In a race to beat the deadline for the planned commencement of an indefinite strike that may lead to the shutdown of the economy, the Federal Government on Monday held a meeting with organised labour on post-subsidy removal palliatives for workers.
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The parley, hosted by the Minister of Labour, Simon Lalong, in Abuja, however, failed to reach a consensus as the Nigerian Labour Congress insisted that the FG must meet its demands ahead of the 21-day ultimatum issued on September 1 by the congress.
The union had on September 1 handed down the 21-day ultimatum to the FG over the delay in sharing of palliatives, saying it might be compelled to declare an indefinite labour action if its demands were not met.
In furtherance of its demands, the NLC mobilised workers for a two-day warning strike on September 5 and 6, partially grounding social and economic activities in several states with banks, ministries, agencies and departments closed to the public in some states.
The NLC leadership had said the action was in preparation for a total shutdown of the economy which would start at the expiration of the ultimatum on Friday.
Among other demands, the NLC and the Trade Union Congress were asking for wage awards, implementation of palliatives, tax exemptions and allowances to the public sector workers and a review of the minimum wage.
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Though the FG made a commitment to restructure the framework for engagement with organised Labour on palliatives, the eight-week timeframe set for the conclusion of the process expired in August with no action whatsoever.
Briefing journalists at the end of the meeting on Monday, both parties pledged to find solutions to the key demands tabled before the government by the organised labour before the deadline.
Lalong said many of the items presented by Labour were still under consideration before the final agreement.
The minister stated, “Our meeting was very robust. It was a fruitful meeting. Many of the items presented by labour are still under consideration before the final agreement or discussions.
“It was a fruitful meeting. I thank the NLC for coming to the meeting and for their very useful contributions.”
The President of the NLC, Joe Ajaero, also described the meeting as fruitful but said only the Presidency could take decisions on the demands presented to the government
Ajaero said the organised labour was ready to meet with the government any time of the day to find solutions to its demands and avert the planned strike.
The NLC president said, “Like the minister said we had a fruitful deliberation and we have agreed to continue to make sure we arrive at meaningful agreement within the remaining days of the ultimatum.
“We equally discussed frankly the issue bordering the coup floated and executed by the Nigeria Police against the National Union of Road Transport Workers which has led to the detention of their democratically elected national officers and both parties agreed to show concern towards the resolution of the matter.
‘’It is one sore area that the trade union movement in Nigeria is not ready to compromise. Whether a coup in the trade union movement or in the polity. It must be condemned; whether it is in Niger Republic, Congo or Mali or in the trade union movement in Nigeria.
“On the other issue, you can see that there is no agreement or implementation on any. There is no CNG anywhere. Refineries are not working. No agreement on wage award. Those are the issues we believe that something will happen before the ultimatum expires. It is possible that something will happen.’’
He further explained, “We had a convivial deliberation with the minister and we hope that even if it is remaining one day, we will get to the root of all these problems. Whenever we are invited, we will be there. Both parties will work towards the realisation of these objectives before the last minute of the ultimatum.
“There is a larger committee that has set up technical committees. The ministry has performed its role to mediate and conciliate in the problem between us and the Federal Government. There is an inter-ministerial committee at the Presidency level which is supposed to address these issues.
“The ministry of labour can’t address wage award, the issue of CNG, refineries and others. The ministry has mediated to ensure that there is no problem or get both parties to resolve these issues. We are ready to engage the government whether in the night or day; we are ready to engage but not at gunpoint.”
Before the meeting went into a closed-door session, Ajaero had said the two – day warning strike declared on September 5 and 6 by the NLC was “a product of frustration caused by the economic situation in the country.”
The labour leader complained that “none of the demands put before the federal government had been addressed.”
He lamented the lack of trust between the government and the union in the negotiation process.
Ajaero stated, “We came with mixed feelings whether it will work or not because we have had many meetings, some beyond this level, yet nothing seems to be coming out of it.
‘’But I have great optimism in the Nigerian project; we can’t stop trying. We are here with that belief that something may happen. But that doubt, that trust gap is what we feared for a long time now and it calls for lamentation.
“The strike is an effect of a policy that doesn’t have a human face. There was no strike before the removal of fuel subsidy. It was the government that said ‘ask for palliatives, ask for wages’ and we have asked for it; that warning strike was a product of frustration, up till this moment.’’
Ajaero bemoaned the adverse impact of the fuel subsidy withdrawal on Nigerians, stressing that the NLC would not rush into a strike without justifications.
He added, “We must work together to ensure that we don’t keep on dragging these issues. It is the Nigerian people that are being affected, they are the people that are suffering. We have a lot of demands that we have put on paper for the government.
‘’There is the issue of CNG, refineries working, wage award and cash transfer. Of all these agreements, not even one has been addressed by the government and you want us to meet every day.
“Some of us have been around for a long time and our job is not to go on strike but when you enter into an agreement that agreement should be implemented. Before the warning strike we raised the issues of palliatives and wage award and the NURTW.
“Nobody earning N30, 000 or N60, 000 will buy fuel for one week. We need to find solutions to all these problems and we have articulated them. Each time we finish they ask for time.
‘’They asked for eight weeks, we gave them. They asked for four weeks, we gave them. We don’t know what to tell our colleagues or members again. We hope that at the end of this meeting, we will have something to tell our members. This is a neck-breaking meeting.”
Lalong assured the labour leaders that the government was committed to addressing all the issues that led to their warning strike.
The minister maintained that the government must be mindful of striking a balance that promotes economic growth and secures sustainable progress for the nation as it attempts to address the demands of Labour.
Lalong said, “In recent months, our country has witnessed teething challenges, marked by industrial actions and unrest that have adversely affected the economy.
‘’I appear before you today not just as a representative of the government, but as an advocate for constructive dialogue, aspiring to understand your concerns and working hand in hand to find lasting solutions that benefit all Nigerians.
“I fully acknowledge and appreciate the invaluable role the NLC plays in championing the rights and welfare of our workers. Your dedication and tireless advocacy have been critical in shaping a fair and inclusive work environment, and ensuring the wellbeing of our workforce. We acknowledge the valid grievances that have fuelled the recent labour crisis, and we are committed to addressing them in a just and equitable manner.”
He added, “We must also recognise the economic realities that confront us. As we address the concerns of our workforce, we must be mindful of striking a balance that promotes economic growth and secures sustainable progress for our nation.
‘’Today, I call upon each one of you to join hands in an open-minded and constructive dialogue, enabling us to bridge any gaps that may exist between the interests of workers and the ultimate goal of driving economic advancement.’’
The minister appealed to the labour unions to embrace dialogue and shun the strike.
“In the spirit of unity and with utmost commitment to the betterment of our nation, let us seize this opportunity to listen and understand one another. Together, let us explore innovative approaches, reimagining strategies that enhance working conditions and worker benefits while nurturing a robust economy.
“I am confident that this gathering will produce resolutions that propel our labour sector towards greater strength, and our beloved country towards a brighter future.
‘’We eagerly look forward to our discussions today, knowing that the harmonious collaboration between the government and the NLC will facilitate an environment where our workforce thrives, and our economy flourishes,’’ he admonished.