• Saturday, June 15, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

Needed: A new model for labour unionism in Nigeria

Needed: A new model for labour unionism in Nigeria

By Paul Igbinoba

Our experience with the minimum wage negotiation by the Tripartite Wage Negotiation Committee and Organised Labour’s hardline approach informs the need for a new model of trade unionism in Nigeria. Labour has been uncompromising in its approach, walked out at a point on the committee, had for weeks insisted on multiples of hundreds of thousands of naira as the minimum wage, even when it was clear it was unaffordable, unrealistic, and unsustainable, and at the height of their high-pressured negotiation approach, embarked on an indefinite national strike last Monday, which was called off the following day after overtures from President Bola Ahmed Tinubu.

The negotiating style of the Nigerian labour movement towards minimum wage negotiation has been historically belligerent and uncompromising, but indeed more so with the current minimum wage negotiation due to the unprecedented level of hardship inflicted across the board by the ongoing economic reform programme, as necessary as it is. Regrettably, the political behaviour of elected public office holders has not helped matters.

Be that as it may, there is an urgent need for a change of negotiating attitude by Labour. The Nigerian labour movement grew out of the colonial influence and tutelage of British trade unionism steeped in socialist ideology. Labour unionism developed in Europe in response to the industrial revolution and the poor conditions of employment in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, at about the same time as socialism. Social stratification in Britain ensured that the proletariat or the working class had no hope of social mobility, just as was the case with peasants under feudalism centuries earlier. Thus, with the legalisation of trade unionism in Britain in 1871, it was easy for the trade union movement to embrace socialism as an ideological plank in the pursuit of the rights of workers.

 “Regrettably, the political behaviour of elected public office holders has not helped matters.”

It was not until 1938 that the colonial authorities in Nigeria enacted Trade Union Ordinance 44, which allowed trade unionism in Nigeria. Since then, trade unions or labour unions in Nigeria have by and large patterned their relationship with the employers of labour after that of their British counterparts, with an ingrained suspicion of employers of labour and flirtations with socialist sentiments. Thus, the Nigerian Labour Congress has taken an ideological stance against market-oriented economic reforms in the forms of privatisation and deregulation, even without a critical assessment of their merits or demerits.

At the peak of trade union power in the United Kingdom in the 1960s and 1970s, industrial actions could bring down a government, as epitomised by the then very powerful coal miners union. Indeed, throughout the 1970s, trade unions literally ambushed the British economy and made the country ungovernable, until 1979, when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. Her ambitious economic reform programme anchored on privatisation in the following eleven years of her tenure was to totally transform the British economy and make it the second largest economy in Europe after Germany and the fourth largest in the world until the recent emergence of China and India. The British economy became a buoyant and highly competitive private sector-led economy and a formidable destination for foreign destinations in Europe. The political power of labour unions was considerably whittled down, and a more harmonious and collaborative industrial environment was created for the British economy to continue to grow and meet the needs of all stakeholders, including labour, employers of labour, the government, and the public at large.

Furthermore, economic reform and prosperity have also triggered social mobility in Britain, reinforced by the collapse of the old guild system and the tremendous expansion in access to higher education, which have guaranteed a place for any aspiring member of the British labour force to rise to the top. So, the social cleavages (the ‘we’ versus ‘them’ syndrome) that characterised the British workplace have been considerably removed, which has helped produce cordial industrial relations.

This is the kind of industrial relations transformation that Nigeria urgently needs now. The Nigerian labour movement should recognise that a sea change has taken place in the British labour movement and take a cue.

As I posited in my article last week, “Minimum wage negotiation: need for transparency, realism and flexibility -2”), “I think Labour’s overall consideration should be the Big Picture: how can Labour collaboratively work with government and employers of labour to reposition the Nigerian economy in the next twelve to twenty-four months to stabilise the naira exchange rate, bring down inflation, enhance labour productivity, especially through improved power supply, promote industrial harmony and investor confidence and ensure that the foregoing translate to improved real income, better condition of living and the lifting of the burden of hardship on Nigerian workers; and expanding and not decreasing the labour force through improved employment opportunities.”

A combative minimum wage negotiating posture that resulted in the shutdown of the national grid should never happen again going forward. Even as I write, there is still uncertainty about the eventual outcome of the minimum wage negotiation. State governors have signalled that they cannot pay a minimum wage beyond N70,000. That is a pointer to the need to decentralise the minimum wage, in the spirit of realism. Labour should not be fixated on just money income but should work with the government and employers of labour to overcome our current economic challenges while possibly seeking an uptick in the minimum wage a few years down the line as the economy and productivity improve.