ORGANISE, MOBILISE AND FIGHT BACK!
Against all Attempts to Make Workers, Youth and Poor Pay for COVID-19 Crisis
Although originally a health emergency, there is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is going to be used as an excuse by the President Buhari All Progressive Congress (APC) government, state governments and private employers to launch attacks on jobs, wages and living conditions. A rash of policy measures is already being packaged. The fundamental agenda is to make workers and the poor pay for production losses suffered by the bosses during the lockdown and the impact of the fall in crude oil price on the overall economy.
By H.T. Soweto
The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) calls on workers, the poor masses, activists and trade union leaders to reject this. Any attempt to make workers and poor pay must be met with mass mobilisation and stiff resistance. Workers and the poor did not create the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated economic crisis.
While it is true that the virus can infect anyone whether rich or poor, the truth however is that workers and the poor masses have been more brutally affected by the pandemic. Many lost their jobs and livelihood during the lockdown. Some have lost their lives either due to banditry or inability to access healthcare during the lockdown. Millions suffered hunger and deprivation as the much-vaunted palliatives did not get to those who need it.
In addition, workers on the frontline like doctors, nurses, laboratory scientists, fumigators, cleaners and drivers have had to issue strike threats before getting any minimal improvement in pay and working conditions. So far about 812 frontline health workers have been infected by the virus because of inadequate PPE. At iSON Xperience, a customer centre and care outfit in Ibadan, Oyo state, about 57 workers were infected in May. Unless the trade union movement fight seriously for workers’ protection, many more workers are set to be infected because of the inadequate provision of face masks, hand sanitisers and observance of social distancing rules at bus stops, factories and workplaces across the country since the easing of lockdown.
Also, the impact of the pandemic on the economy has disproportionately affected the informal sector made up of 40 million small, often one person, businesses or casual work which provides about 40 percent of jobs – mostly precarious and low paid. This also includes farmers and those engaged in agricultural value chain. Many have been plunged into debt. In short, the pandemic and the lockdown have already wreaked untold havoc in the lives and livelihood of millions. Any new attack, if not resisted, will drag the working class into a new depth of poverty.
AVALANCHE OF NEW ATTACKS
In addition to the above as the capitalist elite, faced with a new crisis in their system, are planning new attacks, it is essential and urgent for the workers’ movement, students’ movement and the community movements to begin to plan and prepare their line of defence.
Even before the 5-week lockdown of Lagos, Ogun and FCT was over, the signs of the coming catastrophe had begun to take shape. In a survey carried out by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), 42% of respondents who were working before the pandemic confirmed they had lost their jobs. Similarly, 79% reported significant decrease in their household income. These include teachers in private schools, hotel and hospitality workers, aviation staff, workers in non-essential industries and the commerce sector where the survey found that 14 percent respondents, equivalent to 60% of all those working in the sector prior to the pandemic, had stopped working. Now with Nigeria’s economy expected to contract by between 4.4 percent and 8.91 percent this year, it is very clear that the catastrophe is only just starting. This is even as the pandemic is yet to near a peak.
NEW ERA OF UNPAID WAGES AND MASS RETRENCHMENT
As we write, a freeze on employment in federal agencies, ministries and departments has been announced. This is likely to be followed by mass retrenchment under the guise of implementing the “Oronsaye report”. In Kaduna State, workers’ wages have been reduced by 25% as mandatory COVID-19 contribution fund.
A new era of unpaid wages looms as many states are likely to begin to default on monthly wage and pension payment due to reduction of federal allocations. This would mean that the N30,000 national minimum wage will be rarely paid.
In a way, we face a rehash of the situation four years ago when the economy hit a recession due to the crash in crude oil price and the profligate spending of the ruling elite. In that period, the government at all levels carried out vicious attacks on workers conditions. Wages and pension were not paid as at when due in many states and deep cuts were implemented in funding to sectors like public education and healthcare. This was in spite of a huge borrowing plan which enabled the federal government in the same period to carry out some large scale constructions and limited social welfare programmes like the youth employment scheme, school feeding and conditional cash transfer. The Federal Government also offered bailouts to states to pay wages and pension.
In the context of today when the federal government indebtedness is high with debt servicing at 60 percent of revenue and crude oil prices are once again down, there may be little chance to offer the same credit facility. But even if it does, the profligacy of the ruling elite will mean that a major percentage of the bailout will be stolen. This was the case in the period following the 2016 recession when a similar credit facility was offered. The pandemic will also be used as an excuse by state governments to stop the start or continuation of many physical projects like roads, bridges and rail construction, construction of drainages, housing estate, markets and abattoirs. This will further squeeze the construction sector forcing more shedding of jobs.
In addition, cuts of about N320 billion in the 2020 federal budget have been announced. This translates to 42 percent cut in the funding of Universal Basic Education (UBE) and a 54 percent cut in that of healthcare. This inspite of the fact that the country is in the middle of health and education emergencies! Yet untouched by any cut is the plan to spend N9billion to renovate the National Assembly complex as well as other votes for the opulence of the capitalist political office holders. Apart from many new and ongoing physical projects in educational institutions whose funding may be affected, this cut will most likely provoke fee hike at public universities, polytechnics and colleges of education. Urgently, there is a need for a plan of struggle in the education and health sector. The students’ movement especially, whose leadership at national and local levels, except in few instances, are dominated by pro-government elements, needs to be rebuilt as a democratic mass platform to be able to lead a serious fightback.
In the private sector, jobs are already being lost and wages under attacks in a number of sectors like aviation, hotel and hospitality, banks, services and manufacturing. These are sectors, especially aviation, where the bosses made enormous profit in the past period without any significant rise in wages and improvement of conditions. But with the onset of the crisis, workers are to be squeezed in order to guarantee the profit and opulence of the rich owners and shareholders. According to the Lagos Chamber of Commerce (LCCI), 83 percent of businesses are planning to cut down salaries, downsize workforce or implement a combination of both measures to stay afloat.
In this respect, some local airlines have implemented salary cut and a host of other anti-worker policies. For instance, Arik air implemented an 80% pay cut for its workers in April while asking 90 percent of its 1, 800 workers to proceed on leave without pay from May 1st until further notice. Similarly, the Turkish airline slashed its senior workers’ salaries by 55 percent, paid junior workers 70 percent of their wage while relieving some workers of their duties and asking some to embark on unpaid leave till further notice. Now as additional measures, indication has emerged that aviation industry operators are considering reducing in-flight services like meals during local flights. This if implemented will lead to job losses in small and medium scale enterprises that supply water, drinks, pastries and other food items for airlines. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts a loss of at least 91,380 jobs in Nigeria’s aviation industry (www.stearsng.com).
Similar attack on jobs and conditions exist at Dura Pack, a Chinese company notorious for its anti-labour practices. Workers have reported how they were paid a fraction of wages in the month of April and May. This has provoked a protest and strike. Dangote Cement Plc sacked 3,000 workers ostensibly to replace the same workforce on a lower wage. The cumulative result of all these would be a significant rise in the unemployment rate which stood at 23.1 percent as at 2018 (the last time unemployment data was collated!), with youth employment at 36.5%, in 2019. This translates to roughly about 20 million unemployed people.
On top of this, young people will be particularly hit. At the best of times, Nigeria needs over 2 million additional jobs every year just to provide work for its expanding population. Now, in a situation of crisis, this seems totally utopian. Youth, estimated at over one-third of the Nigerian population, need the offer of a future. What is needed is both for the youth to organise and for Labour to offer joint struggle to defend existing jobs and fight for secure work for the unemployed, semi-employed and the youth.
OTHER ANTI-POOR ATTACKS
On top of high inflation, there are plans to increase electricity tariff to a cost-reflective plan meant to take off by April 1st 2020 which have now been postponed till next year. However, a majority of people continue to pay estimated bills. Fuel price which went down to N123 per litre has now gone up to between N140 to N143 per litre within two months. Together with this is imposition of stamp duty as well as other revenue-chasing measures which has further compound the woes of the working people.
Except the working class puts itself at the head of all other oppressed layers and begin to organise to fight back, a rehash of the period following 2016 recession impends but this time with more disastrous consequences. This is because compared to 2016; Nigeria faces the possibility of a deeper recession. In 2016, the economy contracted by 1.5 percent compared to a scenario of between 4.4 percent and 8.91 percent contraction now being projected for 2020. Meanwhile, since the economy came out of recession in 2017, Nigeria has grown by an average of 2 percent – a rather sluggish growth compared to 6.3 percent in 2014. Also, Nigeria will be facing this turbulence in context of the global economy entering a deeper and longer period of instability and crisis. This would mean an era of great turmoil for capitalism both economically and politically.
FOR “A COVID-19 WORKERS ASSEMBLY” TO PLAN ACTIONS
Strike notices are being issued by doctors, aviation staff and other categories of workers. A nationwide strike of resident doctors has held. In the education sector, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has been on strike for months. Other unions in the sector are already discussing plans to join. Almost every week, new disputes are declared in some sectors. This is aside many workers spontaneous actions taking place and without media coverage. Clearly, the working class will not take another attack on its condition without a fight. It is now essential to unite these struggles together and turn them from scattered actions into a huge movement backed by the entire class and capable of winning victory.
Therefore, the DSM calls on the leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the United Labour Congress (ULC) to, as a matter of urgency, convene a “COVID-19 Workers Assembly”. This assembly should be made up of trade unionists drawn from all union affiliates and rank and file workers elected from workplaces, socialists, activists and members of all pro-masses organisations like the Joint Action Front (JAF), students’ movement, unions/organisations representing informal sector workers and community groups for a discussion about how to combat the looming attacks on the welfare of workers and the poor masses.
The objective of the “COVID-19 workers assembly” will be, after a democratic discussion, to draw out a “COVID-19 workers charter” which would lay before the government and employers cardinal demands on wages, jobs, protection, collective bargaining agreements and work conditions uniting and binding all workers across all sectors into a huge army of struggle. Find on the back page a model Workers Charter that the DSM is proposing for the labour movement to be able to fight effectively to defend workers interests at this perilous period. This must also be backed by a plan of action involving press campaign, mass leafletting, rallies, series of 24hour or 48hour general strikes and demonstrations.
BUILD FROM BELOW
Given the still formidable strength of the labour movement despite its loss of appeal, we have no doubt that this kind of “Workers Assembly” can be convened and mobilised for in a matter of weeks. This will be more the case if the labour leadership is able to demonstrate that this time they are serious, they have no illusion in capitalism and are not going to abandon workers halfway in exchange for rotten compromises. If the labour leadership does not give a lead, there is the danger that other forces can exploit workers and poor people’s anger. This can lead to an explosion of religious and ethnic clashes as economic hardship bites harder.
However where the central labour leadership does not want to act or foot-drags, the DSM calls on workers and trade union activists to on their own organise and strive to campaign for this “Workers Assembly” in the workplaces and work actively to get their local unions to endorse it and mobilise for it. Socialists will enthusiastically support and participate in such initiative. Posters and leaflets calling for the convening of this assembly can be produced and circulated across workplaces with a view to get workers and trade unionists to sign a petition endorsing it. Mass meetings can be called at workplaces and communities where workers are concentrated to address workers and get their support for the assembly. In a period like this, such a bold initiative built from below can gather enormous support and compel the central labour leadership to either act in accordance with the will of workers or step aside.
In a period when capitalism faces one of its greatest crises since the 1929 Great Depression, only a workers movement led on the basis of clear Marxist ideas and programmes can consistently defend workers interests and ensure that struggle leads to a fundamental transformation of society. Therefore one of the key tasks of the current period is for trade union activists and workers to step up the fight to rebuild the labour movement as democratic, mass fighting platforms with a Marxist leadership.
FOR SOCIALIST CHANGE
What the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated is that the capitalist system is incapable of guaranteeing the lives, health and survival of humanity. At its infant stage in the 17th and 18th centuries when it replaced feudalism, the capitalist system was, in one sense, progressive. Despite the immense suffering capitalism inflicted in its “primitive stage” its emergence revolutionised commodity production and brought potential progress to humanity through the development and the application of science and technology to support human existence.
Now in the age of its decline and despite the avalanche of scientific and technological capacities, the capitalist system is unable to guarantee quality, accessible and free health care. The ravages of coronavirus which has infected millions and killed hundreds of thousand across the globe is an irrefutable evidence of this. This is because of the domination of the health care sector and the pharmaceutical industry by profit-motive.
Now as society begins to creep out of lockdown across the world, capitalism is unable to guarantee jobs, wages and sustenance for those who have so far managed to survive the virus. A race to the bottom is the lot of the world working class while the capitalist classes as a whole continue to increase its wealth. Any Keynesian measure introduced by the capitalist government will only bring temporary relief. It will not fundamentally alter the central logic of the profit system which is that the working class is always made to pay for the crisis one way or the other.
For instance, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has floated a N50 billion loan scheme to assist households and businesses affected by COVID-19. Also, there is a N2.3 trillion economic stimulus package newly approved by the National Assembly. While workers must fight for the implementation of any progressive measures that can lighten our burden, no illusion should be invested in them. The capitalist system always gives with one hand what it will take back with the other. Only a mass revolutionary movement that brings to power a workers and poor people’s government armed with socialist policies of public ownership of the economy under democratic workers control can begin to reverse the crisis and save the working class from catastrophe.
The two major parties of capitalism, the All Progressive Congress (APC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and others like them, have no answer to the current crisis except to launch more attacks on the working people and the poor. This is why it is essential that alongside a plan for mass struggle, all those who are fed up with the condition of mass misery in the midst of plenty and are seeking a way out should join the Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN) – a party formed by the DSM in alliance with workers and youth activists as an alternative to the political parties of the rich whose rule over the last two decades have brought us only poverty, unemployment and mass misery.