A harvest of strikes is threatening social life and economic recovery. In three key sectors – health, judiciary and education – federal public sector workers have downed tools this month. Some public service employees at the state level are also on strike. With the economy marooned in stagflation, there is a possibility of things getting worse. Unions should eschew going on strike at the drop of a hat.
April has been turbulent. On the first day of the month, the National Association of Resident Doctors restarted an industrial action, which lasted 10 days. As the tumult deteriorated, the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria launched its own strike over service conditions. In tandem, the Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics declared a nationwide strike. At the weekend, the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria gave the Federal Government a seven-day notice to address its grievances or have port operations shut down. All this is a sign of mishandling by the regime of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.).
The regime’s open disdain for workers’ agitation is partially the cause of escalation of strikes in Nigeria. Last December, the Nigerian Identity Management Commission workers disrupted the National Identity Number registration of Nigerians by declaring a trade dispute. They cited poor welfare and scandalous working conditions.
At other times, government bargains absentmindedly with unions, knowing that it would not be able to honour such pacts. Since 2008, the Federal Government has been negotiating a Memorandum of Understanding worth an initial N1.2 trillion with the Academic Staff Union of Universities. Government has yet to honour the pact, prompting ASUU to embark on a 10-month strike in 2020 over it. Government is at fault here and is part of the underlying issues in the doctors’ strike.
It is worrying that the government did not prevent the doctors’ strike during a debilitating coronavirus pandemic. The NARD, comprising about 40 per cent of doctors in Nigeria, cited salary arrears and delayed payment of training grants. It accused the government of abandoning 17 doctors who died while treating COVID-19 patients. This is disturbing.
At N5,000 monthly as hazard allowance, NARD has a strong case. It was strengthened when Buhari abandoned the sinking ship of state and bolted to England to receive medical treatment. This does incalculable damage to the psyche and the brittle trust between the regime and the populace. With the ministers of health and labour reacting arrogantly, it is possible that the doctors might resume their strike again in four weeks, the time that NARD gave the government to settle all outstanding issues.
Equally damaging to the polity is the strike by JUSUN, which has grounded court activities around the country. In March, the union had given the government a 21-day ultimatum for the nationwide implementation of financial autonomy in the judiciary. Despite being aware of the threat, there was no coordinated response until JUSUN commenced the industrial action. This is imprudent on government’s part.
In tow, ASUP declared a trade dispute over the non-implementation of a new salary structure for polytechnic lecturers. This is another huge setback for the country’s fragile education sector, which suffered badly in 2020 from the COVID-19 lockdowns.
At the state level, teachers in Rivers and magistrates in Cross River are locked in a bitter feud with their governments over salary default. In Kano, the state’s chapter of the Nigeria Labour Congress has just suspended its three-day warning strike after reaching an agreement that the state government would not revert as planned to the old minimum wage of N18,000
Strikes in the judiciary, health and education bode ill for the economy and should be prevented at all costs. Although the International Monetary Fund has just adjusted its earlier forecast of 1.5 per cent GDP growth to 2.5 per cent in 2021, the fundamentals are significantly weak. At N32.9 trillion, debt is escalating. Inflation and joblessness are spiralling out of control, aggravated by refined petroleum products imports, forex shortages and steep interest rates.
Despite the downturn instigated by the COVID-19 pandemic, several countries are shrewdly trying to minimise the damage to their economies. In his short time in office, the United States President, Joe Biden, is implementing a $1.9 trillion stimulus package, including $1,400 directly to individuals and $300 a week unemployment insurance support until September 6. “This historic legislation is about rebuilding the backbone of this country,” Biden said. “And giving people in this nation, working people, middle-class folks, the people who built this country, a fighting chance.” In July 2020, British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, initiated a £30 billion COVID-19 stimulus to save jobs. The package included £1,000 for firms to take on trainees, and £2 billion to subsidise placements for 16-to-24-year-olds from lower income families.
Instead, Nigeria is shedding jobs and public workers are going on strike.
First, the Buhari regime should take a reality check. It should stop negotiating unrealistic agreements with unions, and invest massively in the health, education, judiciary and social infrastructure. In nearby Ghana, the government has boosted the medical professionals with generous incentives and tax rebates. The regime should think along this line, giving the resident doctors a decent hazard allowance.
Strike is a double-edged sword and should be used sparingly by workers. Other actions short of full-blown strike such as ‘go-slows’ or ‘working to rule’ can be employed. Tough conditions should be set and met for unions to embark on industrial actions.
Government officials, including the President, should make sacrifices. The idea of medical tourism and expensive lifestyles should stop. Ministers should talk with decency. Buhari should retool the economy, improve the government’s revenue profile by privatising the state-owned enterprises, improve tax collection and plug fiscal leakages. With this, it will have more income to maintain its workforce and resuscitate the battered economy.