Trade Unionism and Workers Welfare: It is Time for Change

Ivo Takor, mni, Esq.

The trade union movement (trade unionism) consist of the collective organisation of working people developed to represent and campaign for better working conditions and treatment from their employers and, by the implementation of labour and employment laws, from their government. Section 1(1) of the Trade Unions Act CAP 437 LFN 2004 defines a trade union as “any combination of workers or employers, whether temporary or permanent, the purpose of which is to regulate the terms and conditions of employment of workers..” 

The importance of trade unions is recognised and given a pride of place in the Constitution. Section 40 of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 Constitution as amended provides that “Every person shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons, and in particular he may form or belong to any political party, trade union or any other association for the protection of his interests.” The Constitution therefore recognises that a trade Union’s main aim is to protect and advance the interest  of its members.

Unfortunately, workers all over the world are facing challenges that put to question, the relevance of trade unions. The Bureau for Workers Activities (ACTRAV), which is the main link between the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Labour Office and world of work, in its Central Declaration for the future of work, identified four drivers that impact the world of work. These are globalization, demographic, environmental and technological changes. These drivers the Bureau  says affect labour markets of today and tomorrow, and with that the future of trade unions: the potential of organising and servicing workers needs, ability to speak with one voice and participate in inclusive and effective social dialogue.

If the Bureau had zeroed in on Nigeria, it would have added a fifth driver, which I am adding for Nigeria. This is leadership deficiency syndrome. Nigerian “leaders”, who are members of  the predatory political ruling class and their class collaborators in business, see Nigeria as their empire and themselves as Kings and Queens or Emperors and Empresses. The characteristics of an empire consist of: strict hierarchy – a large gap of inequality and authority between rulers and the citizens. Workers of empires as was the case with the Roman empire, were all slaves and slavery played a very important role in social and economic activities. Slaves had no rights, were considered as  people with no personhood and property of their masters.

For those who may hold a different view as to the character of the Nigeria ruling class, and they are entitled to their views, Let us ask these questions. Firstly is it right or wrong in a country that practices democracy under the rule of law, for employees of states public services who are covered under contracts of employments and their services are with statutory flavour to work and stay for months, with some over 20 months, without being paid salaries, while Governors of these states, who with members of their families enjoy everything free in Government Houses and other political office holders to be taking their emoluments and bogus allowances regularly?. 

Secondly, is it right or wrong for public service employees who have rendered meritorious services to States, to retire and continue to live in penury, destitution and in abject poverty simply because they are being owed pensions for years, while State Governors and their deputies, who served for only four or eight years are being paid bogus amount of monies and other pecuniary benefits in the name of pension for political office holders? If we agree with Fox that what is morally wrong can never be politically right, we may then say that politics is conditioned by ethics. 

Thirdly, can a government stand on high moral and legal grounds to invoke the  “no work no pay” provision in the Trade Dispute Act on workers who embarked on a strike action that was foisted upon them by the same government; a strike that would have been avoided, if the industrial relations practices in the tertiary education sector had been institutionalized? I submit that the Trade Dispute Act was enacted to make provisions for a seamless settlement of trade disputes and other matters. It stipulates penalties in some cases such as the no work, no pay provision as a deterrent. It was not meant to be  a form of punishment for embarking on a legal strike, especially in a chase, where unions  had complied with all relevant provisions of the Trade Dispute Act before embarking on strike, with the other party to the dispute failing to keep its own side of Agreements freely entered into or performing their statutory duties. 

Under these conditions, It is my opinion that if the voice of and actions of the labour centre to which majority of the unions organising workers in affected states and the sector are affiliated, is not heard loud and clear, as well as seen, it will give impetus to the believe by uninformed workers, that trade unions are no longer relevant. Today, legal restrictions and violation of trade union rights, such as the right to organise and bargain collectively for ALL workers as well as the implementation of Collective Agreements freely entered into; right to earn salaries and pensions as and as when due are widespread. Enthusiasm for trade union membership and activism will definitely, become lower and weaker, where there are violations of trade union rights and the rights of workers. The labour movement is at the verge of entering this era, if the movement is not already there.

I was therefore not surprised when in a discussion with a group of workers, I was asked if trade unions are still relevant in 21st Century Nigeria. My answers to this question were simple. First, in every industrial and economic setting, trade unions constitute an element of fundamental importance to collective bargaining, which is vital for industrial peace and harmony.

Secondly, There is a power play in the workplace. Unfortunately for workers, they are weaker and most vulnerable in this power play. The power of the employer as the owner of the business or managers of the Organisation is enormous, when hiring and managing workers under an employment contract. He has managerial power, rule-making powers including the fixing and adjusting of remunerations as well as disciplinary powers. No single worker can be able to withstand this enormous power. In order to counter the enormous  power of the employer, workers with the backing of the law, form and belong to unions.

Unions bring about a balancing of power dynamic in the workplace and give the worker a voice. The real balance of power however, falls back to employment laws and it takes the capacity bestored on trade unions by law and the experience of professional trade unionists to ensure that labour laws are implemented as envisage, and not at the detriment of the worker

Another area that needs the attention of trade unions in the country especially the labour  centers, is the rapid and continues growth of the informal sector. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the informal economy employs approximately 5.5 million people in Lagos state alone, roughly three quarters of the state’s 7.5 million Labour force.  In the country as a whole, with nearly 200 million people, over 80 percent of the population works in the informal sector.

These group of the country’s workforce apart from facing exploitation in their workplace, are not covered by any form of social protection. ACTRAV Policy brief on Extending Social Protection Coverage to informal economy workers, which was introduced at the occasion of the 5th meeting of Social Protection Freedom and Justice for workers Network, which was extensively discussed on 14th September, 2022 stated that whereas trade unions worldwide often work in complicated environments, many positive experiences exist of trade unions that revitalise and transform through providing innovative services and representing those workers that need it most, through advocating on those topics that matter, or through entering into campaigns and networks with other unions and Civil Society. 

Trade unions supporting workers in the informal economy and advocating for extension of social protection are considered as positive trade unions revitalisation, addressing the needs of most vulnerable workers. 

The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) is holding its 13th National Delegates Congress on Tuesday and Wednesday 7th and 8th February, 2023 at a time when there is an entrenched violation of workers rights especially in the public services of states and local governments. This is not to say that workers in the federal public service and the private sector are better off. It only reminds us that the incoming members of the National Administrative Council (NAC) of the NLC, popularly refereed to by affiliates as Congress, that will be lead by Comrade Joe Ajero have great challenges ahead of it. 

Without attempting to set an agenda for the incoming NAC, with due respect, I wish to remind the incoming members of NAC that for the Trade Union Movement, especially NLC and her affiliates to remain relevant in 21st Century Nigeria, it is time for change.  

The Movement has to move away from being reactionary to being proactive. There is no doubting the fact that there will be instances when Congress leadership will react to situations and circumstances. It should however, not become their stock in trade. Fortunately, the high point of the Conference is that there will be no electioneering campaigns and contests, which had been a weak point of previous Conferences of Congress.  Therefore NAC members are coming in without any  distraction and baggage’s from the Conference, therefore they have no reason for not heating the ground on 8th February running.

NAC has to take seriously, the revitalization of the labour movement, through deliberate innovative tactics and coalitions building as well as encourage and help affiliates to emulate global best practices in the running of their unions by strengthening their secretariats to make them functional; building capacity of leaders; respecting the provisions of their Constitutions and leaders running their unions democratically and facilitating trade unions cooperation and to be at the forefront of social dialogue.

The Movement has to guard against situations where Civil Society and other Social Movements, rather than being allies of the labour movement in the struggle for the emancipation of Nigerian workers and the masses, will become a replacement of the movement.

Replacement in the sense that they become arrowheads of  protests and campaigns on issues affecting workers, which the labour movement should have been the arrowhead. Congress should also guard against governments antics aimed at undermining triapartism. This happens when a government begins to project itself in the eyes of workers and the general public as being a  benevolent employer, such as announcing wage increases without the input of trade unions and labour centres. There is no benevolent employer in Nigeria including governments. These are all gimmicks aimed at undermining trade unions and make them look irrelevant in the eyes of workers.

I congratulate all members of the Comrade Joe Ajero led incoming NAC. May God grant them and professional staff in the Secretariat of Congress knowledge, understanding and wisdom to pilot the affairs of Congress successful during their tenure.

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