The curious case of Nigerian labour movement

Nigeria Labour Congress NLC logoBy Simbo Olorunfemi

Often, we find ourselves bemoaning the collapse of our institutions. It becomes even more evident when the occasional whimper, here and there, sometimes mimicking productivity in the guise of activity is often a function of a change of hands in the management of many of our institutions. Whereas they should work by a defined system and standard, what we have become accustomed to is the personalisation of institutions and institution of personalities. In other words, we have been building more of men than institutions. No wonder, we are where we are – going round in circles, demolishing the already built and re-building Cathedrals where all that is needed is only a roof to resurrect a dignity forcefully taken away by yesterday’s bandits.
This might not be the primary subject of discourse here, yet in discussing the curious case of our labour movement in Nigeria, the difficulty in building or entrenching institutions that endure readily comes to mind. Indeed, even though the failure of governmental institutions across all sectors stare us in the face, the decay all around us is not solely or simply that of the government. Nations are not solely built with the arms of government or sustained by its institutions. There are major roles for non-governmental institutions to play in the sustenance of or in the re-engineering of the system.
Every democracy has assigned roles for different institutions. The place of pressure groups in a democracy is as important and emphasised as that of political parties, religious institutions, think-tanks, the media, trade unions and the now ubiquitous NGOs or NGIs. Even lobbyists have a role to play in the process, though that role is not clearly defined in many democracies, especially emerging ones. With roles come responsibilities and expectations. It is our lot that, not only have we experienced a collapse of public institutions, many of the non-governmental bodies have equally failed us. It just happens that the searchlight is hardly ever beamed in other directions. Though the Financial Reporting Council of Nigeria might have been heady and pre-occupied with too many pies, at once, in seeking to frontally take on the not-for-profit sector, even in the absence of a public sector-led enabling environment for this informally-driven sector, there is hardly faulting the fact there are huge corporate governance issues cutting across all our institutions.
Take the Labour as a case study. Take the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), for instance. Back in the day, it was an institution of reckon. Itself, a child of compromise of different ideological tendencies, it was built, bottom-up, on the shoulders of selfless, illustrious labour leaders of yore. It has become a behemoth, perhaps grown too large, for its own good. It is difficult, these days, to exactly tell what the NLC stands for or what its definitive stand is on any matter. Prosperity, poorly managed, has a propensity for making one lose one’s way. Is that the case with the labour movement in Nigeria?
Almost everything the labour accuses the government of, the labour movement is, itself, guilty of. It is difficult to put any of the characteristic tell-tale signs of maladministration and poor governance culture evident in the management of public institutions beyond the Labour itself. If one may ask – What has become of the mass-transit scheme managed by the Nigerian Labour Congress? Who can tell the state of NLC’s Labour City Transport Service (LCTS) into which millions of Naira has been invested, over time? To think that this scheme has benefited at various times from some of the hare-brained mass transit schemes of previous governments, it would be interesting to find out its state of affairs and the status of repayment of loans so procured to fund the scheme.
There is the curious case of the N2.5 billion mass housing scheme promoted by the Nigerian Labour Congress in conjunction with a company. The dust raised by subscribers who alleged fraud on the part of the promoters has done little to help in understanding what has become of the labour movement in Nigeria.
There is yet the case of the Labour Party. That party which one would have thought was founded with a mandate to advance workers’ interests but which ended in the pockets of traders with little interest in its ideology. They franchised the platform to all comers and hawked tickets for offices to all shades of politicians simply in need of any vehicle that can be used to achieve their consuming political ambition. Ayo Fayose, Olusegun Mimiko, Ifeanyi Ubah, Great Ogboru are some of the activists who have found use for the Labour party ticket in aspiring for political office.
That is what has become of Labour in Nigeria. NLC is now one huge bureaucracy, dead to the yearnings of the downtrodden, the nation and new-age realities with a pigeon-hole outlook to development. It is unlikely that money is a problem for the Congress. Remittances from affiliate unions should assure of that. Perhaps, it is its relative comfort that makes it difficult to be anything but lukewarm in shaping policy and politics in the country.
Some of the unions are sitting on a hefty chest that it is almost unbelievable. Was it not said that one of the unions pocketed (billions?) from the severance package paid to workers in the electricity sector, upon privatisation? You might wonder what a union that had a greater percentage of its members laid off would be doing with so much money. What do the unions really do with the money from check-off dues? How accountable are they and to who exactly?
The truth is the pool of money the unions generate can be ploughed into more meaningful purposes. It is actually possible to fund life-changing developmental initiatives from this dues, if they so desire. What about part of the dues serving as some form of insurance from which workers who are not paid salaries by employers for months receive some form of allowance/loan? What about engaging in life-changing programmes to make health insurance or mortgage facilities more accessible to workers? There must be something to trade unions other than strikes and threats over all sorts.
One might even be tempted to think that there is some link between the financial state of some of these unions and the rat race over leadership positions in the Labour. The riotous end to the last NLC elections which threw up two factions of the Congress with parallel executives is quite instructive.
NLC has departments such as Research, Legal, Education, International Relations, Health and Safety, among others. One would expect regular and robust interventions from the congress on policy and issues of governance. There is very little of that. By the way, I have read the 48-page NLC Policy document. We only hear Labour once in a while, chanting same old populist slogans, calling for increase in minimum wage, irrespective of the weather. The question is – who really is on minimum wage in the public service that Labour is waging this battle for? Was there not something about jobs below Grade level 4 outsourced by the civil service years back? Is it no longer the case that the Secondary School certificate holder joins the civil service on Grade level 4? Who really is on the minimum wage in the civil service? Is it not more a case of any increase in salary benefiting the people at the top more than those supposedly earning the minimum wage? When will the NLC start addressing the issue of productivity and proffer solutions? When will the question of shrinking revenue base of the government become a consideration in Labour’s case for an increase in workers’ salary?
Issues of corporate governance and accountability should apply to not only the institutions of government but the non-governmental sector. What could be wrong with the Labour being the standard bearer, setting the pace when it comes to the question of accountability? Perhaps, the maxim – Ex turpi causa non oritur action applies here. Is it not fair that he who comes to equity should, at least, come with clean hands? Can the NLC start by publishing its annual Report and Accounts, so we can better understand how it functions? Perhaps it does, but I could not find one on its website. It needs be told that in the day we live in, posting such a document online would only help in enhancing its credibility. What could be wrong with having a Labour that lives by what it preaches?
Simbo Olorunfemi works for Hoofbeatdotcom, a Nigerian Communications Consultancy.

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