AS I resume today on this page from Christmas and New Year holidays, I will like to take a break from our usual pension theme to briefly discuss what has remain at the heart of crisis in our university system. This is basically because at the moment, members of the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU) and their counterparts in the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) in universities and inter-University centres are in the midst of a 3-day nationwide protest on our university campuses against the discriminatory and unfair labour practices of the federal government.

The grievances of the two unions, who are operating under the Joint Action Committee, as highlighted by branch officials of the two unions on the various campuses of universities and encapsulated by the National President of NASU, Dr Hassan Makolo, on the campus of University of Abuja on Monday, January 11, 2021, is to the effect that non-teaching staff unions of Nigerian universities began a 3-day nationwide protest to press home their demands for an equitable share from the N40 billion ‘Earn Allowance’ to university-based unions, among others.

Dr Makolo said the non-teaching staff are not happy about the sharing formula of the Earned Allowance as put forward by the federal government, who is the employer of all the workers in the federal universities. According to him, the government suddenly said 75% of the total sum is for members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), while 25% is for the three other unions in the system. He concluded that the position of the federal government was done with impunity and discriminatory and therefore unacceptable to members of the non-teaching staff.

The entrenched discriminatory practice in the university system
The current issue is not the first act of discrimination against non-teaching staff in the system. Non-teaching staff have suffered and continue to suffer discriminatory industrial relations policies and practices in the university system in the country. I can recall an incident that happened when I was the National President of NASU.

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In 2009 while NASU and the federal government were involved in negotiations, a member of the federal government negotiating team unconsciously remarked that the federal government negotiation with NASU cannot produce the same outcomes in terms of allowances with what was granted to ASUU because in the case of ASUU, the government was consciously doing everything possible to stop brain drain of ASUU members to other countries. A member of NASU’s negotiating team from one of the universities then retorted that academic staff who will move to other countries will still move irrespective of what the federal government offers in terms of remuneration. He went further to say that there is a sifter, which has been placed at the end of the pipe that will drain academic staff to other countries and that those who were drainable had already passed through the sifter and had already been drained. The General Secretary of the Union, Prince Peters Adeyemi (JP), and myself, who were leading NASU’s team, had to stop him.

Unfortunately, all negotiations that take place in the university system are ad-hoc in nature and the agreements all the unions entered into with successive governments are products of ad-hoc negotiations based on fire brigade approach to industrial relations. Political committees were urgently constituted to negotiate with unions after these governments were forced to the negotiations tables through prolonged strike actions.

He was stopped because we believed, and it is still the policy of NASU, that unions in the system should cooperate with one another rather than be in competition. Therefore, it wasn’t about undoing a sister union in order to achieve. It is for this reason that NASU has always been at the forefront of, and encourages, a Joint Action Committee in the university system.

Pronouncements and actions of government officials, such as the one being protested by the non-teaching staff are responsible for the lack of cooperation among unions in universities in the country and sometimes contribute to strikes in the system.

Role of government in fighting discrimination
The federal government plays dual roles in the current crisis. First, the government is the employer of all staff of federal universities, both academic and non-academic. Secondly, the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment is the agency of government that regulates industrial relations matters in the country.

Flowing from the above, what is expected from the government is that all government policies and actions should be aimed at encouraging and strengthening collaboration and effective working relations between and amongst academic and non-academic staff in the universities. The federal government therefore should not through her policies, pronouncements and implementation be the architect of discrimination and promoter of disharmony among workers of the sector. Effective working relationship among teaching and non-teaching staff is essential and in the best interest of students and the achievement of government’s set objectives in the sector.

Discrimination in the sector, apart from depressing equity, fair play and natural justice, also has an inherently negative effect on employees, work ethics and generally the work environment itself. A visibly profound ramification of discrimination includes, but not limited to, poor working culture, working relationship and industrial disharmony. Government therefore has an important role in promoting a work environment that fosters cooperation and not competition.

ILO principles and workplace Discrimination
The International Labour Organisation (ILO’s) 2003 report on discrimination in the workplace, says the workplace – whether a factory, office, plantation, farm or household – is a strategic entry point for fighting discrimination. “When the workplace brings together people with different characteristics and treats them fairly, it helps to combat stereotypes in society as a whole”, the report says.

The report further stresses that discrimination “…forces a situation where prejudices can be defused and rendered obsolete. A socially inclusive world of work helps to prevent and to redress social fragmentation, racial and ethnic conflict and gender inequalities. Eliminating discrimination at work is everybody’s responsibility.

For Mr Juan Somavia, the immediate past ILO Director General; “The State has the obligation of banning discriminatory practices and establishing sound laws and institutions and policies that promote equal opportunities at work. Employers and workers organisations, individually and together, should identify and combat discriminatory practices at the workplace. Most importantly, the voices of discriminated workers and employers need to be heard, no matter where they work.”

The report was prepared as a follow-up to the adoption of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work in 1998. The declaration reaffirmed the constitutional principle of the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation, thereby confirming the universal resolve to suppress discrimination in the world of work through the promotion of equal treatment and opportunity.

The declaration also emphasises that ILO member states have an obligation to respect the fundamental principles involved, whether or not they have ratified the relevant conventions. In the case of Nigeria, the country has ratified the conventions, which are Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No.111), Article 1(1a) and The Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No.100).

Institutionalising collective bargaining in the education sector
Apart from my earlier notion on the role of the federal government above, it is of paramount importance, if a permanent solution aimed at minimising industrial relations crisis in the education sector as a whole is to be devised, there is the need to institutionalise collective bargaining processes in the sector.

In both public and private organisations’ labour management relations; the single connecting element in the relationship remains the differences in interests of the various actors. The interests of the various actors are, more often than not, conflicting for which compromises are constantly negotiated to generate agreements between the actors so as to enable the relationship to move peacefully and engender industrial harmony.

Industrial relations is regulated through collective bargaining. Collective bargaining is the main method used in the workplace to handle conflict, which in this case represents contentious issues.

Industrial relations crisis in the university system is compounded by the fact that there is no institutionalised collective bargaining machinery in the sector, as is the case in the civil service where there is the Public Service Negotiating Councils – Councils I, II and III – as well as other sectors in the public service, where collective bargaining have been institutionalised. The lack of regular strike actions in the private sector is not an indication of absence of industrial conflict. What is responsible is that the sector has been able to establish robust collective bargaining machinery where you have procedural and substantive agreements.

Unfortunately, all negotiations that take place in the university system are ad-hoc in nature and the agreements all the unions entered into with successive governments are products of ad-hoc negotiations based on fire brigade approach to industrial relations. Political committees were urgently constituted to negotiate with unions after these governments were forced to the negotiations tables through prolonged strike actions.

In conclusion, I’ll say that Nigeria, as a member of ILO that has ratified all ILO’s core conventions, including the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No.111), Article 1(1a) and the Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No.100), has an obligation to respect the fundamental principles enshrined in these conventions by avoiding the formulation of policies and implementing agreements that cause discrimination in the universities system.

The government has both legal and moral responsibilities to put in place policies that foster cooperation and unity among all categories of staff in the university system on the basis of equity, fair play and natural justice. The government has to take steps to institutionalise collective bargaining in the sector in order to bring about industrial peace and harmony.

Comrade Takor, mni (Esq), former two-term National President of NASU and former two-term National Treasurer of NLC, retired from federal public service as Director of Administration/Human Resources at the Nigerian Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research, Victoria Island, Lagos in 2012. He writes National Record’s Thursday Column, “Let’s Talk Pension With Ivor Takor,” which will resume next week.

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