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BEYOND SURVIVAL: NIGERIAN WORKERS AND PEOPLE DESERVE BETTER IN 2021|LAGOS EYE NEWS

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Text of a Goodwill Message to Nigerian Workers on New Year’s Day, 2021, by Comrade Ayuba Wabba, mni, President, Nigeria Labour Congress

On behalf of the National Executive Council (NEC) of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), I congratulate Nigerian workers, pensioners and people on the celebration of the 2021 New Year Day. There is indeed a lot to celebrate this New Year. We celebrate life. We celebrate hope. We celebrate our survival amidst the great turbulence, troubles and trials that marked the outgone year. Surviving 2020 is no mean feat. We thank the Almighty God whose grace and mercies saw us through the vicissitudes of 2020.

The year 2020 was largely defined by disruptions by the novel corona virus (COVID-19) in the way we work, live and play occasioning some of the broadest global lockdown and dislocation in recent history. The impact of the novel corona virus (COVID-19) pandemic with a current global death toll of more than one million seven hundred thousand and an infection rate of more than eighty-two million persons has left giant craters in our psyche and a lot of sour tales on the lips of billions of people in the world.

Perhaps, there is no other place where the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been felt than in the workplace. Millions of workers all over the world including Nigeria lost their jobs and means of livelihood as businesses contracted owing to the extensive lockdowns and the spill over economic shocks. According to estimates by the International Labour Organization (ILO), as at September 2020 about 94 percent of the global workforce were already impacted by the hiccups occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. The income losses from this impact currently stands at 495 million Full Time Equivalent (FTE) jobs. The monetary equivalent of this loss of income by workers totals to the tune of about 3.4 trillion United States Dollars. The real bite of the virus, apart from the high death toll, is the fact that it has recruited in its wake a huge army of working-class poor. The ILO estimates that the contraction in productivity as a result of the extensive lockdown and associated slow economic recovery has exacerbated and deepened the crisis of working class poverty globally.

The grim outlook painted in 2020 by the outbreak of the novel corona virus disease appears gloomier when we consider the fact that before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic the world was already faced with the prevalence of massive inequality: income inequality, racial injustice and gender discrimination in addition to the destruction resulting from extreme weather events due to climate change. We were also confronted with the choices associated with the best and worst impacts of technology which were devoid of a rights base. These events were already driving an age of anger barrage especially as marked by civil unrests and distrust in democracy in different countries of the world before Covid-19 made a landfall in virtually all the countries of the world.

Comrades and compatriots, the long shadows thrown by the COVID-19 insurgence will not just go away in 2021 by the wave of some magic wand. The global community would need to keep up with international solidarity and a great invocation of the appeal of our shared humanity if we are to survive the looming second wave of this deadly virus. The development of vaccines for the management of the novel corona virus is a step forward in the mobilization of our basic human instincts of survival for the great push back against this uncommon invisible foe. Yet, we must be modest to admit that the mere development of vaccine is not enough. We must think of how to make the vaccines affable, affordable, and available. We reiterate the call for the production of pro-poor vaccines for developing and under developed economies of the world. If there is one lesson that this virus has taught us, it is that we are all in this together.

While we await the mass production, distribution and administration of the vaccines, we use the occasion of this New Year to salute the contributions of the Nigerian working class in steering the narrative of 2020 away from the precipice of complete breakdown to a plateau of recovery, resilience and resurgence of hope. We salute the uncommon sacrifice of our frontline workers. To the nurses, doctors, laboratory workers, nutritionists, health environmentalists, morticians, transport workers, informal sector workers, security personnel and journalists who stoically kept the wheels of survival rolling at the most turbulent times of 2020, we owe you oceans of gratitude.

There is no gainsaying the fact that the devotion to duty by our frontline workers was the difference between deaths in millions and the lower casualty figure so far recorded in our clime since the outbreak of the pandemic. This is quite contrary to early prognostics by some foreign experts who predicted that the fatality toll in this part of the world would be in millions. Well, even as we continue to keep up our guards, we can say that we have consigned those prophecies to the dust bin of history thanks to the fervor, vigour and rigor of the excellent services provided by our frontline workers. We also take this moment to honour the memory and work of frontline workers who paid the supreme price in the line of duty. We owe you a world of gratitude for our survival. Your labours will not be in vain. Your sacrifice will always be remembered.

For us at the Nigeria Labour Congress, the year 2020 was a year of digging deep into a reservoir of initiatives to confront an unprecedented workplace health emergency. First, we understood the acute importance of knowledge in dealing with a novel pandemic. We assessed the situation through surveillance visits to the hotspots. In synergy with our affiliate unions especially those in the frontline sectors, we developed a worker-based strategy on dealing with Covid-19. Second, we acknowledged the primacy of collective leadership in dealing with the onslaught of the pandemic. This was what inspired the setting up of the Labour Civil Society Situation Room on COVID-19. This initiative was cascaded to the state level where we replicated State Councils Civil Society Situation Rooms on COVID-19. The purpose was to engage the social partners on effective and efficient management of the fallout of the pandemic.

Third, we matched our intentions with real actions on the field. Flowing from our observations on the field especially from hotspots where frontline workers are actively deployed in the battle against Covid-19, we engaged and communicated our concerns to relevant public authorities particularly the COVID-19 Presidential Task Force. These concerns include deficits in the supplies of critical care resources including personal protective equipment for health workers, conducive care environment for workers and patients and the need for adequate incentives and motivation for health workers.
Out of the importunity of the pandemic, we also saw opportunities. We saw a window to look inwards and mobilize our local resources in combating COVID-19 and in the process boost the domestic economy. We partnered with the National Union of Textile, Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria (NUTGTWN), Abuja chapter to produce thousands of face masks. These masks were distributed free of charge to frontline workers especially those in healthcare, sanitation, media and the informal sector.

Media advocacy was kept on the front burner throughout the first phase of the pandemic and the associated lockdown. In partnership with the International Labour Organization (ILO), the NLC developed a number of public and workers education messages which were disseminated through mass media platforms particularly as radio jingles and social media adverts. The National and State chapters of the Labour Civil Society Situation Room also intermittently released press statements highlighting to government and private sector employers the concerns of Nigerian workers and people on the pandemic and offering workers perspectives on how to tackle the challenges.

Our modest efforts bore some fruits. One of the significant results was the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on Jobs Protection between Organized Labour and the Nigeria Employers Consultative Association on June 15, 2020. The overarching aim of the MoU is to promote health, boost productivity, protect jobs, strengthen social dialogue cum tripartism and preserve the means of livelihood for millions of Nigerians.
Furthermore, in the course of our engagement with emerging public policy issues on COVID-19, Congress was able to secure reversals to a number of adversarial industrial pronouncements by both private sector employers and the government. One of the outstanding results in this regard was the reversal of the sack of thousands of workers by Access Bank PLC upon the relaxation of the general restrictions imposed at the cusp of the first wave of the novel corona virus pandemic. The intervention of Congress also aborted moves by other financial institutions, private sector employers, and small to medium scale businesses to follow suit and lay off workers in millions.
On the part of government, a number of poorly conceived policy actions were resisted by Congress. Upon the outbreak of the novel corona virus and while Nigerians were still under lockdown, the government on three occasions announced increases in the electricity tariff. The Nigerian Labour Congress and Organized Labour in Nigeria resisted the tariff increases.

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