Comrade Quadri Olaleye is the National President of Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the National President of Food, Beverage and Tobacco Senior Staff Association (FOBTOB). He is also an industrial relations expert. In this interview with Hot Iroyin, he speaks about the effects of coronavirus pandemic on the economy and how this has affected workers and the Trade Union. He, however speaks on the way forward and the expectation from government and other labour employers. Excerpts:
The challenges of coronavirus has continue to linger. It has affected so many things, nationally and internationally. What is your view on this and how soon do you see things normalize?
Truth be said, the last four to five months have been a traumatizing one throughout the world. No race or colour was spared. The most powerful nations felt it. There was a total lockdown. Religious bodies held services online seeking God’s face concerning the pandemic. We cannot really ascertain the total number of deaths but we know it is hundreds of thousands. It was a period that nothing else really counted, except our lives. But we trust in God to protect us. Very soon country will be 60 years. It is on that note that we came up with our theme for the last May Day celebration which say: “60 Years of Nationhood: Insecurity, Wage Poverty and the Future of Work in Nigeria”. All the issues captured in our theme are critical and can define our political, economic and welfare trajectories as a people. Our concern, today, however, how we can survive COVID – 19 and build a political economy that will keep our country out of imminent recession.
Convid -19 has affected our lives in such a way that it is as if the country is starting life de nouveau. To this end, we must together- Government, Employers and workers to give all to rejig our economy to avoid the looming acute recession by attending to the following.
Talk about Post Covid 19, what do you think is going to be workers plight and its effects on job loss in Nigeria?
Consequent upon this Covid-19 , many workers might eventually lose their means of livelihood. We call on government to protect the workers from some uncharitable employers. Workers should not be made victims of convid-19.
Similarly, it has been brought to our knowledge that some employers are saying they cannot pay salaries for the duration of the COVID-19 lockdown. It is evil and inhuman to come up with such decision. This is the time individuals and organizations should show that workers are partners in progress.
I want to commend both the federal and state governments on the roles they have played so far in tackling the pandemic. We are encouraging Nigerian workers and businesses to heed the call by government and take active steps to protect human life and contain the further spread of the virus in our nation.
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is not only a threat to mankind, it has also affected the global business community with serious implications for labour and Employers of Labour or business owners. The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and its worldwide spread has compelled countries across the world to take drastic measures to curtail its spread by closing international airports and borders, revocation of visas and general restrictions on movement of persons and goods.
Our concern as workers representatives is that the restrictions of global and local mobility, including closure of non-essential businesses and services may have serious implications for businesses as well as their obligations under a contract of employment.
The most unfortunate thing is that the current generation of businesses and employers of labour have never witnessed a situation as terrible as this and I can say authoritatively that there was no concrete provision for economic crisis of this magnitude. The business owners and organized labour are at a loss on what would be the fate of the workers as they are increasingly overwhelmed by the very complex and challenging issues thrown up by this global virus. The consequences of the pandemic are the losses incurred by sectors like the Oil and Gas, aviation, hospitality, tourism, sports and entertainment. In addition, no sector can vouch of attaining its proposed level of profitability because each sector has had, and still having its own share of the adverse effects of this pandemic.
Is the effect of COVID-19 enough justification for salary cuts and laying off workers even in the food sector where you are the union’s national president?
We know how important the food sector is. Even during the lockdown, they were allowed to work to provide food for the nation. Despite that, some of our employers decided to cut salaries by 10 per cent or whatever percentage, claiming it is as a result of COVID-19. They said they were unable to sell what they produced because of the inter-state lockdown and as a result of that, they could not get their goods and services to other states. They claimed that if they were not selling, they could not cope with payment of salaries.
Also, the social distancing as prescribed by the government that only 40 per cent of people should be allowed to be at work at a certain time is also a factor because it means only 40 per cent of the workforce could work. What then happens to the remaining 60 per cent? They said they cannot continue to pay full salaries to the remaining 60 per cent who are not at work. We went to discussion with them because you cannot blame the situation on anyone. We assume it is going to be for a short time. You will agree with me that under the provision of declaring profitability, you will have some percentages you have to reserve for unforeseen circumstances that may come up later. You don’t declare everything as dividend so it is high time for the companies to look back to these reserved funds to use it to cushion whatever they are losing now to ensure they continue paying salaries. It is high time we started looking at that.
Already, many companies are threatening closing. Do you see more companies down and what would you suggest as the way out?
We cannot rule out the fact that COVID-19 pandemic may impact negatively on the various businesses. With more than three months gone now, we envisaged that downturn reports of business fortunes may compelled managements to think outside the box with a view to device means to curtail the exposures, especially in the area of accumulating labour costs. In another dimension, the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria is mindful of the fact that it is the responsibility of the employers to provide job and pay salaries as agreed under the contract of employment. Though we empathised with the employers and business owners over the inability to provide the enabling environments for the workers to carry out the contractual obligations. It is incumbent on the present day government to hold discussions with the Organised Labour and various employers in order to save the looming crisis.
However, as the pandemic continues unabated and industries continue to panic about the huge overhead costs and losses. There is bound to be plans by employers to look inwards in terms of how to mitigate the effects by contemplating lay-off, pay cuts and compulsory leave. In the same vein, I want to draw the attention of the employers of labour to the legal perspectives of the contract of employment which stipulates that employment continues until same is determined by notice, consent of the parties, expiry of time, frustration, operation of law or other causes recognised in law. The implication is that the duty of an employer to continue to pay salaries has not ceased simply because the unforeseen circumstances forced workers to stay at home.
Likewise, employers should be aware that unemployment rate in Nigeria is alarming so Covid-19 should not be used as a license to worsen the bad situation. Consequently, on job loss, TUC holds a different position from the views canvassed by the ILO and UN on speculations of massive job losses in Nigeria. The reason is that the major responsibility of Trade Union Organisation like the TUC is to ensure that jobs are protected and that informs why we have been advocating for government’s support for business owners in terms of stimulus, tax waiver and other incentives for companies to break even in this Pandemic. Learning from an experience like this comes from reflection.
As people come out of this crisis and start coming back to work, what is expected of a responsible corporation is a critical examination of the impact of the changing world of work vis-a-vis workers’ adaptability in line with the sustainability of the business instead of contemplating job cuts, layoffs, wage cut or redundancy that may land managements legal tussle with the Trade Unions.
What measures or steps do you thing government should take to fix the economy?
TUC believes that subsidy no longer existed in our economy and advocates fixing of the refineries and building of new ones. This will shield the economy from the vagaries and vicissitudes of international oil prices and politics.
COVID 19 has once again brought to realisation that any economy dependent on a sole commodity is incapable of taking that country out of the wood. Nigeria must take advantage of her natural and human resources now. Diversification and incentives from government are key to successful industrialisation. We call on government at all levels to exploit the potential of the agricultural sector. The Small and Medium Scale businesses (informal sector) should also be encouraged because of the critical role it plays in employment generation. The Congress advocates tax rebate of at least (3 months) to companies in Nigeria, especially the unionized ones. This will to help reflect the economy. We also recommend two months free electricity to SMEs generally and Nigerians in general. Again, we demand that the sector be made to work efficiently. If it will take a review of the privatization process to resolve the power question government should go ahead no matter whose ox is gord.
We commends government on steps taken so far on subsidy as it would create an atmosphere where market would determine the price of product and also have spiraling effects on value chains on post COVID – 19 Nigeria. The refineries should also be revived and NNLG model adopted. It is more profitable. In addition, we advocate reduction of food and drug prices to enable Nigerians who survived the pandemic to recuperate well. Furthermore, Covid -19 pandemic met us in a state of unpreparedness. The chief of Staff to the president died of Corona virus complications Mr. ABBA Kyari’s death presents us a great opportunity to revisit our health sector challenges. All existing Federal teaching / specialists hospitals should be upgraded and equipped with the state of the art medical equipment to meet the modern day standards and the new emerging disease conditions .We also appeal to government to set up standard state of the art hospitals in each of the six geo-political zones to ensure the pandemic does not consume more Nigerians needlessly. This will create accessibility to all Nigerian. This way our politicians will find no use travelling abroad as health nationalism is becoming the order of the day.
I must also point it out that delaying the bill robs the country the benefits/revenue that could have accrued from the hydro-carbon industry. We call on government to sign the PIGB into law first and then complete the other aspects of the Bill. We also supports the House of Representatives plan to investigate the implementation of Local Content involvement in the Nation’s oil and Gas Sector as such gesture would enable the Country and stakeholders in the oil industry determine the level of compliance with the Nigerian Oil and Gas Content Development Act.
The mainstay of our economy is oil but the crash in oil prices is affecting the economy, amidst increase in fuel pump price. How will labour react to this?
We all know that what we have in the oil sector is not subsidy. The subsidy is a political language, everyone knows that it was just a means of siphoning money In this country. Now that the crude oil price has fallen in the world market, we wrote to the government that this was the best opportunity to remove the fake subsidy from the system. Now that we are removing subsidy, if subsidy was real, it should have been savings for us. We told the government that now that they are stopping subsidy, let us think of what we would use the savings to do. Let us use it to fix our refineries, use it to fix our hospitals. It is only in Nigeria that we are not making anything positive as a result of COVID-19.
All countries across the world have been able to improve their health system, they have been able to concentrate on rebuilding hospitals especially government hospitals. But we are only spending money on isolation centres, we are not using the opportunity to build new hospitals or to revive any hospital. So the money saved from subsidy should have been used for that. Since the price of crude fell in the international market, it is supposed to affect the local consumption of PMS. The price of PMS is supposed to come down at the same rate. We have written to the Ministry of Petroleum and we have been in discussions and we hope that they will listen to us.
As you mentioned earlier, what about the sorry state of the refineries?
We told them to use subsidy to fix the refineries. If this is done, it is going to be a great advantage to us. Presently, we are having capital flight because we take crude oil abroad and we suffer to get the product back to this country by forcing ourselves to buy dollar. But when we fix our refineries, it means that we can refine the quantity that we need to use in this country. And we can supply to West African countries. Even if we are not making any external attraction, we are building our internal system. The oil sector can even employ more than what we have at the moment if the refineries are fixed and it will also stabilize the price of PMS. We should not be talking of importation of PMS and other products but because we did not put our refineries in order.
In one of our discussions, I asked the minister the stage the modular refineries they promised when they came on board were. He gave some responses that there were a lot of modular refineries that had been approved, they promised to arrange for us to visit the refineries to be very sure that they have those refineries but we are still waiting. We need to witness that truly they have licensed a lot of modular refineries. With the modular refineries, we would be able to create more jobs and maintaining the percentage of workers that we have at the moment.
But the government is talking of renovating the refineries and thereafter selling them to private investors. What is the position of TUC?
I am sure they will not try that. One of the reasons they got our votes was because they promised they would not sell the refineries. So it will be a betrayal of trust if they are now selling refineries after they got our votes. It is practically wrong and TUC will revolt. We will not allow that to happen. It is our national property, by selling the refineries to a private person; it means they are throwing a lot of people to the labour market.