The two-day meeting between the Federal Government and the organised labour ended in a deadlock on Tuesday, with the Nigerian Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress leaders vowing to begin a nationwide protest against the removal of fuel subsidy.
This came as oil workers under the aegis of the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association began an indefinite strike on Tuesday, citing inhumane treatment by the management of the Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission, an agency of the Federal Government.
The strike and planned protest by the organised labour slated for Wednesday (today) over the fuel subsidy removal by the Federal Government may shut down the country and paralyse the economy.
Oil workers had earlier on Tuesday staged a protest and shut down the commission’s office in Lagos, while also vowing to shut down the agency’s offices nationwide
Speaking on the planned strike on Tuesday, the NLC President, Joe Ajaero, said the organised labour had no reason to suspend the planned national protests and strike.
Ajaero spoke a few hours after another round of meeting of the Presidential Steering Committee on Palliatives held at the Aso Rock Villa, Abuja, deadlocked.
“We have no reason to call off the planned protests. If we suspend or call it off, you will know. I can tell you that the mobilisation is very high,” Ajaero said in response to questions from journalists.
The Federal Government had in a last-ditch effort to avert the strike met with the NLC and TUC leaders on Monday but the parley also failed to reach any resolution.
The Federal Government and the organised labour have been at loggerheads following the removal of fuel subsidy by President Bola Tinubu on May 29,2023.
In an effort to foster negotiations, the government set up a committee to look into the demands of the labour unions for a 300 per cent wage increase to enable workers to cope with the challenges imposed by the deteriorating economic situation that came with the removal of the controversial fuel subsidy, among other things.
Though the committee was given a total of eight weeks to come up with a suitable plan for workers and Nigerians at large, the labour leaders insisted that the committee has continued to show a lack of commitment towards their shared goal.
An earlier move by the labour leaders to embark on strike was stopped by a court order obtained by the government.
Speaking earlier after the meeting with FG officials, the NLC Secretary-General, Emmanuel Ugboaja, hinted that the congress would consider the government’s appeal for a peaceful resolution.
But he was countered by the Deputy Vice-President of the NLC, Titus Amba, who said there was no new development following the national broadcast made by the President, Bola Tinubu, on Monday evening.
Tinubu had unveiled a N500bn palliative which he said would be shared to manufacturers, small businesses and farmers.
He also disclosed plans to increase salaries and acquire 3,000 CNG-powered mass transit buses for all the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory.
However, the Assistant National Secretary of NLC, Mr Chris Onyeka, told The PUNCH that the protest was irreversible despite the appeal by the government.
“The planned nationwide protest is on, it is irreversible,” Onyeka told The PUNCH when asked if the organised labour would consider FG’s appeal to shelve the strike.
Similarly, the congress in a statement signed by Ajaero on Tuesday night asked Nigerians to ignore news about a possible suspension of its planned nationwide strike.
The terse statement which was posted on its official Twitter handle, @NLCheadquarters read, “Ignore fake rumors, NLC is never divided. We are one united and strong labour centre. The protest rally holds tomorrow(Wednesday) nationwide.”
Addressing journalists after the meeting of the Presidential Steering Committee on Palliatives, the TUC President, Festus Osifo, described the palliatives rolled out by the President as “grossly insufficient.”
Giving an update on the outcome of the meeting, he said, “About the protests, yes, they (FG) also appealed that we should shelve the protests. Our response was that we are going this evening to have a conversation around that. And you will hear from us at the end of that meeting.’’
Osifo, who addressed State House correspondents on behalf of the organised labour, maintained that the 3,000 buses were insufficient to serve the country.
“We think, for example, 3,000 bosses are not sufficient. By the time you divide 3000 by 37, you can see how many they can come up to. So, it’s not sufficient, grossly inadequate.
“Then, we also think that some of the measures put on the table are not far reaching. So, we are also going to demand for what we think will do so if we think 30,000 buses could do it; 40,000 buses could do it in the immediate. Yes, we’ll push it forward,’’ he added.
The labour leader noted that though the labour unions are pushing for the adoption of a minimum wage to match the economic realities of post-petrol subsidy, that goal appears far away due to the bureaucracies involved and the current absence of a subcommittee.
In the interim, the organised labour is pushing for wage awards which are implementable immediately.
He stated, “On our part, what we are demanding is wage award. So wage award, like for example, you’ve heard some states that have said, ‘we’re paying N40,000 minimum,’ so it’s more or less they are giving it. It is not the law. They are doing above the minimum wage.
“So for us we felt that the Federal Government could do, on their own, so much above the minimum wage, without much conversation, because the committee on the minimum wage has not been constituted. We want to be very clear on that. That committee has not been constituted.”
Shedding more light on what transpired at the meeting, the President’s Chief of Staff, Femi Gbajabiamila, said the FG informed the organised labour that Tinubu’s rollout was only a start of more to follow.
“Basically, we laid out a plan for the intervention of Mr President. As you all heard in his broadcast yesterday (Monday), we made it clear that this is just Mr President’s initial rollout of the interventions. These conversations will be ongoing.
“We appealed to labour on the protest of tomorrow. We found listening ears here and they did agree that they all accepted that Mr President’s broadcast was a welcome development and that they’ll go back home to talk to the other leaders that are not present here today. So, we’re hopeful that they’ll arrive at a good deal and call off the strike tomorrow,” he explained.
The NLC delegation was led by its General Secretary, Emma Ugbaja, and the TUC by its President, Osifo.
The FG’s representatives included Gbajabiamila; the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Labour and Employment, Kachollom Daju; the Special Adviser to the President on Energy, Olu Verheijen; the Group Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited, Mele Kyari, among others.
Meanwhile, the NLC has criticised Tinubu’s declaration in his broadcast that the review of the minimum wage was imminent.
The congress in a statement on Monday night noted that it was open knowledge that the review of minimum wage would commence in 2024 as stipulated by law.
It stated that the Tinubu administration had failed to show cooperation and dialogue with members of the organised labour.
The statement signed by the NLC president read partly, “Labour is disturbed that while President Tinubu in his speech lavishly praised the private sector for quickly dispensing wage award to their employees, the Federal Government has failed to do the same for public workers in its employment. This is a clear case of failing woefully to live up to the standards it has set for others to meet.
“It is open knowledge that the review of the national minimum wage is a matter of the law which is expected to happen in 2024. How would Nigerian workers cope with the current reality of hyperinflation and suffering unleashed by the hasty removal of the so-called petrol subsidy till 2024 when the national minimum wage would be reviewed? This is incredible!”
Speaking further on the negotiations so far, Ajaero said, “Organised Labour has been forced to negotiate with empty chairs on the Federal Government’s side as the Federal Government has not matched its public promises with firm commitment to negotiate in good faith with labour. As a matter of fact, the sub-committee on wage award has not been inaugurated and has not met.”