For industrial actions to be reduced to a minimum, all the stakeholders and parties to collective bargaining should comply with the bargaining resolutions. Public officials should be abreast of government revenue projections and should never enter into agreements that they know the government may not keep in the long run. There is no need to postpone the evil day. Government is also a continuum, and an incumbent government should naturally see that it keeps to commitments made by its predecessors…
Omoni Oboli’s Wives on Strike is a blockbuster Nollywood movie in which four semi-illiterate market women eagerly protest a child marriage anathema. In the movie plot, a young girl, Amina’s dad compels her to marry an older man against her will. Her mum, Mama Amina, opposes this marriage but her hands are tied by culture, tradition, and religion. She however convinces a number of her friends to get involved in resolving the matter. They, in turn, approach their husbands to talk sense into Papa Amina, but when the men refuse to get involved, the women go on a sex strike. Other women across the country then join the strike, in support, until little Amina is freed. The narrative of this film symbolises the new normal in Nigeria, where the strike action is seen as the most effective way of getting the authorities to bend to the wishes of workers.
According to a report obtained from the Trade Union Services and Industrial Relations (TUSIR) department of the Federal Ministry of Labour, about 103 labour complaints and trade disputes have been recorded so far in 2021. And of these, 14 resulted in strike actions. The total number of disputes that would have led to resolved strikes was only seven. However, about 74 per cent of these disputes are public sector-based, while 26 per cent is from the private sector.
These statistics contextualise the problem and offer evidence of the prevalence of industrial conflicts in Nigeria. A cursory look at both the traditional media and social media recently will show an avalanche of news briefs pertaining to strike actions. And, it is pertinent to state that some labour unions are synonymous with strike actions. Undergraduate students and their parents quickly link the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) with perennial strike actions that have become almost a yearly ritual. Other labour unions in Nigeria are quickly catching up with ASUU in this inglorious position.
The perceived unfair treatment that workers receive from their employers is one major cause of industrial disputes, and employee unions often demand better pay and conditions of service for their members. Inflation is known to deal a heavy hand on the compensation of workers, year in, year out, and solidarity is given by unions to workers who are mistreated by their employers, while the issues involved are being addressed. Disputes ought to be resolved by the parties involved, without these necessarily resulting in strike actions, which typically should be the last resort. When labour unions seek recourse to the strike action as a instrument of resolving disputes, the entire system becomes disrupted, and lives, future opportunities and livelihoods are compromised. A lengthy strike negatively affects employment, reduces business confidence, and increases the risk of economic stagnation. In addition, such a strike has a significant setback on the growth of the economy and investment opportunities. The net loss to the economy in terms of man hours and overall economic loss dents the GDP and depresses the prospect of economic recovery.
Nigerians have suffered so much from strike actions, which have become a recurring phenomenon. Although going on strike is recognised in the Nigerian legal system, its use should only be to achieve the legitimate objectives of unions. However, the law stipulates conditions and procedures to adopt for strike actions to be legal. An involved union must follow the means for the peaceful settlement of disputes at hand, as established by agreements or legislation, and these procedures must be thoroughly exhausted before any strike action is embarked upon. The fact is that if the laws are strictly followed, most strike actions in the country would be deemed illegal.
Why is there the aberration of strikes in Nigeria today? It almost seems that trade unions and their members savour the idea of strikes and are willing to vote for these at the slightest provocation. When the mindset is to go on strike, trade union negotiators stubbornly refuse all reasonable negotiations and wait until strike actions happen before coming to the table to accept terms of settlement. With the situation in the country, most Nigerian trade unions get their members to embark on strike at the slightest provocation. Union members are usually keen on voting for the downing of tools, as they see it as an opportunity to rest at home or engage in other activities, knowing fully well that they would not lose any of part their remunerations ultimately. Trade unions in Nigeria usually ensure that one of the conditions that the government must agree to before they consider calling off their strike actions is that none of their members would suffer any consequence from such strike action and that all their accrued salaries and allowances during the periods they were not working would be paid in full.
Elections into the leadership of most of our trade unions are now do-or-die affairs, as these labour leaders or ‘comrades’, once elected into office, use the opportunities to make stupendous amounts of money. Asides from exploiting the offices to control check-off dues that most times runs into hundreds of millions of naira, many of them are alleged to usually make money from ‘settlements’ by employers, to the detriment of their members or from government opponents intent on destabilising the system to score political points.
The consequences of these strike actions in Nigeria are there for all to see. To illustrate this, the incessant strike actions by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the organised labour union of univeristy lecturers in Nigeria, has left the educational system in tatters. Since 1999, ASUU has embarked on nationwide strikes more than 20 times, and four years of the academic calendar have been cumulatively lost.
It is common these days to see union leaders drive expensive customised vehicles and hideously display opulence. Most of them turn into professional labour leaders, without working in any organisation.
The second reason for incessant strike actions is the lack of integrity in the system. Most labour disputes have to do with the non-implementation of earlier agreements. This situation speaks to the issue of the integrity of political leaders and private sector leaders. When contracts and agreements are entered into between negotiating parties in a labour dispute, they must be adhered to in their entirety. When government or a management, whether incumbent or successive, refuses to comply with a prior agreement, it creates chaos and destroys trust in the ecosystem, leading to lengthy strike actions. The problem with this is that it makes the cheated party not to trust any new agreement reached, given that the older one was not adhered to. If an agreement is not complied with, then it is not worth the paper it is written on, and no one should blame workers for further strike actions in such instance.
The third reason is that workers are frustrated by what they see as the impunity of corrupt leaders, who lack political integrity and sacrifice for the public good. While living in astounding luxury, political and corporate leaders demand that workers be considerate, patriotic and consider their strike’s impact on others. These leaders are not altruistic and do not lead by example, especially when the service conditions they expect workers to endure are way below their immoral opulent standards. They hope that workers on strike would take cognisance of the public interest, as they get public sympathy and support, while not willing to bring about genuine resolution of the conflicts. A nation with an already dysfunctional public sector cannot afford to underfund public services. Funding and review of service conditions need to be continuous, in line with rates of inflation and cost of living indices.
The consequences of these strike actions in Nigeria are there for all to see. To illustrate this, the incessant strike actions by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), the organised labour union of univeristy lecturers in Nigeria, has left the educational system in tatters. Since 1999, ASUU has embarked on nationwide strikes more than 20 times, and four years of the academic calendar have been cumulatively lost. And this does not include the avalanche of ‘local ASUU strikes’, whereby a particular Vice-Chancellor, University Governing Council or State Government is at loggerheads with the academic staff in a specific university. The result is that the quality of education offered to Nigerian students has, at best, become mediocre. The academic performances of students have equally been adversely affected, and the entire educational system almost crippled. These result in half-baked, unemployable students, who lack the basic skills necessary to survive in a dynamic environment.
In recent times, the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) seems to be competing with ASUU for the position of the trade union most associated with industrial actions in Nigeria. NARD, with 16,000 doctors in its membership, represents about 40 per cent of doctors in Nigeria. They were still on strike at the time of the writing of this article, ostensibly to push the government to honour its agreement on pay arrears, hazard allowance, as well as insurance benefits to families of doctors who have died of COVID-19.
Interestingly, the current strike by the doctors is their fourth since the coronavirus pandemic reached Nigerian shores last year. And this recent strike comes as the country is battling with the third wave of the pandemic, propelled by the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus.
While the strikes of health workers occur globally, its impact appears more severe in Nigeria, challenged by poorer socio-economic circumstances, embedded infrastructural deficiencies, and the lack of viable alternative means of obtaining healthcare. When doctors go on strike, they are no longer apostles of life; they compromise on the Hippocratic oath of the medical profession and their fiduciary obligation to patients. I understand the challenge of doctors, and the struggles of other health workers as ordinary employees who are rightfully entitled to just wages for honest work done, in relation to their moral obligations to patients and society.
Most of the strike actions in Nigeria have resulted from the poor application of the provisions of collective bargaining. Under collective bargaining, leaders of a union articulate their grievances and negotiate with employers for an amicable settlement. But what we have in most cases are either labour leaders with selfish interests to protect or corporate leaders or government officials with myopic mindsets…
Recently, many Nigerian medical doctors in various fields, such as anaesthesia, ICU, paediatrics and surgery, family medicine, and others in their hundreds, were undergoing interviews by a consultancy firm – Meeds Consultancy – for appointment by the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Health. Most of the doctors interviewed complained of ridiculous wages, and poor conditions of service, with almost all of them referring to the current strike by the resident doctors. The mass exodus of medical professionals from the country will definitely further compromise the quality of healthcare system in Nigeria, where there are already huge human capacity gaps .
Most of the strike actions in Nigeria have resulted from the poor application of the provisions of collective bargaining. Under collective bargaining, leaders of a union articulate their grievances and negotiate with employers for an amicable settlement. But what we have in most cases are either labour leaders with selfish interests to protect or corporate leaders or government officials with myopic mindsets that see the workers in a particular sector as being too greedy or dispensable.
For industrial actions to be reduced to a minimum, all the stakeholders and parties to collective bargaining should comply with the bargaining resolutions. Public officials should be abreast of government revenue projections and should never enter into agreements that they know the government may not keep in the long run. There is no need to postpone the evil day. Government is also a continuum, and an incumbent government should naturally see that it keeps to commitments made by its predecessors and should not also create problems for its successors.
Labour leaders should equally be realistic about expectations from the government. Dwindling public revenues naturally mean that the government should not continue to fund all economic sectors fully. Each industry and people working in it should find creative means of raising additional funds for their sector.
The students in Nigerian public universities and those who use public health facilities should pay reasonable fees to make up for increasingly lower government subventions. In this way, our educational and healthcare facilities would be better funded and more functional.
Ultimately it is the duty of all stakeholders to find the best means to resolve labour issues without bringing down entire systems.
Dakuku Peterside is a policy and leadership expert.
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