Chairman of the Oyo State chapter of the Nigeria Labour Congress, Mr Kayode Martins, shares his thoughts with DANIEL AYANTOYE on the protest by workers in the state, among other issues
Nigerians are currently passing through untold hardship. How are your members navigating the challenges?
We are not finding it easy, though the government is trying to roll out some palliative measures. For instance, there is the aspect of subsidising the cost of transportation by rolling out some mass transit buses to cushion the effect of the fuel subsidy removal. We appreciate that. At the same time, there are some other things that are still expected, and at the national level, the issue of minimum wage should be done in real-time because the cost of living has gone up. It is hard to cope in a nutshell.
Recently there was a national protest in which your state partook in it, this is not the first time Nigeria is experiencing such. What makes this one different?
With all the steps that are being taken by both the national and state government and the committee saddled with the responsibility of coming up with a new minimum wage, they have been advised to speed up the process. The government should not shy away from the fact that a new minimum wage must come up to alleviate hunger.
At the end of the protest, were your demands addressed?
At the state level, we thank God because we have been able to resolve this amicably. The government saw the reason behind our agitations. The government is attending to some of our demands and at the national level, the government has taken heed to the demands of Labour. Hopefully, some of our demands will be taken care of.
One of the issues in the state that led to the protest was unremitted deductions and poor salaries. Tell us about this.
We had about six months outstanding (deductions) out of which four months have been paid by the government. They promised that by the end of August, the balance of two months would be paid. They have rolled out promotion letters, and some other things. In every struggle, we know it’s a win-win for both sides and this time around, we got a larger percentage of what we demanded.
During the protest, a civil servant was reportedly beaten up and injured for refusing to comply with the NLC directives. Do you think that was necessary?
I think that situation was a conspiracy in the sense that up till now, the guy has not been identified as a worker. He said he was inside the secretariat to eat at the canteen during the strike, and there was nobody in the office. So, no canteen was opened. Then a man came out from a hiding place with a recorder. I spoke to that camera that it was nothing but a set-up and we won’t dance to it. It was nothing but a drama, because if you imagine it, how did he gain entrance into the secretariat?
There was a report that some pensioners in the state earn very low pensions in the state. How true is this and how much is the lowest?
It was one of our agitations and the government included the pensioners in the committee. They are coming up with something better. There was a proposal at the South-West Congress of Nigeria Union of Pensioners, where N40,000 was demanded as minimum wage for any retiree. In Oyo State, whenever we have the privilege to engage the government, we make sure we put forward the workers and the pensioners.
Reacting to the protest, the Commissioner for Information and Orientation in the state, Prince Dotun Oyelade, is saying that the state is financially constrained which is why the state government is finding it difficult to meet salary obligations. What do you make of that?
I will take that because it is contrary to what we agreed with the governor and the whole thing stops at the governor’s table and he is man of his word. The Commissioner for Information spoke with me an hour before then and he went on air to say a different thing from what we discussed. So, I don’t have any trust in his words.
Are you of the view that government has the capacity to meet workers’ demands?
The government has called us to a round table and revealed everything to us. He was sincere with us and he has set up a committee for us to come up with whatever increment we can agree on based on what is generated from the federal allocation and internally generated revenue. We are ready to give it all it takes to better the lots of workers in the state and at the same time not at the detriment of the entire citizens.
He also said that over 2,000 civil servants were promoted. How true is this?
During the struggle, they said they had rolled out letters but none of our members have got the letter as I am speaking letter are been rolled out currently.
Before the rolling out of the letters, what is the shortfall in the promotion arrears in the state?
We have 2021, 2022 and 2023. Some people were due for promotion in 2021, and another set in 2022. It is three years for employees on senior levels, and two years for junior employees. For us, we have outstanding three years and every worker in one way or another is affected. By the time you have three years of outstanding promotion, it means every worker is involved.
With the current economic situation, how much do you think should be the minimum wage for workers and pensioners?
We should stop talking about minimum wage, it should be living wage. It is quite unfortunate that in Nigeria, we pay less than what neighbouring countries pay. It is not good enough. The minimum wage should be around $400, but you can’t believe that in Nigeria, we pay about $50. We have countries in Africa, Senegal and Algeria paying about $200 and $350.
Do you think Nigeria is as rich as those counties and it appears the government may not have such capacity?
Who told you that we don’t have the capacity? Why do you have your Senators earning the highest pay in the whole world? So, when it comes to the masses, the government doesn’t have the capacity. Is it not from the same treasury that you say there is no money that in a few months, you will start shouting that billions have been stolen? Government should get their priorities right.
How much do you think should be the minimum wage?
I go with the national demand. At least for now for a family man to survive in Nigeria today, nothing less than N200,000 monthly and there has to be a corresponding increase for pensioners as well. Your salary as a pensioner must be commensurate with your colleague at the same level because we ply the same market.
For example, somebody that retired 20 years ago and was paid based on that time, should not be paid that same amount with the current situation. Inflation has eaten up that pay level. So, the pension must be adjusted to the current economic realities.
President Bola Tinubu made some promises during his recent address to the nation, but some are already complaining about the delay in fulfilling these promises. What is your take on this?
This will not be the first time. It is said that once beaten, twice shy. Whenever they come on board like that, you hear them using sugar-coated mouths, telling us that they want to take serious steps which may hurt you but later be of benefit. So, at the end of it all, we have the masses to blame. We the masses are at the receiving end, why? For instance, on the issue of the fuel subsidy removal, nobody said the President shouldn’t do that but you don’t kill a fly with a sledgehammer, he should make necessary provisions to cushion the effect of removing the subsidy. Even when he has not appointed anyone, he just announced the removal of the subsidy. Then hours later, the GMD of NNPCL said the petrol is now from N185 to N500, and everything bounces on the masses.
Do you think the promises made during the address would have a positive impact?
That is if they are willing to fulfil the promises. It will definitely go a long way. But as you are aware, several administrations will come up with a lot of policies and promises but when it comes to implementation, that’s where the problem is. It is our prayer that things work out. We are not enemies of the state. We live here; so, it is our prayer that their policies work.
Some are saying the NLC has become a lame dog, what is your reaction to that?
Many times, they refer to the 2012 rally and in that rally, we had the likes of Lai Muhammed, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, former President Muhammadu Buhari, Festus Keyamo, Tunde Bakare and others. In a nutshell, the 2012 rally was fuelled by the opposition party. Where are the opposition party in Nigeria today? In Nigeria, we muddle things up. We expect labour unions to do the work of the opposition. We also learnt that the 2012 rally was fueled by the opposition and we don’t allow such again. Let the opposition do their work, we are a pressure group and not an opposition party.
Labour has been accused of only having the option of the strike to drive home its grievances, is there no other option at NLC’s disposal?
It’s only in this part of the world that whenever you have such and come up with an agreement, they wouldn’t fulfil their part until you go on strike. And nobody blames the government for that. For instance, this issue of increase in salary is being carried out in every country across the world. Overseas, when their governments and labour unions sign agreements, before labour does anything they will implement it. In Nigeria, the government has made it clear that until you protest or go on strike, it will not give you what is rightfully yours. That’s why you always see us going on strike.
How will you describe the quality of ministers-designates?
I wouldn’t blame the President. I see it as a payback time for those who, in one way or the other contributed to his success during the presidential election, but that will not augur well with the present situation. What we need now is better hands and people that have the capacity to turn around the fortunes of this country to greatness, people that will take the country out of the mess that we found ourselves. If you surround yourself with the same people who brought us to this level, the belief that they will take us out of this mess is a mirage.
With what you have said, doesn’t it mean that we are in trouble in this country?
I think now you are talking. Don’t see it as a prophesy of doom but the reality is that we just have to be strong. The majority of them have either one issue or the other to answer and I don’t see anything good coming from their end.
How can an increase in the workers’ salary further help the economic situation of the country?
Whatever amount of money issued out as salary monthly goes indirectly to the market and whenever government withholds the salary, you will see the impact on the economy and the market. One deception that the government passes to the masses sometimes is that ‘Don’t mind the workers, are they the only ones?’ Pay the workers, the artisans and the market women will feel the impact. The major way to help the masses is to increase the minimum wage because indirectly, the money is circulated into the economy. No matter the policy that the government introduces, if it does not alleviate the suffering of the masses, it translates to waste. People are suffering and that’s why the government is there. We told them to make the refineries work. If you can’t have the major refineries, let’s have the local refineries. If someone like you is licensed and allowed, maybe you can do like 100 litres and help your community. But because they (the government) benefit from these issues, they just play around with it. Many of them have oil blocks, they are just pretending to be people-friendly and they are not. They are the real enemies of the state.
Recently we learnt that the NNPCL has secured a $3bn repayment loan to stabilise the naira. What is your take on it?
We pray it works out the way they planned and made us believe, but the problem in this country has always been that with the level of corruption, you can’t trust Nigerian leaders when it comes to money, they are not sincere. We ask the government to make sure that whatever they do, they should alleviate the sufferings of the masses as quickly as possible. It is already out of hand. Nigerians are very patient; otherwise what happened in other countries is not up to this level. Nigerians should not be taken for granted.
Regarding the issue of local government autonomy, why do you think it is difficult for the governor to give LG autonomy?
Whenever we don’t allow the three tiers of government to operate independently, we cannot have a better society. The LG system is the nearest to the people. The main responsibility of the state government is to check them and not to run the affairs for them. How can you say the local government heads are not competent and you are running the affairs for them? If you know you know how to run the local government, step down as a governor and go and contest the local government chairmanship position. If they (local government chairmen) mismanage the funds, you take them up and have them prosecuted.