AGF cautions on breach of court order as nationwide strike begins

 The last-minute move to avert the indefinite  strike action called by the Nigeria Labour Congress ( NLC), Trade Union Congress(TUC) and the affiliate bodies, failed Sunday, as the National Assembly-led truce could not achieve the desired truce.

To this end, the industrial action begins Monday June 3, 2024, even as the federal government declared it illegal and warned the leadership of the unions of dire consequences for violating a subsisting court order, which has neither been stayed nor vacated.

At the meeting were Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) Senator George Akume, Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy  Wale Edun , Minister of  Budget and National Planning Senator Atiku Bagudu, Minister  of  Power , Adebayo Adelabu, Minister of Information and National Orientation Mohammed Idris, NLC President  Comrade Joe Ajaero and his TUC counterpart, Festus Osifo among others.

But notwithstanding the federal government’s warning, the Labour has vowed to carry out the strike as it directed all state councils of the unions to ensure total compliance.

The action has also enjoyed the support of unions in the oil, electricity, financial and other critical sectors, who all pledged their total support.

The strike notice

Last Friday, the duo of NLC and TUC announced an indefinite nationwide strike over the government’s failure to agree on a new national minimum wage and reverse the recent hike in electricity tariff.

Their leaders, had, on Workers Day, celebrations given a May 31 deadline to the federal government to wrap up talks on a new national minimum wage or risk nationwide industrial action.

The tripartite committee on a new National Minimum Wage set up by the government, failed to make a decision on a new national minimum wage after about four meetings.

Labour leaders had walked out of the meetings three times after rejecting offers by the government and that of the Organised Private Sector (OPS).

Incidentally, the last walkout occurred Friday, a day the deadline labour gave the government to conclude a new minimum wage lapsed, as the old minimum wage of N30, 000 signed into law by former President Muhammad Buhari  April 18, 2019, expired April 18, 2024.

It would be recalled that labour, had May 31, walked out of the tripartite meeting, following the government’s refusal to make a new offer beyond the N60,000 the latter had put forward as against the N615,000 demanded by labour.

…Akpabio, Abbas, Idris speak

Briefing journalists after the end of the meeting, Senate President  Godswill Akpabio said tremendous appeal was made to the Labour leaders to call off the strike as the National Assembly steps into the matter directly with President Bola Ahmed Tinubu. 

“After about four hours deliberation with leadership of the Organized Labour, we resolved that the federal government should re-introduce the wage Award of N35, 000 given to all categories of federal workers from October last year to February this year , pending the time the issue of minimum wage is resolved.

“We have appealed to the organized labour to shelve the strike action because of the consequences and collateral damage involved. For example, we cannot at this time allow hospitals to be shut down to save the lives of those on emergencies or aided by oxygen to breath.

“We are very much aware of all the steps taken by the Federal Government and Labour to agree on acceptable minimum wage and very much ready to join in the negotiation by reaching out to President Bola Tinubu. 

“We believe that leadership of the organized labour after leaving here, will reach out to their entire membership to call of the strike in the interest of all Nigerians.”

Similarly, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon Tajudeen Abbas, said:” The  take-home  from the meeting were that the federal government would be prevailed upon to re- introduce the N35, 000 wage award pending the time agreement on minimum wage is reached between it and the labour unions.

“That leadership of both the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) should go and consult with their members  on the need to quickly call off the strike in the interest of Nigeria and Nigerians.”

Also, the information minister, Alhaji Idris, expressed optimism that labour would call off the strike as soon as possible, based on appeal made to them by the leadership of the National Assembly. 

He said: “Federal government is more than willing to pay its workforce , living minimum wage but the N494,000 demanded for by labour is too  high with attendant N9.5trillion additional financial burden.

“In as much as the federal government wants to improve the welfare and wellbeing of her 1.2million workers, it is also very mindful of the welfare and wellbeing of the remaining 200million people.

“Nigeria cannot afford strike action now. The leadership of the labour union should please reason with government and appeal made to it by leaders of the National Assembly.”

…AGF cautions on breach

In all of this, Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice Prince Lateef Fagbemi, SAN, Sunday, warned against fresh calls for industrial action by the organised labour, saying such a move is in conflict with previous court orders.

In a statement made available to newsmen, the AGF described the latest move as premature, ineffectual and illegal.

The Justice Minister drew the attention of the organized labour to Sections 41(1) and 42(1) of the Trade Disputes Act 2004 (as amended), which require both the Nigeria Labour Congress(NLC) and the Trade Union Congress(TUC) to issue mandatory strike notices of a minimum of 15 days.

The alleged issuance of an ultimatum to the government by Labour for the conclusion of negotiations before 31st of May 2024, he noted, did not satisfy the requirement of issuing a categorical and unequivocal formal notice of strike action.

The minister stated further that the proposed strike action was also at variance with the order of the National Industrial Court and ongoing mediators’ settlement efforts over issues connected with the subject matter of the order.

The leadership of the NLC and TUC had on the 31st May 2024, declared that an indefinite nation-wide strike action would commence on the 3rd June 2024 if their demands were not met.

The AGF noted: “You are aware that the Federal and State Governments are not the only employers to be bound by a new national minimum wage.

“Hence, it is vital to balance the interest and capacity of all employers of labour in the country (inclusive of organized private sector) in order to determine a minimum wage for the generality of the working population.”

The AGF further argued that at no time did either NLC or TUC declare a trade dispute with their employers, or issue any strike notice as required by law for such strike action to be legitimate and lawful.

“It is not in doubt that the fundamental importance of the 15-day notice is underscored by the fact that Sections 41 & 42(1) criminalizes non-compliance with this requirement for a valid declaration of strike action.” the AGF added.

The minister then challenged the labour on the legality or legitimacy of the proposed strike action, arguing that both NLC and TUC failed to comply with the statutory condition precedents (dispute resolution procedures) provided for under Section 18(1)(a) of the Trade Disputes Act 2004 (as amended).

He then submitted that the proposed strike action was in breach of relevant conditions itemized under Section 31(6) of the Trade Unions Act (as amended).

He added: “I wish to further draw your attention to the fact that the conditions outlined by our national legislations for exercising the right to strike are in tandem with the International Labour Organisation principles concerning the right to strike.

“It is the position of the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association that the obligation to give prior notice, obligation to have recourse to conciliation, mediation and (voluntary) arbitration procedures in industrial disputes, etc are prior prerequisites for declaring a strike.”

…Pendency of injunctive order

Still on the legality or otherwise of the planned strike action, Fagbemi reminded the organized labour of the pendency of the interim injunctive order granted on 5th June 2023, in suit no: NICN/ABJ/158/2023; Federal Government of Nigerian & Anor V. Nigeria Labour Congress & Anor, which order restrained both Nigeria Labour Congress and Trade Union Congress from embarking on any industrial action/or strike of any nature.

“This order has neither been stayed or set-aside. Therefore, it remains binding on the labour unions,” the AGF said.

Our stand – Labour leaders

However, in his own submission after the meeting, the TUC president, Comrade Osifo, said though the leadership of the National Assembly tried prevailing on us to call off the strike going by assurance given to step into the negotiation, but the strike cannot be called off by them without consulting their various organs. 

“It is difficult and in fact impossible for us as labour leaders, to call off the strike here. We need to communicate with our various organs, meaning that  the industrial action starts on Monday as planned.” 

Speaking along Osifo’s line, a top labour  source told Blueprint that “while the organised labour listened to the plea by the leadership of the National Assembly, it is within the various organs of NLC and TUC who has given the mandate for the strike to suspend same.”

 On the letter by the AGF that labour have not complied with the provision of Trade Dispute Act, the source said: “It is a sad thing that this government is not serious and coordinated.

 “I’m saying this because, the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation should  have been briefed by Minister of Power who ran away when we came to his office that we gave ultimatum that if the tariff increase was not reverpsed to the old one, we would go on strike.

 “Also, the AGF should be aware that Labour had suspended an action in October 2023 for 30 days. And in that agreement signed with government, we insisted that it should be used as a consent judgement which both parties agreed.

“The agreement stated that all the items in that agreement, for instance, the issues of CNG buses, conclusion of minimum wage negotiation, reversal of increase in electricity tariff among others, would be put in place. Which among these has been provided?

 “You should also remember that on May 1st 2024, during the commemoration of May Day, the organized labour issued an ultimatum that by the end of May 2024 if the new minimum wage didn’t come on board, that we will call out our members for action.

 “The records are there for all to see. We have given the government enough notice but they took us for granted. For us, we have given directive to our affiliates for mobilisation which they have done, so the strike goes as planned,” added the top labour source who craved anonymity.

About Taiye Odewale, Kehinde Osasona and Moses John, Abuja 

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