• Says TUC Still Negotiating Minimum Wage With Its Employees In-house Union

IN this exclusive telephone interview with National Record on Wednesday, October 7, 2020, Comrade Musa-Lawal Ozigi (Esq.), Secretary General of Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC), spoke on the circumstances surrounding the negotiation between labour leaders and government representatives which led to the abrupt suspension of the nationwide strike and protest scheduled for September 28, 2020.

Comrade Lawal also spoke on the non-implementation of the new national minimum wage by TUC for its employees, which he said is ongoing. Enjoy!

National Record (NR): Good evening Comrade Secretary General of the TUC. There are two key issues that we would like you to talk on in this interview; the recent strike that was called off and the issue of minimum wage implementation.

On the strike that was called off, you may be aware that there were grumblings from within labour circles as well as the general public on the manner the manner the strike was suspended. Many argued that the strike should have been allowed to go ahead. Comrade, we would like to know what actually convinced the representatives of organised labour to agree to government’s offers and suspend the strike without reverting to the organs of the two labour centres to first endorse the offers made by government.

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Comrade Musa-Lawal Ozigi: Well, very simple; national interest; the national interest by labour. Labour felt that the crisis was much. Even the government too had a lot of issues. We were very close to 1st October for the celebration of 60 years of independence, and here we are on the 28th of September, and the government put on the table what they were going to do and what they can do and what is within their power.

We went through the process of negotiation and we all agree that okay, if the government is so committed to doing all of these, and in view of the crisis all over the place, security reports and all that; let’s give the government another chance, so that they can do what they said they can do.

The issue that was of highest importance there was the petroleum issue and I remember that even as a child, we have been hearing about deregulation, subsidy and all that.

We as labour, of course we have genuine cause to go on strike, but the interest outside labour was even higher. All we needed do was to say, go ahead and then they go and destroy things the way they want to, and labour will be held responsible. For that we said no, we are wiser than that, that’s it.

After the government put it before everybody that look, we have deregulated diesel and the government doesn’t have a hand in its pricing anymore, we have deregulated kerosene, which most affects the poor masses, nobody had any problem with that, and that if they allowed government to deregulate petrol now once and for all, they will not have any problem with it anymore and that they are prepared to do so many things, to give palliatives so that people can meet up and withstand the economic challenges.

We saw that what they have was at least good for Nigerians and it is in the national interest rather than create crises. This is especially because even as labour was trying to go on strike, the interests outside labour that were interested in the strike were higher. And we said look, nobody will use labour to achieve their own selfish end.

So we said, okay, let’s give government the chance and let them do it [deregulate]. Like I was jokingly telling people, what happened was like an incident that happened in my village long ago.

A Babalawo wanted to beat his wife and it was in the night and it was the culture that people should not beat their wives in the night. On this particular day, the Babalawo was ready to beat his wife because she had wronged him. He then took a cane from the ground to beat the wife only for him to use his Babalawo eyes to see that all the witches in the house were each carrying pestles ready so that as soon as the Babalawo beat his wife with the cane, they will help him by beating the wife with their pestles. When the wife dies, who takes the responsibility? Of course the Babalawo!

We as labour, of course we have genuine cause to go on strike, but the interest outside labour was even higher. All we needed do was to say, go ahead and then they go and destroy things the way they want to, and labour will be held responsible. For that we said no, we are wiser than that, that’s it.

NR: But the grievance of many people, especially workers, was that even if you had the overwhelming reason to suspend the strike, why not revert back to the organs of your centres, the same organs that gave you the mandate to go and negotiate. They argued that they organs didn’t give you the mandate to go and conclude negotiation with the government. Based on that argument, don’t you think that the power to suspend the strike or even to accept any offers from government resides with the same organs? Why didn’t you go back to your organs to report back that these were the offers from government for them to first agree and give you fresh mandate to accept those offers before you called off the strike?

Comrade Lawal: Those are matters of perception and politics. The presidents of the two centres were there; the elected representatives of all the people were there and they were representing the people. If the presidents, the general secretaries and the elected people were all there, then they can take decisions on behalf of all the members and that was why they were elected in the first place.

What we needed to do was we had come; we had not taken the matter to our members because we had full authority to discuss and take decisions on their behalf and report back and that was exactly what we did.

NR: So you think that there is nothing wrong with that?

Comrade Lawal: There was nothing wrong at all!

Okay. We understand that there was a lot of pressure from some personalities in the government on you the representatives of organised labour. While some people said the pressure was from the Minister of Labour and Employment, some others said the pressure was more from the SGF, and still others said the pressure came personally from President Buhari himself. If I may ask, which of these three personalities exerted the most pressure and influence to convince you to believe in the offers made by the government?

Comrade Lawal: I laugh; do you know why I laughed?

NR: No!

Comrade Lawal: All the officials of government that you mentioned, they were actually present, and they came to present positions; various positions on government issues, and we understood them.

Let me tell you, wherever you work, when you have issues with your management, you sit and discuss. Why should external bodies be the ones to determine whether we should agree or not? Are our members of labour complaining? The people we represent, have we not reported back to them? Why are the civil societies concerned more than us? If they feel they have issues with government, they can also go ahead and hold government to ransom.

Then the leaders of labour, presidents, general secretaries and all the NAC members, presented their own positions; then we exchanged views on some things and we asked for information on other things and at the end we were convinced that for once, government is serious.

There was no particular pressure from anybody but everybody was trying to make sure that the issues they were bringing before us we understood them and then we took the decision to give government a chance.

The electricity issue that was very serious, we told them that even if we were going to accept the issue of deregulation of petroleum prices, but that on the issue of electricity tariff, people were not expecting it and they [the generation and distribution companies] were not performing.

It was then that we now said, okay, let us set up a special committee to review that position and report back two weeks later. Very soon, we are going to meet again to look at that. That was how the suspension of the [increment on] electricity tariff was achieved.

Let me tell you, wherever you work, when you have issues with your management, you sit and discuss. Why should external bodies be the ones to determine whether we should agree or not? Are our members of labour complaining? The people we represent, have we not reported back to them? Why are the civil societies concerned more than us? If they feel they have issues with government, they can also go ahead and hold government to ransom.

As labour, we had our views, we brought them together and we had negotiation and we reached an agreement and we signed and we posted it for everybody to see. I even heard that some people said we were given money. May be other people were given money but I am not aware of such thing. But one thing is clear; in the mind of everybody, there was the issue of national interest and corporate existence of Nigeria.

NR: Still on the strike issue; in his Independence address, President Buhari stated that Nigeria has the cheapest price on petrol compared to her West African neighbours and that Nigeria cannot sell petrol cheaper than it is being sold in Saudi Arabia. Many people interpret this to mean that in the weeks or months ahead, the government is most likely to increase the price of petrol, perhaps above N200 or even up to N300. If there is another increment, will labour have the moral courage to resist such increment against the backdrop of the fact that it has endorsed full deregulation of the oil sector and complete removal of subsidy on petroleum products?

Comrade Lawal: Let us understand what is meant by deregulation. It simply means that it is not government that is fixing prices anymore. It means that if we are deregulated, and the price of crude rises in the international market, it will affect the whole country and it could also get to a level where we can pay cheaper for petroleum products than we are paying now.

In other words, government’s hand in moving the price one way or the other has been removed and anything that has competition usually comes down. Look at what is happening in the telecoms industry, for example; at a time, I bought SIM card at N35,000; now it is not worth one naira today because of deregulation.

When government managed NITEL, did we get the required services? If we are strong enough to go through with the decision, it is only at the beginning that we have all these issues; as time goes on, all of them will take their own rightful place. So my belief is that with this deregulation, the prices will increase and increase but at some point we will get to an equilibrium that everybody can manage.

NR: Comrade Secretary General, you may recall that one of the pre-conditions for deregulation that organised labour gave was that the refineries must be made to work at their full capacities so that the country doesn’t have to rely on imported petroleum products or leaving Nigerians to the vagaries of market forces. What gave you the confidence as organised labour to rescind that long held position that refineries must first be made to work before deregulation?

Comrade Lawal: My brother, when you go to the negotiation table, it is like you are going to the bush to search for animal. In that bush, you could see a big animal that you can catch, and another animal can catch and swallow you. That is the way to go to negotiation; you don’t go to negotiation with a predetermined mind.

We went there; government showed us and said that these modular refineries you are talking about, they have started work on them. One of them is even functional, and they even incorporated it in Imo State before we got there. And they said look, we cannot be pursuing the argument about which is older between the egg and the chicken; we have to take a position.

We said okay, we are giving you the benefit of the doubt, go and start, and we gave timelines; if by 2021 all these things are not functional, we will hold you to ransom again. If they said they cannot do all these things, to pay for subsidy that a few people are benefiting from than the majority of the people; fine, no problem; go and do it, we give you time lines; if they are not done, then we know what to do.

As I am talking to you, the modular refineries are already being done in the eastern states. We are in 2020, by 2021, which is already here; the results of some of them will be out. So we should be able to give the government, after all, it is our government, the benefit of the doubt; that is exactly what labour did.

NR: Finally on this deregulation issue, Nigerian workers are on a minimum wage of N30,000 and they are now being subjected to buying petroleum products, among other things, at international rates but their wages are not internationalised. What is your perspective on this, comrade?

Comrade Lawal: Those are issues of problem of growth that we have in the country, we will continue to grow and we will continue to address the problems as they come. All problems cannot be addressed just by one day. We have started already, we will get there.

NR: Now, let’s talk about the issue of the implementation of the new national minimum wage at the level of the unions and centres. We gathered that your centre has not implemented the N30,000 minimum wage for its employees?

Comrade Lawal: That is just the gimmick of the general public to divide labour. We know exactly what we are doing. The issue of minimum wage, I learnt; I even read in the papers that even in NLC, they have not paid minimum wage and all that. Those are internal issues and they have been addressed internally.

Similarly in TUC, who are mostly senior staff, we have also addressed them. Ordinarily, nobody is earning below N30,000 in TUC but all we needed to do is what we call relativity or consequential adjustment. So we are addressing it and it is an internal issue and we have not reported to anybody that it has not been done.

However, I want to let you know, even we are aware that some private sector employers are saying they are already paying above minimum wage and they cannot afford to pay more. That is not the idea. The idea is that when somebody was receiving N18,000, some other person was receiving N50,000 or even N200,000. The issue then is that now that the level of the N18,000 paid worker has been moved to N30,000; how do we apply that percentage to ensure that all workers across board also benefit?

It is being worked out elsewhere and we also know that about seven states have not been able to pay the N30,000; we are also working on it, but one thing is clear; Nigeria’s crisis is not alone, we have problems everywhere; it is just that the nature of the problem available to one country is different from what is available in another. But in Nigeria, we are still battling with teething issues and we shall get there.

NR, Comrade, if you are going to negotiate in the about seven states that you mentioned that are yet to implement the new wage, and you are told that in your centre, you have not implemented the new wage for your workers, don’t you think that is a very big moral question on your credibility in the negotiation?

Comrade Lawal: I think something is wrong there. The minimum wage of N30,000 has not been implemented by the 36 states…

NR: (Cuts in) …But substantial number of the states has implemented and they are remitting the check off dues to you, you just said there are about seven states yet to implement…

Comrade Lawal: (Cuts in) …I agree with you on that; and there are others that have not implemented; that is not what we are talking about.

As for the minimum wage implementation, which is the payment of the N30,000 to everybody that is below N30,000, I am telling you confidently that nobody is earning below the minimum wage in any of the labour centres. What we need to do, which is being done internally is that what is the value of the new minimum wage for those who are already earning above that; those are the issues we are addressing…

NR: (Cuts in) …But you are already 18 months into the implementation since the passage of the 2019 Minimum Wage Act; which means that you are already in violation of the law.

Comrade Lawal: No! You are not getting me. Minimum wage has two branches. One is to ensure that everybody earning below N30,000 comes to N30,000. We don’t have that problem in any of the labour centres, do you understand me?

NR: I understand what you are saying.

Comrade Lawal: I said we don’t have the problem of bringing anybody up to N30,000 in any of the labour centres.

NR: I understand that comrade, the question I am asking is that have you negotiated with your workers on the consequential adjustment?

Comrade Lawal: In TUC, for example, TUC has its own union that negotiates with the management of TUC. I can speak directly on that. I don’t know what happens in NLC now, but you can clear that one from NLC.

NR: You have an in-house union in TUC?

Comrade Lawal: Yes!

NR: And you have negotiated with the union?

Comrade Lawal: We negotiate their salaries with them.

NR: But what has stopped you from negotiating this one, the consequential adjustment based on the N30,000 minimum wage 18 months down the line?

Comrade Lawal: 18 months down the line?

NR: Yes, it is one year six months now since the N30,000 Minimum Wage Act was signed into law.

Comrade Lawal: In our own, you don’t know our own prospect here but I assure you that the process is ongoing; we don’t have problem with that at all. But you can also contact my colleague at the NLC to know how they run theirs.

NR: Yes, I have done that, I contacted them and they have also not implemented the new wage.

Comrade Lawal: I don’t know about that but I can only speak for TUC on this matter.

NR: Yes I know that and that is why I want to be sure; I want you to tell me in clear terms when you think TUC is going to implement it?

Comrade Lawal: Excuse me, when a process is ongoing, can you determine the end of it?

NR: You have been negotiating side by side with the NLC with the government at both the federal and state levels on how this new wage could be implemented and to the best of our knowledge, the federal government started implementation long ago, many of the state governments by your own admission, have implemented?

Comrade Lawal: Yes!

NR: So why are you, TUC and NLC, who are the champions of the struggle for the new wage and its implementation have not implemented for your own workers?

Comrade Lawal: Such processes take a long time to achieve…

NR: Don’t you think it will affect the morale of your own staff in fighting for the implementation of workers in the remaining states?

Comrade Lawal: The morale will be restored once they know that we have started anyway, thank you!

NR: Thank you for the audience.

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