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May Day and the imperatives of better deal for workers

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As Nigerian workers converge on the Eagle Square Abuja and capitals of the 36 states to commemorate this year’s International Workers Day which is being observed across the world on May 1, to celebrate the achievements and contributions of the labour movement over the decades, one of their major preoccupations no doubt, should be the blueprint of the incoming administrations at the federal and state levels to ameliorate the social and economic deprivations ravaging the land.


Against this backdrop therefore, we challenge the President-elect, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu and the governors to properly enunciate comprehensive welfare policies and programmes for implementation from May 29 when they formally take over the mantle of leadership from the outgoing leaders, who though might have put in their best in years past but are leaving over 133million Nigerians including many public employees living in poverty.


The tale of woes also includes, an inflation rate of 22.04% in March 2023 compared to February headline rate which was 21.91% thereby reducing the purchasing power of most workers under a national minimum wage of N30,000 monthly, a current life expectancy of 55.75years and a projected unemployment rate of 40.6% as against 37.7% last year coupled with insecurity, poor healthcare system, food insecurity, housing deficit, inadequate public infrastructures and epileptic fuel and electricity supply.


It is note worthy that Workers’ Day which is celebrated every May 1st as a public holiday is part of International Workers’ Day, which is celebrated worldwide to commend workers and labourers for all their hard work and immense contributions to sociology-economic and technological development while it was first declared as a public holiday by the People Redemption Party (PRP) government of Abubakar Rimi (now late) of Kano State in 1980 and became a national holiday on May 1, 1981.


Similarly, it is on record that the first May Day celebrations globally which focused on workers took place on May 1st, 1890 after its proclamation by the first international congress of socialist parties in Europe on July 14th, 1889 in Paris, France, to dedicate May 1st every year as the ‘Workers Day of International Unity and Solidarity’.


The date was picked following the tragic events of 1884 when the American Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions demanded an eight-hour workday, to come in effect as of May 1st, 1886, which however, resulted in a general strike and the Haymarket (in Chicago) Riot of 1886, but culminated also in the official sanction of the eight-hour workday.


Regrettably, too, we recall that the riots at Haymarket Square in Chicago which began as peaceful demonstrations over the legal establishment of an eight-hour workday further degenerated into a protest rally on May 4th, 1890, when a bomb was thrown at the police as they tried to disperse the crowds, resulting in the deaths of several police officers and some civilians.


Sadly, according to the records, notwithstanding that the eight-hour workday was not fully adopted across America until the 20th century, the events in Chicago inspired similar protests across Europe, where May 1st was later dedicated as the day to recognise the rights of workers across the world. But the holiday also received the official endorsement of the Soviet Union, and it is celebrated as the Day of the International Solidarity of Workers.


But the United States, to date, celebrates Labor Day on the first Monday of September and observes May 1st as Loyalty Day, a legal but not widely recognized holiday in the US apparently to avoid being tagged as a commemoration of riots that had occurred in 1886 even as the adoption of May Day by communists and socialists nations as their primary holiday has been adduced as another reason for the official resistance to May Day labor celebrations in America due to past Cold War era.


However, for the Nigerian working class, what appears uppermost in their minds today is what future awaits them after the Democracy Day change of batons at the federal and state levels on May 29. And smarting from an unprecedented hardships engendered by the faulty implementation of the Naira redesign policy and fuel scarcity that claimed some lives, the plans by the federal government to remove the contentious fuel subsidy may compound the workers’ woes because of the anticipated negative multiplier effects on their social and economic wellbeing.


Before now, the outgoing government of President Muhammadu Buhari had set the end of June for the removal of petrol subsidy as there is no provision in the 2023 federal budget for the subsidy beyond that date even though it declared that the onus of implementing the policy lies squarely on the incoming Tinubu administration as consultation on the issue intensifies. In addition, it announced the approval of N5,000 palliative to poor citizens as part of measures to ameliorate the difficulties that would follow the eventual removal.


In other words both the new leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC under Comrade Joe Ajaero and the new government have an uphill task resolving the subsidy regime controversy to the satisfaction of both parties even as we believe strongly that dialogue should be leveraged upon on all issues that affect workers. And the recent demand by the Ekiti state chapter of the NLC and the Trade Union Congress, TUC that governments at all levels should be ready to pay N100,000 new minimum wage if the petrol subsidy is removed further underscores the sensitive nature of the issue at stake which if not properly handled could result in the social and economic crisis in the country even as palliatives are being worked out.


According to the chairman of the NLC in Ekiti, Kolapo Olatunde,

“Let me say here for the umpteenth time that if the next government removes fuel subsidy, that will be an open invitation to poverty and social crisis in the nation because many citizens won’t be able to survive the negative effects. The multiplier effects will be devastating to the masses in the area of an increase in prices of goods and services when fuel will be sold for N500 or more per litre. If they should go ahead with the removal, we will have no option than to demand an immediate increase of our minimum wage from what we have now to at least N100,000 for us to cope with the situation.”


Proffering the way forward, the labour leader insisted that ”the best way out is to go back to our refineries and upgrade them to function well or possibly build new ones, as this remains the best decision for us to survive this problem in our hand,” adding that this year’s May Day is significant because the event would be used to further demand the social and economic rights of workers towards ensuring justice and egalitarian society.


In our view, the recent increase in import tariffs on rice, wheat, alcohol and 186 other items also points to tough times ahead as Nigerians are expected to pay more on rice, bread, and others to reflect the recently reviewed Import Adjustment Tax (IAT) which is in line with the implementation of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Common External Tariff (CET) 2022-2026, a move that will also result in increased tariffs on the importation of 189 items, including rice, wheat, and alcohol.


However, while we celebrate with the Nigerian workers on this auspicious occasion, they are further challenged not to rest on their oars but to continue hard work, be diligent and make the necessary sacrifice that will go a long way in sustaining the nation’s survival and the respect it commands among the global community.


Apart from raising the bar in boosting productivity, creating wealth and contributing their quota in growing the Gross Domestic Product, GDP by employees, it has become imperative for the federal, state and local governments to strive hard in providing an enabling environment ranging from protection of lives and property to bettering the lot of their employees in particular and the entire citizens in general. Employers of labour in the private sector under the aegis of the Nigerian Employers Consultative Association, NECA should similarly do the needful in catering to their employees.


This must be in line with the universal social and economic rights of workers to a decent work environment, remuneration, living standard, affordable shelter, easy access to quality healthcare, potable water, regular electricity supply, and other basic amenities required to make life more meaningful for them and their immediate families as experience has shown that a contented workforce is more productive than a neglected one. Regrettably, too, the near absence of these basic needs has consistently hampered socio-economic and technological development in Nigeria.


Consequently, we charge the incoming president, governors, national and state assemblies to accord the welfare of public sector workers, intensifying the anti-corruption war, improving human capital development, combating crime and terrorism, improving the poor education and health system priority attention as quality health remains the bedrock of any country’s economy and development while citizens who have easy access to quality and affordable healthcare will be very productive. Sadly, in recent years, Nigeria’s health sector system has been on the decline due mainly to inadequate funding of hospitals, and an abysmal citizen-doctor ratio, resulting in unprecedented medical tourism and an exodus of medical personnel abroad.


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