In this interview with JUSTIN TYOPUUSU, Comrade Bobboi Bala Kaigama, President of Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) spoke on the state of the Nigeria economy, why TUC withdrew from the strike among other issues. Excerpts;
TUC withdrew from the national wide strike embarked upon by NLC. Can you tell us why you were part of the planned strike, but later back out of the strike action?
The scenario started when we were ambushed by the federal government announcement of the increased of pump price of petrol from N86.50 to N145 and with that ambushed the organised labour, NLC and TUC decided to come together and issue an ultimatum for the pump price of the Petrol Motor Spirit (PMS) to be reversed. As usual, a meeting of our respective National Executive Councils (NEC) which is made up of all the 36 states chapters of the TUC and the NLC needed to meet to X-ray the issues at hand and to give us the national leaders the position to take. The NLC met in Abuja and we the TUC met in Lagos. At our meeting in Lagos I was given a mandate to ensure that the pump price is reverse to N86.50 and in case that does not sell we should go into negotiation with government on the issue of national minimum wage, palliative for Nigerians and proper constitution of the Petroleum Product Pricing and Regulatory Agency, PPPRA to monitor the template for distribution the product from the depots to the retail outlets and to extract a commitment from government that they would be sustainability in the distribution and supply to Nigerians. On the other hand our colleagues in the NLC had one mandate which is go and revert the pump price to N86.50, so when we go to negotiation we try to harmonise, but the federal government team presented us with facts and figures of the matter.
The government team said it was practically impossible to revert to N86.50 why because at the N86.50 the federal government was only able to satisfy only 50 percent of the domestic consumption and that is why we were still having queues. So, they present two options- one to involve the private sector (independent marketers) to compliment the other 50 percent or whatever the government generated from the sale of crude, will not go to the federation account, but the NNPC will hold it by way of buying the refined product for domestic consumption and when that happens the three tiers of government will suffer it because the amount that will get to them would not be enough to even pay salaries and that is why in the last federation account meeting what was shared was the least to be shared in the last 16 years and the reason was because they were able to make N550 billion out of which N500 billion was expended on the the importation of petroleum products. The second scenario then emerged. The marketers demanded for dollar to enable them import the product, again the government said there was no enough dollar. Government then offer to allow them source for dollar at the inter bank rate of N285 per dollar as against the black market rate of over N300 and when they import they should sell not above N145 to enable them make marginal gains. But even before we got to this stage, government was ready to allow NNPC and affiliate marketers to sell at N110 and independent marketers at N145, but again the queues would not disappear as people will prefer to buy at NNPC stations. They also observed that the gap would produce billionaires overnight including NNPC staff who would get allocation at N110 and sell at N145. The marketers advised government to narrow the gap and we arrived at N135 for NNPC and N145 by independent marketers. With this position we saw reasons and instead of remaining dogma, we opted for negotiation on how we can move forward. As Trade Union federation, we are concern about our members’ welfare and conscious not to make government to collapse and that was why we opted for dialogue.
So, what are the issues you brought forward for discussion, hence the increase is affecting every sector of the Nigeria economy including the poor man in the village?
One, we agreed with government that a tripartite body will be set up to address the issue of minimum wage and this will start and end within the next six months. Two, a technical committee involving all the relevant stakeholders to sit and look into the issue of palliatives to cushion the effects of the increase for Nigerians and workers in particular. Three, we agreed that within two weeks the federal government should set up the board of PPPRA and that all refineries must be brought to life and enabling environment provided for modular refineries around the existing refineries. These modular refineries would go along way in to help in the supply of our local consumption need. This has been the position of TUC. The agreements we reached with government and the decisions we took not to embark on strike, we believe is in the best interest of the system and Nigeria, because we don’t want the system to collapse. But Nigerians must understand that the two unions, TUC and NLC have their different NEC and when they take decisions, Nigerians should respect their positions. TUC respects the decision of NLC and NLC equally respect the position of TUC. We believe that soon the NLC will review their position and we will certainly be on the same page.
The strength of the organised labour is in their unity. Don’t you think the separate position taken by TUC and NLC will weaken labour bargaining power?
Yes right from the beginning, we even took divergent views and we were frank with ourselves. We said this is the mandate of my NEC and I came with two alternatives. NLC said, look this is the mandate of my NEC, I only come with one alternative. And globally, in collective bargaining when you are sitting at the negotiation table, you come with the spirit of give and take, so we leave that to Nigerians to judge. As for frosty relationship between TUC and NLC no! We have understanding among ourselves. We discussed our positions behind the scene and we promised to respect each other’s position. But that does not mean, when there is another issue that affect us we will not work together. To me, it’s a learning process and we will come out stronger than ever before.
So, in other words, strike was not an option for TUC right from the beginning?
Strike was an option, but like I said, the thing is, the moment you are invited for dialogue, that is negotiation and you don’t come to negotiation table with one option. If you have one option then you don’t come to negotiation table. Stay over there and read out your option and when the other party is ready to meet your demand then you talk. Can there be progress? We went to the negotiation table with two strategies with strike at the extreme end and when we discovered that strike will collapse the economy, we opted for negotiation because if we do, in the next two months there would not be enough money to share at the federation account. Our refineries as there are cannot produce more than 30 percent of our consumption need and we cannot be deceiving ourselves. TUC as Union have a cream la cream of experts in the energy sector. PENGASSAN one of our affiliates knows everything that is happening in the sector and they brief us accordingly, so we know what is good for Nigerians at the moment as far as the issue at hand is concerned. We understand the workings of the industry and that is why we went to the negotiation table with options. And in union negotiation it’s a win win situation, that is the spirit of give and take.
You said you are going in for negotiation on the increment in the National minimum wage, what are you putting on the table?
The issue of minimum wage has to involve the state governors, ALGON, TUC, NLC and other relevant stakeholders, government has already written us to send our representatives and soon discussion on the issue will commence. We are proposing N56,000. Remember at the negotiation during the last minimum wage increase, we proposed N52,000 and we got N18,000. Today, Edo state without bargain has increase the minimum wage in the state to N25,000. Edo is a state in Nigeria and if Edo can pay N25,000 minimum wage, then other states too can pay. No state in Nigeria, apart from the old generation states was created without a memorandum of understanding that their internally generated revenue, (IGR) can pay the salaries of their workers, so state governors have to look inward and see how they can fix their problems. They collected bailout twice from the federal government in less than one year, and some cannot still pay salaries. We are going to monitor them closely to see how they dispense the monies they collected as bail out. We are going to be watch dog, helping the EFCC and ICPC to monitor them.
Many Nigerians accused the federal government of not creating awareness before the sudden increase. How do you react to this?
We share this sentiment too, but when we got to the meeting, the government team told us that government herself underestimated the magnitude of the problem until they have to dip hand in the federation account to ensure availability of fuel and the state governors started kicking. If we were insensitive we would have insisted on the N86.50 and then in June, our members in local, state and even federal government would not have gotten their salaries, so which one is the worse scenario? And it was very very clear with the figures and the situation presented to us that, that was where we were heading to. Again, I want to give it to Nigerians to judge which way they would have taken if they were in our shoes.
In a matter of weeks from today, you will be going in for a delegate conference. Why do you think your members should trust you with another mandate and what would you do differently if re-elected?
First, I want to thank you very much, the Mirror correspondent for raising this issue. You know, we nearly experience what our counterpart in the NLC is facing, but quickly I woo my colleagues back and TUC is moving as one. This is one of my achievements. And because of the unity in TUC, I am happy to announce to you that the forthcoming election, the delegate conference of TUC which is holding on the 2nd and 3rd of next month I am going in for the position of President unopposed. Two, in trade unionism, training and retraining is key especially in this era where we want to move from table payment to the era of using our brains. I have trained and retrained my members and affiliates more than 1,700; never in the history of the union that this has been done. Our members are today better informed and when we take our position it’s always an informed decision. Our head office is still in Abuja, but when I come on board, I set up a liason office in Abuja which is today very functional. We also have a functional transport company that shuttle our staff to and from their work places to reduce their hardships. TUC has also gone into an MoU with a developer to deliver affordable housing for members. We are developing 20,000 housing units for our members in Abuja. We also signed a joint MoU comprising Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria, TUC, NLC and employers Association and we have delivered houses through the scheme in Abuja, Niger, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Enugu and Taraba and that of Lagos is still ongoing. We engage government on issues of national development, we make sure our voices are heard on issues of national interest. We defended adequately the welfare of our members, ensure periodic promotion of our members with their entitlements paid and so on. These and many more have been some of our achievements and we will consolidate on these achievements and bring innovations in TUC in our second tenure. God’s willing we will take TUC to next level.