Virtual May Day, By Issa Aremu

In 130 years of May Day celebration, 2020’s remains the most precarious. It took place in an unprecedented pandemic global lock down! In 1980, the radical pro-labour PRP state governments in Kaduna and Kano under Governors Balarabe Musa and late Alhaji Rimi respectively commendably declared May 1st a public holiday in line global best labour practices.

A year later, following the agitation of NLC led by its pioneer President, Hassan Sunmonu, President Shehu Shagari  made May 1st, National public holiday to celebrate the dignity of labour. In the past 40 years (and during my 35 years of trade unionism), I bear witness that this the first May Day without open manifestations by workers. The IBB and Abacha military dictatorships dissolved the Executive Councils of the NLC in 1988 and 1995 respectively. But industrial unions observed labour day despite intimidation and harassment. Created in 1919, International Labour Organization (ILO), committed to social justice and recognized human and labour rights, marked its centenary last year. Deliberating on the future of work,  ILO identified  “technological innovations, demographic shifts, climate change and globalization” as factors impacting on the “transformative change” in the world of work. Nobody had envisaged an infectious disease known as COVID:19 that would for the worse, altered  the narrative of the world of work in an invidious way. It a great paradox that the  ILO’s celebrated report on  a human-centred agenda for the future of work was  launched last month amidst the rampaging coronavirus. In fact , on the 3 April, the Governing Body of the ILO decided via  a vote by correspondence,  to defer the 109th Session of the International Labour Conference (ILC) to 2021. ILC the annual highest gathering of all labour market actors, namely trade unionists, employers and government officials”.

Globally, Corona virus  3,507,557 and 245,243 Deaths  had been reported. In Nigeria, by the weekend, there were 2388 confirmed as many as  85 deaths. Kano, an industrial city raises a specter of pandemic within a pandemic.

The dead and recoveries are not just numbers but  working fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers , health and medical, media  workers, factory and service workers, statesmen, government officials, sportsmen and women, musicians shortened aspirations. Loss of working people adversely affects productivity of Nigeria which in any case pre-COVID 19 underperforms.

2020 virtual May Day a passing fad or we are witnessing a new normal virtual world of work? Previous three industrial revolutions thrived  on the back of the concentration of the large workforce. Will the new Fourth digital Industrial Revolution building on the Third, which used electronics and information technology to automate production, characterized by a fusion of technologies  blur “the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres? Are we to witness the end of work as we used to know it? If work virtual, can we have virtual collective actions such as negotiation or even virtual strike? Trade unions are rising to the new challenges. Throughout last Friday, yours comradely  alternated on line between virtual global May Day celebrations organized by the global Industriall across the globe and similar digital labour day activities in Nigeria. But May Day with social or physical distancing beats imagination. But that was it. I salute all comrades and affiliates in all sectors of our continent  in the  struggle and resistance against this ubiquitous deadly opportunistic disease negatively impacting lives, and well being. Immediate task is defense of workers’ rights. Before the vaccine is obtained, it’s time for personal and industrial hygiene. Physical distancing without stigmatization.! Governments and employers have the singular responsibility to ensure the safety of all but importantly essential workforce under the lock downs, especially the doctors, nurses, pharmacists and medical workers, media and information as well as security workers in general through the provisions of  quality Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The pandemic shows that Labour not only creates wealth but saves and nurtures lives. Post COVID-19 Governments and businesses must stop underrating workers but see them as partners in development. There must be social protection through comprehensive health insurance for all workers and citizens as a matter of right. And it should start now.  I salute the leadership of NLC and TUC for ensuring that President Buhari’s directive that all workers should be paid as at when due during the lock down is respected by all employers in both public and private sectors. It is significant and commendable that the National Salaries, Incomes and Wages Commission (NSIWC), under the acting Executive Chairman, Nta Ekpeyong, had proactively initiated improved COVID-19 allowances  for medical doctors and other health workers allowances, particularly for in the frontline of the fight against COVID-19, starting from March 2020. The Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) commendably recently resisted the by Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State to harass  members of the union on essential duty by security operatives. It’s time for new relationships between all Stakeholders for Partnership against pandemic and new post COVID-19 economy not the war of attrition and adversarial unhelpful relations. Governor Wike should also immediately lift the illegal siege on the NLC secretariat in Portharcourt and initiate social dialogue for resolution of all outstanding labour issues especially on the new minimum wage. We  salute the prompt action of the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, in removing  former rivers CP, Dandaura Mustapha, and replacing him with Gobum Mukan. The former CP played unacceptable anti-labour role in illegally arresting 22 members of the union from ExxonMobil on essential duty. The federal and state governments had listed categories of persons exempted from the total lockdown directives to include senior staff in the oil and gas industry which PENGASSAN represents. COVID-19 already made work precarious. No employer including state Governor should further violate the rights of workers through intimidation and harassment. We salute the solidarity  of National Union of Electricity workers (NUEE), PENGASSAN and NUPENG in freeing the two Caverton Helicopters pilots and their ten passengers that were arrested, charged to court, and remanded in Port Harcourt prison for allegedly violating the lockdown order in Rivers State. An injury to one is an injury to all. It was reassuring that President Muhammadu Buhari  said the Federal government would “not  tolerate any human rights abuse by our security agencies”. The point cannot be overstated that Security workers are also frontline workforce who must be motivated,  trained and retrained for effective service delivery. Indeed all citizens have legitimate claim to national government interventions in protecting lives and livelihood through unconditional cash benefits and palliatives.

Lastly Nigeria and indeed Africa should not waste the lessons of the current lock down. It’s time to heed the advise of Godwin Emefiele, Governor of CBN and turn COVID-19 TRAGEDY into an OPPORTUNITY FOR A NEW NIGERIA. We must urgently diversify the economy, beneficiate,  add value and new Decent millions  . Produce what we consume starting with face masks, sanitizers and ventilators and items in the health value chains. Post Corona Virus Nigeria should be less dependent on imports, grants and aids and feverish loans but rely on domestic savings and local investment.  

Issa Aremu  mni