By Owei Lakemfa
Labour Minister, Dr. Chris Ngige has come under serious bombardment since his June 7 statement that banks stop their mass sack of workers. He had also hinted that Government may sanction banks that ignore its appeal. The attacks on the Minister have been wide, sustained and vicious. Leading the charge is the Nigeria Employers Consultative Association (NECA) which is reported as using quite strong words; accusing the Minister as “ignorant” “reckless” acting with ‘subjectivity” not commenting “from a knowledge perspective” engaging in “populism” and “partisanship” rather than “professionalism” and “arrogating to himself the power of the Federal Government” I am shocked by these choice of words.
But as it turned out, it is the Employers that are ignorant about Labour Laws and endanger the industrial relations system, not the Minister.
For instance, my old friend who is the Director General of NECA, Mr. Segun Oshinowo in reacting to the Minister’s counsel that the Bank employers follow due process in declaring workers redundant, declared “Employers will only follow the due process of the law if there is a trade union on ground. If there is no union on ground there will be no party to call for discussion…If I am (an) employer of labour and the law says if I want to carry out retrenchment I must inform or discuss with my union, I will only do that if I have a union. I think the Minister doesn’t seem to understand this aspect.”
But NECA is wrong. Section 20(1a) a of the Labour Law states: “ In the event of redundancy, the employer shall inform the trade union or workers’ representative concerned of the reasons for and the extent of the anticipated redundancy” So negotiating redundancy with workers is not contingent on having a union in place as NECA claims.
The Employers also pilloried the Minister for emphasizing on Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) claiming that he failed to understand that a CBA is possible only in a unionized environment. But NECA is being smart by half; Nigerians under Section 40 of the constitution have a right to unionize, so denying them this right, does not exculpate employers. Labour unions have the duty to enforce the constitutional and fundamental rights of workers to unionize, and the Minister has the duty to advise employers to obey the country’s constitution and laws.
Again, when NECA and its supporters claim that the Minister cannot tell banks as private employers to stop retrenchment or recall sacked workers, they exhibit ignorance of the law. Where workers and unions have rejected the mass sack as they have done, Section 4 of the Trade Disputes Act, empowers the Minister to apprehend a trade dispute. He also has the duty to maintain industrial peace because under Section 42 of the Trade Unions Act, unions and workers are empowered to picket the premises of the banks or even the residences of the employers. The unions have issued threat to picket. So the Minister advising the employers to be reasonable, is both for the smooth running of the banks and wellbeing of the economy.
In any case, there are serious security implications in throwing thousands of people into the unemployment market without notice or adequate severance package. Five years ago when I was the Acting General Secretary of the Nigeria Labour Congress, AIRTEL, the telecommunications giant, one day sacked some 3,000 young graduates. We organized and shut down its operations knocking off over five million lines in Abuja alone. The then Minister of Labour called me to restore the lines as some of them were used by the Presidency and security services. I told him that there is greater insecurity to the country off- loading 3,000 able-bodied young men and women on the streets of Abuja. Within forty eight hours, all the workers were recalled.
Government exists primarily to serve the people, defend and promote their fundamental rights as enshrined in the constitution, so the Labour Minister cannot be guilty as charged.
I have also examined arguments against Minister Ngige by the media and other bodies, and find them mainly untenable. For instance, that the banks are private entities, therefore Government has no business interfering in their conduct. This is the same fallacy as claiming that Government has no business in business. Contrary to such arguments, banks receive public funds, and where they fail, public funds are used to pay depositors or provide bailout as happened in United States. In Nigeria, special loans are packaged by the Central Bank for private companies like those in the power sector. So why will public funds be so utilized, yet some make arguments that government should not be interested in what goes on in business?
There is the argument that the Labour Minister did not in the first place, issue licences to the banks, so he cannot threaten to withdraw them. The ignorance in such an argument is the assumption that the Minister or the Ministry, is different from the government that issues licence.
There are arguments about high cost of doing business and government policies which might have affected the banking sector. These are objective issues which collectively, Nigerians can address, but it is no excuse for profiting-making banks to sack staff at the slightest discomfort. In any case, the NECA that is leading the charge against Dr. Ngige cannot claim ignorance of the fact that many employers enslave Nigerians, casualize permanent jobs, reject unionization, and, that some banks, force female staff into virtual prostitution.
In truth, the attacks on the Minister stem primarily from people who think the position he took on the mass sack, offend their neo-liberal interests or sensibilities. These are mainly, apostles of the market forces ideology; that soulless constellation of ideas whose primary motive is the maximization of profits even at the expense of human life.
On the issue of mass sack, we need to support Minister Ngige. Like Adam Smith, advocated, “When the happiness or misery of others depends in any respect upon our conduct, we dare not, as self–love might suggest to us, prefer the interest of one to that of many”