Sunday Magazine

Inconsistent govt policies behind Nigeria’s economic woes –Olaleye

Comrade Quadri Olaleye is the President of Trade Union Congress (TUC). The Union organizes and promotes interests of over  45 affiliate labour unions and senior staff associations in Nigeria. In this interview with BIYI ADEGOROYE, he e-x-rays the nation’s industrial sector, labour environment, the non-remittance of, or delay in pensions payments, other issues on welfare of employees and vital role of robust  employers/employee relations in national development

 

What are your observations after your visit to some units of maritime workers under your office?

 

The tour of some maritime industries was very rewarding but as it is said in Yoruba land, if a visitor gets to a town and identifies the grave of the dead, it is an indication that somebody must have provided him with intelligence.

 

From what I saw in most of the companies I visited-CMA CGM Delmas Nigeria Limited, Lagos and Niger Shipping Agencies Ltd, Bolloré Transport and Logistics Nigeria, Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), Hull Blyth Nigeria, and Tin-Can Island Container Terminal Ltd (TICT)-I was able to carry out an on-the-spot assessment of issues instead of depending on second hand information. I think the companies are not doing badly in respecting staff welfare and in promoting safe and secure work environment though they is room for improvement.

The situation is not as bad in these locations I have visited compared to other countries, and I can only canvass for greater synergy between management, investors and workers of various industries in the country because industrial harmony is vital for economic growth and development.

 

In other words, no worker will want to destroy the pot from which he or she feeds. That is why employers must become more sensitive to the needs of workers and their invaluable contributions.

 

Generally speaking, employers of labour are always at loggerheads with their employees, just like the topsy-turvy relationship between the Federal Government and labour in recent times. What do you think is fundamentally responsible for this?

 

First of all, let us not mix all employers together in one basket because we have employers in the public sector and employers in the private sector.

 

As far as private employers are concerned, what I know about their attitude to labour issues is that they will never sign a memorandum of understanding without intention to implement it. What I mean therefore is that we have never had a situation of noncompliance with agreement we have signed with private employers.

 

By that, I mean that at least, the private employers have implemented 80 per cent of the agreements we or units under us have signed with employers in the private sector. Managements in the private sector often comply and implement its own side of the bargain. Where we have issues are employers in the public sector.

 

Eighty per cent of the MoU signed by the government are never implemented or fulfilled. What they have promised and you can see what is happening with the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) and many other unions in the country.

 

What we have observed over time is that they sign an agreement or MoU and they would never implement it, to the extent that they have since  changed it from MoU to MoA- Memorandum of Action, because MoU has failed. Up till today, ASUU is still addressing issues of 30 years ago on which government has signed MoU but has failed to implement.

 

It is as bad as that, with employers in the public sector- the government, and they have continued to carry on like. To us, the implication is that Nigerian workers are not important to the government.

 

Otherwise, how can you reach an agreement with your lecturer to provide lecture materials, improve on infrastructure where Nigerians students who are leaders of tomorrow are taught but the government fails to implement such; health workers are asking for very little essential items like protective equipment in the work place for them to be able to perform their functions but government has failed to accede to such requests, such that medical doctors had to down tools for so long a time.

And you can imagine how many lives were lost in the process. Such will never happen in the private sector. Employers in the private sector are largely proactive and they provide requisite tools to ensure safe and secure work environment.

 

At most of the places we visited, you must have seen strong emphasis placed on environment, security and safety. Employers in the private sector are supposed to emulate the standards set by government but in Nigeria, the reverse is the case.

 

So, in this case, I am urging employers in the public sector, the government to emulate those in the private sector in signing and implementation of MoU, so, that we can move the country forward and Nigeria workers can be happy again.

 

How do you see the implementation of the minimum wage?

 

Long time ago, we signed it and it was signed into law by the President himself with fanfare but the issue is that up till now, we don’t have up to 60 per cent implementation. So, the situation is as bad as tha

 

so few states have implemented the minimum wage law, what does this portend for workers, especially with the current inflation rate?

 

Definitely, it is a bad omen for the states and our nation that we signed minimum wage and two years after, we have failed to implement it.

 

And what are the excuses given by the governors? They are alluding to what they called paucity of funds- that they are getting little from federal allocations and that trade unions should canvass for higher percentage of the national revenue allocation formula for the states.

 

But the question is this, despite the economic situation in the country; despite the effects of COVID-19, have you seen any governor that has adjusted their expensive lifestyle? Have they stopped moving with a huge entourage and convoys? Nothing like that has happened. Ironically, they are finding it difficult- of so it seems, to pay as little as N30,000.

 

Don’t forget that out of this minimum wage, the  state governments are getting a huge percentage of it in the form of PAYEpay as you earn tax. I think at the stage, the governors also should try their possible best and ensure they adjust their lifestyles to reflect the reality of the economy, instead of short changing workers.

 

It has been very difficult for Nigerian workers, especially since the COVID- 19 period. Hundreds of thousands of them, if not millions, have lost their jobs; a huge number have accepted pay cut, and to worsen matters, inflation is skyrocketing daily.

 

We receive a lot of calls daily from Nigerian workers, who are unable to meet their obligations to their families; some having health problems and others whose salaries are grossly inadequate.

 

How do you see the impact of the exchange rate which is now over N500 to a dollar in the parallel market of Nigerian workers’ standard of living especially since our economy is dependent on imports?

 

Without any doubt, it has affected and it is still affecting Nigerian workers. Even if you ask a primary school pupil, he will tell you that exchange rate has a bearing on the country’s standard of living.

 

Nigeria’s economy is import dependent because we are not producing most of our consumables, even as little as tooth pick, as someone once said.

 

To worsen matters, the exchange rate determines the price at which the goods will sold. Nobody ever believed our currency could plummet to this level of over N500 to a dollar with all efforts we have put in place.

 

If the productive sector has been active; if we are producing, if our farmers have been working without all the crisis in the country, of our industries were working, the exchange rate would not have risen this high.

 

But the attacks by the herdsmen and the rest of them all over the country have pushed our farmers out of their farms. I laugh at times when some farmers or group of farmers and their companies give some fantastic figures that we are self-sufficient in this farm produce or that.

 

That is fallacy because majority of Nigerians know that they import rice, tomato paste and the rest through the back door. They should show us their so-called hundred, thousands hectres of farms where they produce all those goods.

 

Look at the installed capacity of their machines and you will agree with me that the store they have does not match the capacity of what they produce for more than a week. So, where do they get the materials they use for other weeks?

 

You just broached the impact of insecurity on food production. Two newspapers last week said that food scarcity is looming. How do you think Nigerian workers would cope with this?

 

That is the point I’m making. Government must concentrate on addressing the problem of unemployment currently put at 32.5 per cent. That is huge and to me, unemployment issue is a security problem.

The high rate of unemployment in the country triggers insecurity. So, the dilemma is which should be addressed first? Government must ensure that more jobs are created so that those idle hands that are involved in all the crises and criminality would be busy.

 

So, government should concentrate more on providing enabling environment for private sector to create jobs. They should fulfill their promises and programmes.

 

They have promised to boost agriculture, give business loans, tradermoni and several others. We want to see these in action. We hear this in the media but look at your community, how many people have benefited from these? It is a serious problem.

 

We have to address the problem of unemployment and security by keeping these people who are causing mayhem in the country busy and Nigeria’s security problem shall be resolved.

 

Apapa, the heartland of importation is almost subdued by gridlock, no thanks to trailers and containers. Maritime workers and Nigerians are suffering. What do you think is the way out?

 

On Apapa, I have the confidence that in the next few years, the nightmare will be over.

 

The situation will improve because I have seen some implementation of some of the promises made by the government on this area. Government has been struggling to put better road infrastructure in Apapa, which is 90 per cent of the problem being faced here.

 

So, I have the assurance that in 2022, or before 2023, the issue of gridlock and related matters would have been fully resolved but every party – maritime workers, employers and employees located here or are transacting business here should sustain the advocacy, so that government can expedite action on the road.

 

You have over 45 affiliate unions under your leadership. How do you see to the enormity of that, especially their welfare and that of their dependants?

 

As a labour person, no matter the size of the workers and people involved, it would not be an issue because it is something I have been doing for several years.

 

And you will also agree with me that I have other executive members, union presidents, national officers that are also working to ensure that my job is easier for me. I only do a kind of retraining for them.

 

You are aware that thrice in a year, TUC holds training and meetings where we review labour situation in the country and discuss solutions. I just take the executive summary and that is what I work on with the support of various national presidents and executive members of all affiliate unions.

 

Nigeria clocked 61years of self-rule a couple of weeks ago but some have said we are retrogressing. As at the last count, over 2,000 industries have either closed down or relocated from Nigeria. How do we reverse this trend?

 

I agree with you. In the 70s, we had industries, even several industrial estates around the country, employing huge number of people. But that was because as at that time, government encouraged investment.

 

But today, government policies do not encourage investment like before. Today, many companies and individuals are relocating from the country. You recall that almost all multinational companies relocated to Ghana  because they believed that Ghana is better in terms of high taxation and bad operating environment, power, infrastructure and security.

 

Let me give you an example. Both Federal and state government garner huge money from here as tax. Look at Agbara Industrial Estate, where we had about 100 companies operating but compare the infrastructure you have in Apapa, Agbara, Ikeja, Ilupeju and Ogba industrial estates and other areas where you don’t have industries but they have the best of infrastructure and you will know what I mean.

 

Now, you can see why companies will continue to close down. What has happened to our power supply despite the change of nomenclature from ECN to NEPA, to PHCN and now Discos and Gemcos? Majority of companies are now operating on independent power supply not the public power supply. But is that the story in Ghana?

 

Most of the companies in Ghana use public water and electricity supply and that is mandatory. Those who solved Ghana’s electricity problem are also operating in Nigeria but ours remains a mystery.

 

So, until government is ready to make policies and implement them dispassionately, we are getting nowhere because we are good at making policies without implementing them. We don’t have implementation because of one problem- corruption.

 

So, I would suggest that government should promise little and deliver much out of that. But in this situation, government promises plenty but deliver little or none at times

 

. There are fears that Nigeria workers’ pensions currently in excess of N12.8 trillion is allegedly depleted, being taken as loans. Worse still is employers’ failure to remit contributory pensions to pension funds administrators. How do you react to this?

 

TUC is being represented on the board of PENCOM by Dr. Bobo, Baba Kaigama and attends their meeting regularly. When people shout that government has borrowed the money, I can tell you that it is difficult for  that to happen because the money is in the hands of private people.

 

IBTC and other pension funds administrators and have also invested it and I am aware that if government wants to borrow money, they definitely will go to the open market. So, the money is safe and government cannot tamper with it. It is different from money in the Central Bank which is at government’s disposal.

 

This issue non-remittance of retirement savings was discussed with PENCOM two weeks ago and we have our plans to force those companies that are not remitting to comply because it is inhuman and criminal to withhold pensions deducted from workers’ salaries.

 

That is fraud, and we have reported officially to PENCOM and they are partnering with us and all the PFAs and you will start to see results within the next two weeks. We were surprised about the high number of companies who are not remitting pensions to the PFAs, whereas we used to blame the PFAs instead of the defaulting companies.

 

However, I really want to encourage Nigerian workers whose pensions are not remitted to their PFAs to follow due process in addressing these cases. We are taking it more seriously.

 

If anybody fails to receive his pension after retirement, it is not the fault of PENCOM but that of his PFAs and that is fraudulent and such worker can either report to the Nigeria Labour Congress or TUC for further action. Under normal circumstances, retirees are supposed to start receiving their pensions three weeks after their retirement.

 

There are concerns over Nigeria’s rising debt burden which is now put at N35 trillion. How does labour see it?

 

I’m not worried by our debt level because I’ aware that even large economies like he U.S. and Britain also borrow money but only perturbed about reasons for collecting those loans without impact on the economy.

 

But what I’m concerned about is that when we borrow for a purpose, say infrastructure and the rest, it should be used judiciously for that purpose. This is because our politicians are no more transparent- they borrow money and they are not utilising it for the intended project.

 

Otherwise, they would have rehabilitated all the bad roads in the country. We are taking loans to fix the same roads. Yet, we have not fixed them.

 

Why are our airports not elevated to international standards despite the fact that we have taken loans many times to fix them? It is not the issue borrowing but let us borrow and utilize it judiciously for intended purpose.

 

The one we borrowed for vaccines, infrastructure, let us ensure that the vaccines and infrastructure are available. The one we borrowed for the education sector, let us utilize it for that purpose.

 

There must be assessment in terms of quality and quantity. We are taking loans time and again but we are not seeing the impact.

 

What is your view on the N16.3 trillion budget announced for 2022?

 

At the moment, I don’t want to make press comments about the budget because our team is still working on it and Wednesday next week we will come up with informed opinion after rigorous analysis, because we work with facts and figures.

 

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