By Chimezie Godfrey
The Nigerian Labour Congress, NLC, has again rejected the purported registration of new trade unions for a academics in the Nigerian Universities.
This was contained in a letter signed by the NLC President, Ayuba Wabba addressed to the Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, in response to his letter requesting the granting of trade union certificates to Congress of Nigerian University Academics (CONUA) and Nigeria Association of Medical and Dental Lecturers in Academics (NAMDA).
Wabba questioned the motive for registering CONUA and NAMDA, asking whether it is the re-grouping of trade unions or it is a response to the application made by CONUA and NAMDA since 2018 to be registered as trade unions.
He point that on the basis of law and practice, that the position of the Minister on the matter is fatally flawed and represents a twist of the clear provisions of the law to serve a premeditated purpose.
He stressed that the full rendition of the provisions of Section 3(2) of the Trade Union shows that there is no differentiation whatsoever in the provisions of Section 3(2) of the Trade Union Act.
Wabba also declared that according to the same section of the law quoted by the Minister, no trade union shall be registered to represent workers or employers in a place where there already exists a trade union.
The letter reads in part:”We bring you fraternal greetings from the Nigeria Labour Congress.
“We wish to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated 12th October 2022 which was a response to our letter on the foregoing subject.
“From the official explanation offered in your letter under reference for the granting of trade union certificates to Congress of Nigerian University Academics (CONUA) and Nigeria Association of Medical and Dental Lecturers in Academics (NAMDA), the Nigeria Labour Congress is now better placed to respond directly to the premise of your action or rather misstep in registering CONUA and NAMDA.
“Honourable Minister, your letter under reference was high on the need for correct interpretation and application of the law hence you again quoted Section 3(2) of the Trade Union Act T4 CAP 14 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004 which you also made a heavy weather of in the event where you presented trade union certificates to CONUA and NAMDA. Please find your speech at the certificate presentation event herewith attached.
“In your letter under reference, you claimed that the provisions of Section 3(2) which expressly forbids the Minister of Labour from registering a trade union where a trade union exists does not apply to the regrouping of trade unions. We wish to point out to you that on the basis of law and practice, your position on this matter is fatally flawed and represents a twist of the clear provisions of the law to serve a premeditated purpose.
“First, the full rendition of the provisions of Section 3(2) of the Trade Union Act below shows that there is no differentiation whatsoever in the provisions of Section 3(2) of the Trade Union Act.
“No combination of workers or employers shall be registered as a trade union save with the approval of the Minister on his being satisfied that it is expedient to register the union either by regrouping existing trade unions, registering a new trade union or otherwise howsoever, but no trade union shall be registered to represent workers or employers in a place where there already exists a trade union.
“From the above citation, Honourable Minister, please where is the differentiation between regrouping an existing trade union and registering new trade unions which you talked about? We had to quote verbatim the provisions of the Trade Union Act as we did in our last letter to you on this matter to address your mind to the fact that you are being dangerously misled on a clear point of law.
“Second, we wish to draw the attention of the Honourable Minister to the fact that the underlined texts from the citation of Section 3(2) above which expressly forbids and restricts the Minister from registering unions in sectors where a trade union already exists is anchored on the word “register” which applies to both regrouping of existing trade unions or registering a new trade union. The legal language used therein is “shall” which in ordinary legal parlance imposes strict observance and total compliance. This rule is derived from Section 45(1) of the 1999 Constitution which regulates Section 38, 39, 40 and 41 and which reflects domestication of ILO Conventions 87 and 98 and other constitutional provisions on civil liberties and rights.
“Ancillary to this is the provision of Section 5(2) of the Trade Union Act which provides for the gazetting of the registration of new trade unions and display of same for public objections for three months.
“The provision of Section 5(2) is reproduced below verbatim:
“The Registrar shall cause a notice of the application to be published in the Federal Gazette, stating that objections to the registration of the trade union in question may be submitted to him in writing during the period of three months beginning with the date of the Gazette in which the notice is published.
“The question yet to be answered is if the above provision has been respected and complied with by the Ministry of Labour?.”
The statement added,”Honourable Minister, in Page 2 Paragraph 1 of a document titled “SPEECH BY THE HONOURABLE MINISTER OF LABOUR AND EMPLOYMENT, SENATOR (DR.) CHRIS NWABUEZE NGIGE, OON ON THE APPROVAL FOR THE REGISTRATION OF TWO (2) MORE TRADE UNIONS IN THE NIGERIAN UNIVERSITY SYSTEM”, and under Page 2 paragraph 1, you remarked as follows:
“They (CONUA and NAMDA) applied for registration since 2018 and cited irreconcilable differences…”
“The above submission is a clear contradiction of your claims on “re-grouping” as justification for awarding trade union certificates to CONUA and NAMDA which we have stressed violates the provisions of Trade Union Act CAP T14 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004.
“The question on the mind of every rational Nigerian is “what is your motive for registering CONUA and NAMDA – is it re-grouping of trade unions or is it a response to the application made by CONUA and NAMDA since 2018 to be registered as trade unions?.”
“Third, it is helpful that you cited your eminent position in the ILO Governing Board. This means that you should be very conversant with the provisions of ILO Standards on Freedom of Association. Article 3(2) of ILO Convention 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize made it explicitly clear that public authorities (including Ministers of Labour) should never interfere in the activities of trade unions. Unfortunately, you have accused us of interference when the opposite is the reality. Your biased attempt to “re-group” an existing trade union or actually individuals (something our labour laws never contemplated) in utter disregard to tripartism which is a core pillar of ILO is an attempt to interfere with, infiltrate and balkanize an existing trade union – at best to score on vendetta and at worst to destroy cordial industrial relations in Nigeria.
“Fourth, on the premise of local and international practice, the Honourable Minister may recall that the restructuring of trade unions in 1978 based on Abiodun Committee Report received significant inputs by the social partners. This was under a military regime. How come, your re-grouping of trade unions in a civilian clime is unilateral and autocratic without the input of tripartite social partners? We are also concerned that your ‘patriotic’ intervention to rescue the so-called expelled and insufficiently represented academic staff in our universities came after you publicly admitted your utmost frustration with your inability to resolve the ASUU strike. This reminds us of the saying that the witch cried at night and the child died in the morning.
“Still on the re-regrouping of trade unions, we wish to remind the Honourable Minister that Nigeria’s model of industrial based unions representing homogenous groups or sectors followed the pattern of these countries which have only one trade union centre: United Kingdom (Trade Union Congress UK), United States of America (AFL-CIO), Canada (CLC), Germany (DGB), Japan (RENGO) among others.
“Fifth, sequel to our position under our fourth point, we wish to remind you that the right to strike is a universal, non-negotiable, inalienable, and existential trade union right. This right is not only a global standard, but it has been effectively deployed all over the world including many advanced societies. Just recently, the aviation unions in the United Kingdom embarked on an extensive strike action. The UK government did not respond by re-grouping the aviation sector union. The Air Traffic Controller Unions (essential service in strict sense according to the ILO) in most of the francophone countries in Africa embarked on an extensive strike action, yet they were not slapped with divide-to-conquer tactics.
“Honourable Minister, no union enjoys embarking on strike actions. Strikes are a matter of last resort. We believe that strikes can be averted through time-tested ILO prescribed robust, effective industrial relations system promoted through social dialogue.”
Wabba noted that as the President of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) which is affiliated by 336 national labour centres spread in 163 countries and representing the interests of more than 200 million workers, he speaks on the matter, particularly the national situation in every country, from the point of knowledge and experience especially as the first African to be elected to the global position.
“In South Africa, I had the privilege of leading an ITUC mission to address a similar issue. Their rule is that for any union to be recognized, it must meet the criteria set out by the Labour Commission which is the equivalent of our own National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC). It must also submit its list of membership to ascertain that it is not poaching members from an already existing union. It must also submit two years audited account.
“Honourable Minister, I also have the privilege of serving my second term in office as a member of the Governing Body of the ILO. I am also a member of the ILO Standing Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA) which has been in existence for over 70 years. The CFA like other ILO bodies is a tripartite entity consisting of all the social partners – one person from government, one person from private employers of labour and one person from workers representative organizations. In Africa, I have the privilege of representing workers’ organizations. The government of Namibia represents the governments of Africa while an employer from South Africa represents private sector employers on the continent.
“I say all these to make the point that I am well informed that global best practice is for governments to deploy tripartism on sensitive workers’ issues such as trade union re-grouping. This is why the Trade Union Act forbids the Minister from re-grouping and registering new trade unions unilaterally.
“Sixth, I wish to remind the Honourable Minister that an earlier position by the Federal Ministry of Labour on this matter as recently as 2013 further validates our arguments. In a letter dated 9th April 2013 to the Academic Staff Union of Inter-University Centre by Ms. N. Mbogu, then Registrar of Trade Unions, the RTU relying on Section 5(3) of the Trade Union Act informed the aspiring trade union that it could not be registered because a trade union already exists in their sector. Please find attached herewith the letter under reference.
“The following cases we have cited so far: Erasmus Osawe Vs Ors Registrar of Trade Unions (1985); Supreme Court Judgement delivered on 11th January 2008 and cited as (2008) 1 S.C. (PT.III) and led by Hon. Justice Sylvester Onu and four others, all passed through Court of Appeal right up to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the only case you cited which involves the NUP is an entirely different matter and still in contention in the courts. It does not satisfy the legitimacy test. Even the case of SSATHURAI re-grouping as you cited was done through the process of tripartite engagement with the social partners.
“On your claims that ASUU failed to render its account for some years, I wish to remind you of our letters to the RTU dated 7th September 2022 and yourself dated 22nd September 2022 which explained that the situation was beyond the control of ASUU given the COVID-19 pandemic and the attendant dislocations in normal work processes,” he said.
Wabba pointed out that upon receipt of the letter by the Registrar of Trade Unions querying its failure to timely submit its audited annual financial reports, ASUU quickly transmitted the requested documents in reply to the query within 72 hours.
“Instead of accepting the submitted documents, the staff in the office of the RTU declined to accept the financial documents saying that they were acting on orders from the very top. Owing to this chain of events, our suspicion is that there is a desperate plot to give the dog a bad name in order to hang it. This is very unfortunate.
“Overall, Honourable Minister, we still want to believe that you were not properly advised on this matter. As the Chief Labour Law Officer of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, we believe that you will take advantage of our presentation of the true position of the law to redress this grave injustice done to our labour jurisprudence by the “awarding” of trade union certificates to CONUA and NAMDA,” he stated.
He added,”The truth is that the Honourable Minister cannot claim more knowledge than experts in this field particularly Justices of the National Industrial Court, Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court of Nigeria and all your predecessors in office of which three are very senior lawyers (Adetokunbo Kayode, SAN, Dr. Hassan Lawal, PhD, and Barrister Emeka Nwogu). All these respected the provisions of the Labour Act which also guided their actions while in office.
“Honourable Minister, on this issue, I have also consulted widely with our counterpart national labour centre, and I can assure the Honourable Minister that our perspectives and position on this matter are not divided.
“While we await the immediate remedial actions of the Honourable Minister, please accept our warm regards.”