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May Day: We have become poorer, workers lament

By Babatunde Ayedoju

May 1st every year is known as Workers’ Day. It is celebrated globally in commemoration of the achievements of the labour movements. Known as International Workers’ Day or May Day, the event is marked in over 80 countries.

Globally, the origin of Workers’ Day or May Day can be traced to the late 19th century. The first May Day celebration, focused on workers, took place on May 1, 1890, after its proclamation by the first International Congress of Socialist Parties in Europe on July 14, 1889 in Paris, France, to celebrate “Workers Day of International Unity and Solidarity” on May 1 every year.

Earlier in 1884, the American Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions demanded an eight-hour workday, to come in effect by May 1, 1886. The reason was that employees, including many children, were often required to work 12 hours a day, six days a week, in crowded, poorly ventilated spaces. Supervision was harsh and punishments were handed out to those who talked or sang as they worked. This resulted in the general strike and the Haymarket (in Chicago) Riot of 1886, but eventually also in the official approval of the eight-hour workday.

The riots at Haymarket Square in Chicago had begun as peaceful demonstrations over the legal establishment of an eight-hour workday. At a protest rally on May 4, 1890, a bomb was thrown at the police while they tried to disperse the crowd. That led to the deaths of several police officers and some civilians.

Though the eight-hour workday was not fully adopted across America until the 20th century, the events in Chicago inspired similar protests across Europe, establishing May 1 as the day to recognise the rights of workers across the world.

May 1 is celebrated as May Day in many countries across the world. In the United Kingdom and Ireland the holiday is celebrated on the first Monday in May, not necessarily on May 1.

In Nigeria, May Day was first declared a public holiday by the People’s Redemption Party (PRP) government of Kano State in 1980. It became a national holiday on May 1, 1981.

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Labour unions like the Nigerian Labour Congress and Trade Union Congress, among others, have been at the forefront of the celebration of Workers Day in Nigeria. The history of such unions in Nigeria can be traced to the establishment of the Nigerian Civil Service Union in 1912.

This year has proven not to be an exception, as workers gather nationwide to celebrate the only day of the year set aside to honour them. Nevertheless, as we celebrate our workers this year, it is pertinent to look at how Nigerian workers have fared in the last one year, especially since the present administration came on board, looking at the differences that can be noticed in the fate of workers and what to be expected subsequently.

Professor Simon Ehiabhi from the Department of History and International Studies, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, opined that it is too early to examine how workers have fared since the current administration came on board on May 29, last year, adding that the government has implemented a N35,000 wage award for workers, to cushion the effects of fuel subsidy removal on them, and has also promised to announce a minimum wage.

He said, “The economy is very poor because the current administration met a very bad economy, so workers have not been faring well; but I believe the current Government is working on changing the narrative. Until the new minimum wage is implemented, we may not be able to do a proper assessment of the current administration.”

On the other hand, Professor Adedayo Afe, also from the Department of History and International Studies, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, noted that there has been nothing spectacular about the welfare of workers in the last one year, citing the incessant hikes in fuel pump price.

He said, “The only thing we have seen is N35,000 wage award, and not all state governments have paid it. Even the Federal Government owes two months wage award. Meanwhile, the current N30,000 minimum wage cannot cater for the needs of workers. It can’t even buy half a bag of rice.”

Professor Afe said that though the problem predates the current administration, there should have been some improvements by now, because the current government is almost 11 months in office.

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However, he said that with concerted efforts and dialogue between Federal Government and labour, we can change the narrative, adding that people are suffering, not just workers alone.

Dr Kunle Akinola from the Department of Political Science, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, said that workers have been facing hardship in the last one year, a development he blamed largely on the removal of fuel subsidy which took place last year.

His words: “The purchasing power of workers has reduced drastically because prices of goods have increased by over 400 percent within the last one year. Government is yet to agree with labour on new minimum wage. That means in the last one year, Nigerian workers have become poorer. If you check our roads in the country, the number of workers who can drive their cars to work has reduced. The price of petrol has moved from N197 to N600 or N650; you see the increase?

“We run a fuel economy. There is no public transportation, unlike what is obtainable in Europe. Our government says petrol is expensive in Europe, forgetting that you don’t need a car to go to work over there, because there is a subsidised public transport system which makes life easy for commuters. The reverse is the case in Nigeria where you need your car to go to work and travel.”

Dr Akinola further stated that prices of foodstuffs that Nigerian workers used to buy have increased, adding that workers have become so poor a lot of them who were previously ranked as average have become low income earners since the fuel subsidy removal last year.

He said, “Economists would say you don’t need to increase minimum wage immediately fuel subsidy is removed, because it will have an adverse effect on the economy, but I disagree. There is a way to regulate it. Moreso, when purchasing power is low, you are building a desperate society.

The political scientist noted that though Government talks about fighting corruption, the only way to fight corruption is to ensure that people have a take home pay that can foot their bills.

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He said, “This Government has further entrenched capitalism. You removed fuel subsidy and now electricity subsidy. The people are the ones to bear the brunt. Yet, salary remains the same; and it’s a pity that labour is not as active as it should be. They only come out to make statement about minimum wage increase and then become silent. When fuel and electricity subsidies were removed, labour should have been on the neck of the Federal Government to increase minimum wage immediately.”

“It’s a pity we have political leaders who think that good accommodation, good salary and other privileges should be a luxury, but I say that good life is not a luxury; it should be the right of everybody.”

Likewise, the Chairman of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), Ondo State, Comrade Victor Amoko, said that since the removal of fuel subsidy in May 2023, workers have been suffering, creating a need to cushion the effects of the fuel subsidy removal on citizens. The labour leader said that palliative measures such as stable electricity, farm inputs and working refineries would go a long way in easing the pain of the current economy on everybody, adding that despite the fact that dollar is coming down all products are increasing in prices and that is worsening the hardship in the land.

Talking about the much expected new minimum wage, Comrade Amoko said the minimum wage agitation is not because of fuel subsidy removal but because that is what the law says.

His words: “The law says workers’ wage should be reviewed once in five years, and the last review took place in 2019. So, the time is ripe for another review. When the issue of N35,000 wage award first came up, it was based on the understanding that a new minimum wage would be announced within six months, but a new minimum wage has not yet been announced. We will continue to engage the government to ensure that things get better for everyone in Nigeria.”

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