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Cost of living: FG, NLC meeting deadlocked, bakers threaten shutdown

A meeting between the Federal Government and organised Labour to stave off the planned strike by the Nigeria Labour Congress and Trade Union Congress deadlocked on Monday night.

The Minister of State Labour and Employment, Nkeiruka Onyejeocha, who hosted the parley in Abuja, could not convince the unions to suspend the strike slated for February 23.

This was as the Association of Master Bakers and Caterers of Nigeria threatened to down tools by February 27, 2024, if the Federal Government failed to implement the agreement it entered into with the association in 2020.

  The Minister of Information and National Orientation, Mohammed Idris, in an interview with The PUNCH on Tuesday, sought the understanding of the unions, saying, “We are optimistic Labour will see reason and strike will be averted in the interest of the nation.’’

The NLC and TUC on February 8 issued a 14-day nationwide strike notice to the Federal Government over the failure of the Bola Tinubu-led government to implement the agreements reached on October 2, 2023, following the removal of the subsidy on Premium Motor Spirit known as petrol.

In a statement signed by the leaders of the two labour unions, Joe Ajaero and Festus Usifo, the organised Labour expressed sadness that despite the passage of time, “The majority of these crucial agreements remain unmet or negligibly addressed, indicating a blatant disregard for the principles of good faith, welfare and rights of Nigerian workers and Nigerians.”

The unions said despite their efforts to ensure industrial peace, the government seemed unperturbed by the mass suffering and hardship across the country.

After the removal of the fuel subsidy by the President on May 29, 2023, the labour unions reached a 16-point agreement with the Federal Government on measures to cushion the pains of the subsidy removal on workers.

N35,000 wage award

Among other things, the government agreed to pay N35,000 to all federal workers beginning from last September pending when a new national minimum wage would be signed into law.

The resolution provided that the wage award would be paid to the federal workers for six months while states were encouraged to extend the same benefit to their workers.

The Federal Government also pledged to make cash transfers to vulnerable Nigerians and provide 100 CNG (compressed natural gas) buses nationwide to ease the high transportation costs.

Speaking in an interview with The PUNCH on Tuesday, the NLC Vice President, Hakeem Ambali, insisted that the strike would go on unless the Federal Government addressed “the untold hardship meted on Nigerians by the famous pronunciation that ‘subsidy is gone’ on 29 May.’’

He lamented that the Federal Government had yet to fulfil its part of the agreement with the labour movement.

The two-week ultimatum stands except the government does the needful and addresses the untold hardship meted on Nigerians by the famous pronunciation that ‘subsidy is gone’ on 29 May.

“We can see pockets of protests across the country. These are very dangerous. So, Labour must rise and offer leadership; Our ultimatum is patriotic,’’ he declared.

Shedding light on what transpired at the meeting with the minister, Ambali, who is also the National President of the National Union of Local Government Employees, in an interview with one of our correspondents, disclosed that the session was called to review the level of implementation of the October agreement.

He stated, “The meeting realised that major parts of the agreement have not been implemented and Labour minister expressed her disappointment that the government had not kept faith with the spirit of the agreements.

“The meeting resolved subsequently that the agreements have not been well implemented and that they (government) still have windows of opportunities to meet to address all these to avert the impending strikes.”

Speaking further, the vice-president noted that the agreement with the Federal Government was time-bound.

He added, “We signed an agreement in October last year that the buses would be ready to ply Nigeria’s road in December last year. We are already in February. I do not think we have seen any bus on the road.

14-day ultimatum

“On the wage award which is N35,000, we also realised that the government has not kept faith with that. They were only able to pay one until we issued an ultimatum for 14 days. We realised that even state governments did not negotiate with their labour unions.

“What they only did was that they started paying N10,000 before the agreement was signed. Some of the governors were part of the meeting back then in October. They would have called the labour unions and negotiated new wages which were not done.”

On the minimum wage negotiation, Ambali noted the NLC declined to meet with the committee as the government was supposed to address the issue.

“For emphasis is the issue of the minimum wage committee. By law, in September 2023, the minimum wage committee should have come into operation, six months after the expiration of the old Minimum Wage Act which was not done.

“The committee was inaugurated about two weeks ago and with the negotiation statute barred because it is expected to have matured by March 31, 2024, when the existing law becomes obsolete.

“Even now, they said the committee was to brief us yesterday (Monday), we said we are not looking for a technical session. That it is a joint committee between Labour and government who is supposed to have briefed us and the committee never met,’’ he explained.

Also speaking with The PUNCH, a top NLC official said the unions scheduled a second meeting with the labour minister.

“The Ministry of Labour of Labour and Employment is just an intervention platform. What the ministry is doing is to come in and say they would arrange the meeting, but it is not in any position to make an offer,’’ the labor leader clarified.

 Addressing the Second National Labour Adjudication and Arbitration Forum organised by the Nigeria Employers Consultative Association in Abuja on Tuesday, the NLC President, Ajaero, pointed out that the government’s failure to implement agreements was the primary reason for the lack of positive outcomes in social dialogues.

 This was as he advocated a yearly review of workers’ minimum wages to survive the biting economic hardship occasioned by the policy stance of the government.

 The event themed, ‘Strengthening Tripartism and Social Dialogue (including Alternative Dispute Resolution Mechanisms) for a sustainable industrial relation system in Nigeria,’ serves as a platform for social partners and stakeholders to promote fair and just resolution of labour disputes, foster harmonious employer-employee relations.

Ajaero bemoaned the ‘promise and fail’ tactics employed by government officials to inflict pain on Nigerians.

 He lamented that eight months after the fuel subsidy removal, the government had yet to fulfil any of the 16-point agreement signed with the labour unions in October last year.

He said, “I have heard a lot about the minimum wage coming on board and it is crucial. We have been paying lip service to the issue of tripartism. Yesterday, we had a meeting and part of the agreement was talking about social dialogue.’’

Responding to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, George Akume, who urged the NLC to embrace tripartism, and social dialogue, Ajaero said, “If tripartism produces an agreement and that agreement is not implemented, what is the essence of having such dialogue?

“Last October, we had a 16-point agreement with the government but up till today, none has been implemented. So, if you call me for social dialogue again, do you think I would answer you?

“It is a problem and becoming a mantra but we must internalise it so that Nigerians will know that you are serious.”

 Continuing, Ajaero called for an amendment to the minimum wage law that stipulates a once-in-five-year negotiation.

Minimum wage

He added, “The essence of having a minimum wage with a reopened clause of five years is no longer acceptable because, before five years, you have just nothing due to the surging inflation.

No matter what you negotiate with, the present Nigerian economy will not buy anything meaningful in the next five years. So, we have to look at all these issues. I think we should have a system that every year we look at the level of inflation and devaluation and adjust accordingly.

 “People have been coming up to say if the government increases salaries, it would affect inflation and then you keep salaries constant while other variables continue to go up. The wage award for N35,000 has not been paid and workers are being owed salaries.’’

“It took the government 24 hours to say that the subsidy is gone but it is taking eight months to decide what to do with it and then you are saying we should give more time.

‘’No CNG buses on the road and then labour unions are termed as trouble-makers. Even states are not paying the wage award,’’ he complained.

Earlier in his address, Akume assured the participants that the president was passionate about rebuilding the economy and improving workers’ welfare.

He stressed that open dialogue, constructive engagement, and exploration of innovative solutions are the delicate process of determining a minimum wage that is fair, sustainable, and beneficial for all stakeholders.

 Akume, represented by the Cabinet Affairs Official, Richard Pheelangwah, said, “I urge the NLC to embrace tripartism and social dialogue by recognizing the fact that collaboration and mutual understanding between government and labour unions.

“Each party must actively listen to the concerns and perspectives of the others, fostering a spirit of compromise and cooperation. While striving for a living wage for Nigerian workers, we must acknowledge the nation’s economic challenges.’’

The SGF warned that “Finding a sustainable equilibrium that protects workers’ well-being without jeopardizing business viability and overall economic health is crucial.’’

He also asked the labour unions to recognise the fact that collaboration and mutual understanding between government, employers, and labour unions are paramount.

“Each party must actively listen to the concerns and perspectives of the others, fostering a spirit of compromise and cooperation,’’ he further advised.

 He admonished the labour leaders to embrace alternative mechanisms like mediation and arbitration to expedite resolutions, minimize disruptions, and foster trust among stakeholders, noting that the traditional methods may not always yield the desired outcomes.

 In actualising their demands, Akume asked the unions to consider “wider public service obligations discharged by the government to cushion economic hardships, beyond the minimum wage.’’

 These, he said, included increased investment in infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and power plants which according to him, had helped to create jobs and boost economic activity; investment in gas-powered public transportation systems, railways and waterways; and expansion and strengthening of social safety nets, such as the Conditional Cash Transfer programme.

NECA advises Labour

The NECA Director-General, Adewale-Smatt Oyerinde, on his part assured of the employers’ commitment to promoting a peaceful and harmonious industrial relations environment for a thriving economy.

 He said, “Our country has witnessed several Labour upheavals in recent times and we must, therefore, remind ourselves to embrace social dialogues and the Alternative Dispute Resolution Mechanisms (mediation, adjudication, or arbitration) that have been established by both local and international Labour institutions.”

 In protest against the harsh business environment in the country, the Association of Master Bakers has said it will withdraw its services nationwide from February 27 due to multiple taxation and the high costs of baking materials.

A statement from the National President of the Association, Alhaji Mansur Umar, read by the Kogi State Chairman of the association, Chief Gabriel Adeniyi, said the decision was due to the “multifarious increase in the prices of baking materials such as flour, sugar, yeast, vegetable oil, petrol and diesel occasioned by the fuel subsidy removal and forex deregulation.’’

The union accused various government agencies including the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, Standards Organisation of Nigeria,  National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency, Consumers Protection Council, Department of Weights and Measures, and others of imposing various levies on its members.

It stated, “The Association of Master Bakers and Caterers of Nigeria has critically assessed the state of our business operation and consequently demand the liberalisation of flour and sugar importation, reduction or total removal of import duties on major baking materials such as flour, sugar, butter, yeast, etc as applicable to other commodities as have recently been done by the Federal Government.

It further demanded the cultivation and processing of wheat and sugarcane in Nigeria, and the removal of multiple taxations both at the federal, state, and local government levels.

 The association also called for immediate implementation of financial support palliatives for bakers as post-COVID-19 support programmes for SMEs for bakers who have lost over 40 per cent of their membership.

The union called for the suspension of all forms of taxations on the bakery industry for now both at the federal, state, and local government levels.

 It demanded the setting up of a price control and monitoring committee as allowed by the constitution and other conditions that could enhance the ease of doing business in the country.

 The association said it issued the strike notice because its action might not go down well with the economy.

Endorsing the move, bakers under the aegis of the Premium Breadmakers Association of Nigeria declared support for the master bakers’ planned strike.

PBAN President, Emmanuel Onuorah, in an interview with The PUNCH, said the government had continued to turn a deaf ear to the plight of bakers in the country.

He said, “If this is what it will take for the FG to hear our cry, so be it. The industry is almost going extinct, we support them 150 per cent.”

Speaking further, Onuorah said he and some of his members had already downed tools due to the continued spike in the price of baking materials.

He said it was no longer sustainable to continue producing under the current business climate.

Onuorah added, “I have stopped production. Many of my members have stopped working. In the last two weeks, a 50kg bag of flour and sugar increased by N6,000. Sugar increased by N15,000 and softener by N200,000.

“Diesel increased by N200 per litre. Recall I told you that the effect of the dollar increase for clearing of goods at the ports will increase cost by 15 – 20 per cent across goods and services in Q1, 2024. This is the result of the president’s flawed economic and monetary policies.”

Meanwhile, the Federal Government has said the distribution of its 102,000 metric tons of assorted grains will commence soon.

 The Minister of Information and National Orientation, Mohammed, who disclosed this to The PUNCH, explained that grains were meant to crash the current prices of food items in the country.

 He said, “The essence is that we want it to reach the real target, the masses, and not just anybody. We hope to make them available in the next week or maximum two. By that time, we will start the distribution.

 “The thinking is that once these grains are made available and they are not enough, the Federal Government will take another measure.”

 “We are hoping this (42,000 metric tons grains) will cushion the effect for some time before that one comes up. And if the situation does not appear to improve, the FG will still come up with other measures. The idea is that the government must bring down the cost of food and make it available to Nigerians. That is the directive the president has given.”

 “The other 60,000 is from the rice millers’ association. The Federal Government is buying that one from them. But I know that some journalists just added the figures together. But it is important we need to make that distinction,” he stressed.

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