Is Aremu Turning Around the Fortunes of Imoudu National Institute For Labour Studies?

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SINCE his appointment as Director General/Chief Executive Officer of the Michael Imoudu National Institute for Labour Studies (MINILS), Ilorin, Kwara State on Tuesday, May 18, 2021, Comrade Issa Aremu’s interventions seem to be driving the sole labour institute in the country in the desired progressive direction, in both practical and discursive terms.

It appears, from all indications, that beyond being a tested trade unionist with rich and sound knowledge of industrial relations practice, organisational management and team play; Comrade Aremu’s ideological commitment, intellectual and media understanding seem to be coming very much to his assistance in bringing MINILS some degree of visibility that will help in repositioning it to ultimately attain its statutory mandates.

Comrade Aremu mni, DG/CEO, MINILS

While it is too early at this point to make a conclusive statement on the direction and final outcome of his stewardship, Aremu is not leaving anyone in doubt, from his comments and activities in the five months since his appointment, that he has sufficient interest, energy, courage and insight to reimagine, and actually, recreate MINILS in line with the image and principles of progressive labour.

At every given opportunity since his emergence as DG, Aremu has not shied away from articulating the primacy and decency of his world view – his ideological trajectory – and applying them. It is therefore not in doubt if he is sufficiently equipped to accomplish the task of turning around the fortunes of the Institute. What may be in doubt, however, is if he will receive the required support, first from government, then, his primary constituency, labour, in view of the prevailing variables of profound misplacement of priority by government and the hostile dynamics in contemporary Nigerian labour movement.

Apart from regular press statements and comments at events he attended or organised, Comrade Aremu, since his appointment, has continued to take advantage of national and global labour activities to air his feelings on, and vision of, what should be done. Incidentally, he has arguably been able to strike the right cords to stress the significance of MINILS on what it should be doing in terms of conscious efforts at training and education of not just working people but even more the bureaucrats and minders of the Nigerian economy in order to eliminate prevailing mutual aggression in the country’s industrial relations arena.

Aremu said as a lifelong trade unionist, he has no choice but to prioritise decent work, just as he deplored its deficits in the Nigerian workspace. He stressed that for the Nigerian labour movement, the absence of decent work translates to incomplete independence in view of the heroism of Nigerian workers in the struggle for freedom, symbolised in the gallantry of iconic Labour Leader No.1, Michael Imoudu. He asserted that the struggles of Imoudu and his contemporaries for independence were precipitated more by precarious work under British colonialism.

During the World Day for Decent Work (WDDW) commemorated on October 7, 2021 at MINILS, under the theme; “Just Jobs – Building a Recovery for Everyone,” which I incidentally attended, Aremu not only organised a public symposium on the theme, he was also able to ensure that the Country Director of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in charge of Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone, Ms Vanessa Lerato Phala, attended, and at the side-line of the event, had a closed door meeting with staff of the institute.

Dr John Niyi Olanrewaju, the immediate past DG/CEO of MINILS, delivered an eloquent keynote address in which he not only traced the history of decent work but also succinctly highlighted its social and economic ramifications; the key indicators of work decency, and the fact that it is far from being realised in Nigeria, in view of the near or total absence of minimum standards of living for workers and their dependents, lack of security and stability of employment, lack of social protection for majority of working people, absence of equal opportunity; unfair labour practices, etc.

If anything, Aremu’s welcome address exposed not just his natural instinct as a trade unionist but inexorably the fact that as a government establishment, the Institute itself has underlying crust of decent work deficits, which he said are unacceptable and as a result, has, as he settles down, began to activate the processes of resolving them.

For instance, he said when he resumed, MINILS workers were owed salary arrears of up to three months, outstanding benefits for retired and deceased workers some of which were up to ten years, and that some categories of workers were not receiving minimum wage. Most of these outstanding issues, he said have been resolved with the stubborn ones soon to be sorted out in the course of his one year in office.

As a minimum expectation, Aremu promised that his leadership of MINILS would do all it can to enhance the welfare of all categories of workers such as the payment of all outstanding benefits, including the implementation of the N30 thousand minimum wage for all categories of staff so as to motivate them to meet the core mandates of the institute. The ovation he got served perhaps to indicate that he was not grandstanding.

For Aremu, the struggle championed by Pa Imoudu and other labour veterans brought on board the matchless power of the working class which ultimately led to the political emancipation of Nigeria from British oppression and exploitation. He thus argued that the profound poverty, marked by increasing unemployment and declining security of jobs vis-à-vis the swelling prosperity of a few are unacceptable indicators that Nigeria will go nowhere unless, and only if, the principles of decent work, which translate to decent wages, safe and secure jobs, are imbibed.

Aremu said as a lifelong trade unionist, he has no choice but to prioritise decent work, just as he deplored its deficits in the Nigerian workspace. He stressed that for the Nigerian labour movement, the absence of decent work translates to incomplete independence in view of the heroism of Nigerian workers in the struggle for freedom, symbolised in the gallantry of iconic Labour Leader No.1, Michael Imoudu. He asserted that the struggles of Imoudu and his contemporaries for independence were precipitated more by precarious work under British colonialism.

For Aremu, the struggle championed by Pa Imoudu and other labour veterans brought on board the matchless power of the working class which ultimately led to the political emancipation of Nigeria from British oppression and exploitation. He thus argued that the profound poverty, marked by increasing unemployment and declining security of jobs vis-à-vis the swelling prosperity of a few are unacceptable indicators that Nigeria will go nowhere unless, and only if, the principles of decent work, which translate to decent wages, safe and secure jobs, etc. are imbibed.

As noted earlier, Aremu, since his appointment, has never hidden his agenda and priorities. Shortly after he resumed duties at MINILS, he had, while addressing the second IndustriALL Global Union’s African Region Youth Conference held virtually, expressed the readiness of MINILS to up-scale the capacity for the integration of young African workers into trade unions in the continent.

Aremu, who was until his appointment the Vice President of the global union, advised African youth to confront xenophobia, drug abuse and corruption which he said “had underdeveloped Africa just as colonialism, imperialism and apartheid did.” He noted that being the world’s youngest continent, with almost 60% of its population under the age of 25, Africa’s youthful population remains an opportunity and not just a challenge for the continent” as perceived in the West. He urged them to lead the campaign for youth and women inclusion in trade unions and the larger society. This was in June.

At this point when global and national workplaces are in the throes of some disruptive dynamics – Covid-19 pandemic, emerging technologies or artificial intelligence which invariably dictate a new world of work never imaged a few decades ago, deepening inequality, increasing unemployment orchestrated by a spiralling neoliberal order, etc. – there is definitely the need to have someone with the capacity to provide focus and direction on industrial relations, collective bargaining, social dialogue and gender, among others.

In July, Aremu announced that the Institute had restructured its training curriculum to include gender issues aimed at building capacity for women workers in spheres of working life. According to him, women as workers, face specific challenges at workplaces such as unequal pay, maternity challenges, sexual harassment, double burden of domestic work and wage labour. While he acknowledged that there has of course been progress on women’s rights at work in many workplaces in Nigeria, there were still many obstacles in the way of gender equality and women’s access to better jobs.

In August, when the Governing Council of MINILS paid a courtesy visit on the NLC, Aremu pleaded for improved funding for the Institute, being the foremost training ground on labour and industrial relations in West Africa to position it for effective service delivery. He blamed recurring labour disputes in all sectors of the economy on what he called “knowledge gap” on critical labour market issues among employers and employees. He called on government to see labour education “as a strategic success factor for motivation, improved productivity and national development.”

He has not let any opportunity slip him by, utilising such occasions such as official events, progressive fora or training workshops, to articulate the values of educated workers and the basic ethos of the labour movement.

For instance, at the opening ceremony of a workshop MINILS organised in collaboration with development Research and Projects Centre (dRPC) on 9th August 2021, a week into the strike by Resident Doctors, Aremu called for an urgent reform of the industrial relations system in the country’s health sector to enhance sustainable peace and service delivery. He emphasised that it was time stakeholders in the health sector played by what he called “the knowledge-based rules of collective bargaining, social dialogue, mediation and conciliation to prevent incessant work stoppages in hospitals with attendant costs to lives.”

Given his wide-ranging experience as a trade union activist, labour bureaucrat, left intellectual and ideologue, gender activist, columnist and graduate of Nigeria’s elite institution, National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS); Aremu is undoubtedly a fitting pick for the position of DG/CEO of MINILS.

At this point when global and national workplaces are in the throes of some disruptive dynamics – Covid-19 pandemic, emerging technologies or artificial intelligence which invariably dictate a new world of work never imaged a few decades ago, deepening inequality, increasing unemployment orchestrated by a spiralling neoliberal order, etc. – there is definitely the need to have someone with the capacity to provide focus and direction on industrial relations, collective bargaining, social dialogue and gender, among others.

Although it is still morning yet on creation day, but being the first dyed-in-the-wool trade union activist, and based on his rhetoric and practical steps since his assumption of office as DG/CEO, there are positive indications that Aremu stands the chance of altering the somewhat despondent undercurrents and makeup of the Labour Institute to truly reflect the versatility, dynamism and revolutionary character of the personality it was named after.

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