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THE PAINS, GAINS OF HUMAN CAPITAL IN 2010

By NBF News
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THEY are ubiquitous. They are out in the sun trying to eke out a living. They are the lubricant that oils the wheel of wealth. Yet, they hardly have anything to show for their toil. Welcome to the world of Nigerian workers.

Ask an average worker in Nigeria to take stock of the out-going year, the answer you get can hardly be anything but abuse, poverty, deprivation and denial of his or her basic human rights.

Indeed, for the worker and the unions that take up the gauntlet to protect him, 2010 was a turbulent year with lots of pains arising from many battles against entrenched interests, which, in most cases, are unwilling to shift their positions

The year will, perhaps, go down in history as the most turbulent for labour as it battles government and the private sector employees with its most potent weapon - strike.

While the resort to strike is considered as the ultimate weapon in the organized labour movement, experts in industrial relations were of the opinion that it was over-used in the out-going years to the extent that it was almost losing its potency.

Apart from the nationwide strike by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) on November 10, 2010, over the government's refusal to approve the N18, 000 minimum wage, other unions in the banking, power and oil and gas sectors were not left out of the gale of strikes.

Indeed, unions like the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Employees (NUPENG) and National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE), almost whittled down the potency of strikes as they took it to a ridiculous level.

NUPENG had gone on strike more than thrice in 2010 over issues ranging from the alleged killing of its member by soldiers; friction with the Lagos State Transport Management Agency (LASTMA) officials, to the court ordered seizure of some oil firms' assets over debt.

But for NUEE, it is either government obliterates privatization of the power sector from its reform policy or no dice. The leadership of the union would not want any dialogue with government over severance package for its members. The language is 'No to privatization.'

Despite these industrial disputes, workers were not totally insulated from sacks, as cumulatively, over 14, 000 jobs were lost in the formal sector of the economy.

Peugeot Automobile Nigeria (PAN) threw about 226 workers into the already saturated market early this month, while banks, although, using piecemeal approach, have been sacking workers.

In the financial sector, Association of Senior Staff of Banks, Insurance and Financial Institutions (ASSBIFI) President, Mr. Sunday Salako, told The Guardian that over 5, 000 jobs were lost this year.

According to him, the job cut became inevitable due to the financial difficulty experienced in the sector during the year.

Salako said, 'A combination of warped system, peopled by anti-masses in government whose preoccupation is self aggrandizement made it difficult to challenge the job losses.'

The ASSBIFI President noted that as long as government fuses with employers to wrestle workers, the battle would always be tilted against the latter.

'In a sane environment, it is a tripod-Government, employer and worker- but here in Nigeria, government is the employer directly or indirectly, as those in government own these so-called private companies. How can workers survive their onslaught?' Salako asked.

While the other sector is getting over its job losses challenges, many workers in the aviation agencies operating in the country may, in the new year lose their jobs if the Federal Government accepts the recommendations of the Aviation Operations Improvement Committee.

Agencies that may be affected include the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency, Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria and the Nigerian Metrological Agency.

Although the recommendations were not disclosed, a member of the committee had hinted that one of the key elements was the restructuring and rationalization of workers to make the agencies trim and cost effective.

The rationale is that if the agencies were trim, their demands on aviation operators will reduce. This is because operators are said to be weighed down by the burden of heavy taxes, levies, charges and dues imposed on them by the regulatory agencies.

Airline operators in the country had recently come to the brink of a strike action and she eventually set up the committee on April 21, 2010.

On the flip side of the strikes and job losses, workers in the country also had their fair share of brutality in 2010 during the course of their struggle for better welfare conditions.

Indeed, it was a violent year for Nigeria's trade unionists, as nurses were seriously injured during a peaceful protest. Striking doctors were also attacked. In an attack on the offices of the marine workers' union, four union officials were left critically injured. A trade union leader in Benue state was murdered, although the motive for his murder was unclear. In addition, trade union rights are not adequately protected in law.

On March 20, more than 50 armed attackers raided the secretariat of the Marine Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN), leaving four of the union staff critically injured to various degrees. The attackers removed and burnt vital documents, including documents relating to the national delegates conference the union was due to hold on 27 March. The attackers, thought to be hired thugs, arrived at the union's national secretariat at around 11am with guns, machetes and other dangerous weapons. They smashed vehicle windscreens, windows, doors and ransacked all the offices after shooting indiscriminately at doors and windows of the building.

The chairman of the Benue state branch of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), Tony Udu, was shot and killed at his home in Makurdi on 24 July. A week later, the police arrested two of the gunmen, who were thought to be hired assassins. The motive for the murder was not clear, but given the activism of the chairman, national TUC leaders believe it was political.

Also, when a group of women health workers from the National Association of Nurses and Midwives protested about the non-payment of their salaries for three months, they were seriously beaten by suspected political thugs. On 17 December, the health workers, employed by the Abeokuta South council in Ogun state, staged a peaceful protest outside the home of the local government chairman, Yanju Lipede. They were few meters from his house when two vehicles arrived and five large men disembarked. They beat the women with horsewhips, sticks and other weapons. Many of them had to be hospitalized because of their injuries, which included fractured bones. According to one of the victims, Adeyola Solaja, a senior nurse, one of the vehicles used by the attackers had been traced to the local government's Supervisory Councilor on health.

In all, the only marginal gain that came the way of workers is the approval, albeit through arm twisting, the National Council of State gave for the payment of the new minimum wage pegged at N18000.

As at the time of writing this piece, the commencement of the implementation of the new wage is yet unknown.

Earlier at the weekend, the president of NLC, Abdulwaheed Omar, had written President Goodluck Jonathan, to ensure the implementation of the new wage by January 2011.

In the letter sent through the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Alhaji Yayale Ahmed, the NLC President urged government to pay the new wage to cushion the effect of rising inflation on Nigerian workers.

The angst of Omar cannot be misplaced when viewed against the backdrop of failed promises by government in the past. While the government and some employers may agree to collective bargaining, they generally fail to honour the agreements made, leading to many strikes.