By G9ija

Organised labour on Tuesday demanded measures to cushion the effect on workers of the increase in petrol price and the hike in electricity tariffs.

They told the government that the new price regime had choked workers and that the gains recovered with last year’s raised minimum wage had been eroded.

Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) Preasident Ayuba Wabba and Trade Union Congress (TUC) President Quadri Olaleye, led others to a meeting yesterday with Federal Government officials led by Minister of Labour Chris Ngige on the issues.

Wabba accused the government of “unilaterally” fixing prices of electricity and petrol without consultations with Nigerians.

The NLC President said many Nigerians are struggling to survive because of the high cost of living caused by the government’s recent policies which included the increase, earlier in the year, of Value Added Tax (VAT) from five percent to 7.5 per cent.

Those with Ngige at the dialogue which held at the Banquet Hall of the Presidential Villa, Abuja were  Minister of State Labour and Employment Festus Keyamo; Minister of Power, Saleh Mamman; Minister of Works and Housing Babatunde Fashola and Minister of State for Petroleum Timipre Sylva.

Also in the labour team were Secretary General of TUC Musa Ozigi-Lawal, Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria President Festus Osifo and President of Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Association of Nigeria Williams Akporeha.

Wabba added: “The question now is what do you have on the table to actually cushion the effect on workers and their families because they have been pushed to the wall. They are already enraged. Do you have anything for us so that we can say yes, despite this challenges, this is what I have for Nigerian workers to cushion this effect for them?

“Already, the value of the minimum wage has been eroded. The purchasing power parity, when you compare with other West African countries, we are already on the ground. That is the reality. If Ghana compares their minimum wage with our own, you will see the difference.”

He accused the federal government of transferring the “inefficiency in the subsidy regime” to the consumers which they (consumers) have to pay through hike in price.

The NLC president urged the government to fix the nation’s refinery and stop lining the pockets of some people through a fraudulent subsidy regime.

Wabba said: “I agree with Mr. President that subsidy is a fraud but do we address it or transfer it to the customers? That is where the issue is. We don’t need to transfer it to the customers.

“We have increased VAT, we have increased some taxes, we have increased now the fuel price and the tariff on electricity. An ordinary worker can’t pay those charges. In fact, higher level officers are complaining seriously. This is the predicament we are in.

“Therefore let us also look for solutions. How do we mitigate this impact which is very pronounced on workers.

“Any time you increase the cost of petroleum product and electricity tariff they will transfer the cost to the consumer and the cost of goods and services will go up.

What we need to do is to protect these vulnerable group of people – the workers and the citizens.”

TUC President Olaleye asked the government to reverse the new rate and tariffs which have been biting Nigerians hard.

The TUC president said: “Nigerian workers are crying and the populace are also crying. Last December, we were so happy when we signed the minimum wage agreement and Nigerian workers were happy. Unfortunately now, they are crying. By calculation, we are losing additional 15 per cent of what we gained from signing the minimum wage.

“Somebody who is paid N6,666 as increment is now losing not less than N25, 000 from his income. The N6, 666 has gone and additional N15, 000 is added.

“Let us remove the effect of COVID -19. For our leaders and representatives, nothing has changed. We have not been able to discuss labour matters since February all in the name of COVID -19. But people that are signing budget, people that are sharing money on a daily basis, they meet either on Zoom or physically. They meet and share those money but when it comes to labour matter, we then remember that there is COVID -19.

“The questions our members are asking is that does it really means that the politicians represent the rich people in this country? Does it mean it is only labour that represents the poor people? Does it mean when we have economic predicament that is when we call Nigerians that we want to hear from them but when we have surpluses we hear nothing about it.

“I cannot remember any time in this country that we had surplus and Nigerian workers felt it on their palms or in their pockets but when we have predicaments, especially crude oil crash, then labour will be called upon, let us see how we can rescue the economy.”

Sylva said the federal government was yet to begin the full deregulation of the downstream sector because of the desire of President Buhari not to inflict pains on the masses.

The minister said the landing cost of petrol is N163 but it is sold for N161 per litre and below, which indicated that full deregulation wasyet to take-off.

He said going by the current exchange rate, the pump price could increase to N183 per litre.

He reiterated that the federal government spent N10.4 trillion on petrol subsidy between 2016 and 2019.

The minister also said the country lost N1 billion daily to fuel subsidy between 2016-2019.

He added that the economy is in bad shape because of the crash of crude oil prices globally.

“We have not fully deregulated because of the concerns government has for Nigerians. Price of fuel could go up to N183 going by the current rate of the dollar. We need to open up the economy even though the initial stage may bring pains to Nigerians.

“Subsidy was not sustainable. Some of the past governments didn’t have the political will to remove it.

“We know that the rise in prices will bring some pains to Nigerians. We are the first to admit that. We have thought of alternatives.”

Ngige said two separate committees would be set up by the government to look at the issues of petrol and electricity hikes.

The meeting agreed that the NLC, and TUC go back and consult with its members.

It also agreed that the outcome of the consultations by the two unions be communicated back to the government with a view to rescheduling another meeting at a later date.

Ngige said: “We are all aware of how the world is suffering from the negative socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

”We are faced with the new normal way to survive as human species and can only hope to build back a better society that would sustain us and aid us in our quest for recovery, both physically and structurally.

“To achieve success, we need all hands on deck. We need transparency in action and effective and efficient communication between the government and the people, particularly labour, a vital arm in the means of production,” he said.

Ngige called for understanding to forge a social pact or social conversation to enable the country to reconcile the economic growth and the realisation of a sustainable development built on social cohesion.