardworking? Home work or industrial work? Formal or informal work? We live to work or work to live? ILO centenary last year agonized about all the above questions but it takes an ubiquitous Virus to compel urgent answers today.  

Salutation 

I salute all comrades and affiliates in all sectors of our continent in the  struggle and resistance against this ubiquitous deadly opportunistic disease negatively impacting lives, jobs and well-being. Happily our global union gives the tools of the struggle against endemic exploitation in the world of work no less than a deadly COVID-19, (even though nobody imagined the scale of this Virus menace).  

Lives first 

Immediate task is defense of workers’ rights. First thing first:  the right to life! Before the vaccine is obtained, it’s time for personal and industrial hygiene. Physical distancing without stigmatization! Obedience of advice by public health authorities. Then mass education of workers that covid-19 is real not a joke but life and death as President Muhammadu Buhari had repeated in his three national broadcasts. We must support all governments directive with respect to lock down, smart prevention and gradual and strategic easing.

Governments and employers have the singular responsibility to ensure the safety of all but importantly essential workforce under the lock downs, especially the doctors, nurses, pharmacists and medical workers, media and information as well as security workers in general through the provisions of  quality Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). 

Time to recognize and dignify labour

The pandemic shows that Labour not only creates wealth but saves and nurtures lives. Post COVID-19 Governments and businesses must stop underrating  workers but see them as partners in development. Minister of Health, Osagie Ehanire, reported that not less than 40 health workers in Nigeria  tested positive for COVID-19. Some have actually died in both public and private hospitals. Better late than never: Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 (PTF) had initiated  the Life Insurance cover to the frontline workers on COVID-19 for a maximum of 5000 health workers who are employed to fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The premium in the sum of N112,500,000 is however still token given the risks to irreplaceable lives. 

Social protection for all

There must be social protection through comprehensive health insurance for all workers and citizens as a matter of right. And it should start now.  COVID-19 pandemic no doubt raises the noise level of lives and livelihoods. But Malaria kills 100,000 annually in Nigeria. More than Corona Virus! And Malaria has cure which many poor people can hardly afford because thanks public health has collapsed. Job related deaths must be of concern to all. 

Stop work-related deaths

ILO statistics indicate that one worker dies every 15 seconds worldwide, 6300 workers die every day and an average of two million three hundred thousand workers die annually as a result of work related accidents and diseases. In fact, more people die at work than at wars. Secondly there is an urgent need to protect and advance livelihoods. 

Hail organized labour

Organized labour under the most difficult conditions had commendably risen to defend the right to pay, wages and jobs under the lock down. IndustriALL Secretariat in Geneva statutorily coordinates the efforts of affiliates in mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on sectors and regions, sharing the best responses. I salute the leadership of NLC and TUC for ensuring that President Buhari’s directive that all workers should be paid as at when due during the lock down is respected by all employers in both public and private sectors. The NLC/TUC/Civil Society labour situation room is novel and timely to promote the use of the existing collective bargaining and social dialogue in ensuring employers and government do not shift the burden of the pandemic on workers. 

Hail National Wages Commission

It is also significant and commendable that the National Salaries, Incomes and Wages Commission (NSIWC), under the acting Executive Chairman, Nta Ekpeyong, had proactively initiated improved COVID-19 allowances  for medical doctors and other health workers allowances, particularly for those in the frontline of the fight against COVID-19, starting from March 2020. The Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, led the government team with doctors and other health workers to effect payment from March 2020. However the commission must also initiate reliefs for all workers to cope with the current challenges of survivals. 

In solidarity with (PENGASSAN) 

The Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) commendably recently resisted the attempt by Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State to harass members of the union on essential duty by security operatives. It’s time for new relationships between all stakeholders for partnership against pandemic and new post COVID-19 economy not the old war of attrition and adversarial unhelpful relations. 

Governor Wike of Rivers needs new relationships with labour through social dialogue 

Governor Wike should also immediately lift the illegal siege on the NLC secretariat in Port Harcourt and initiate social dialogue for resolution of all outstanding labour issues especially on the new minimum wage. We salute the prompt action of the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, in removing former Rivers CP, Dandaura Mustapha, and replacing him with Gobum Mukan. The former CP played unacceptable anti-labour role in illegally arresting 22 members of the union from ExxonMobil on essential duty. The federal and state governments had listed categories of persons exempted from the total lockdown directives to include senior staff in the oil and gas industry which PENGASSAN represents. COVID-19 already made work precarious. No employer including state Governor should further violate the rights of workers through intimidation and harassment. More than ever before, solidarity is needed to prevent the pandemic and protect jobs. We salute the solidarity of National Union of Electricity workers (NUEE), PENGASSAN and NUPENG in freeing the two Caverton Helicopters pilots and their ten passengers that were arrested, charged to court, and remanded in Port Harcourt prison for allegedly violating the lockdown order in Rivers State. An injury to one is an injury to all. 

Commend President Buhari on security 

It was reassuring that President Muhammadu Buhari said the federal government would “not tolerate any human rights abuse by our security agencies” regretting  few reported incidences of violations. The point cannot be overstated that Security workers are also frontline workforce who must be motivated, trained and retrained for effective service delivery. Indeed all citizens have legitimate claim to national government interventions in protecting lives and livelihood through unconditional cash benefits and palliatives.

Don’t waste the lessons of covid-19

Lastly Nigeria and Africa should not waste the lessons of the current lock down. It’s time to heed the advice of Godwin Emefiele, Governor of CBN and turn COVID-19 TRAGEDY into an OPPORTUNITY FOR A NEW NIGERIA. We must urgently diversify the economy, beneficiate, add value and create new Decent millions jobs. Produce what we consume starting with face masks, sanitizers and ventilators and items in the health value chains. Post Corona Virus Nigeria should be less dependent on imports, grants and aids and feverish loans but rely on domestic savings and local investment.

Comrade Aremu, Vice President, IndustriALL global Union, was the immediate past General Secretary of National Union of Textile Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria (NUTGTWN)

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