Opinion: Time for Nwogwugwu to rethink Labour

by Issa Aremu

Let us put paid to an entrenched prejudice and unhelpful managerialism in which we reduce complex issue of development to mere numbers, not the people. Can we for once consider the plight of that person suddenly and arbitrarily retrenched?

Missing some points when challenged by an ill- informed policy advice may certainly not be as bad as hysterically alluded by Ijeoma Nwogwugwu’s  ‘NLC Keeps Missing the  Point’ in her regular informative BEHIND THE FIGURES of December 17, 2012. Slashing the workforce by 50 per cent (some awesome statistical mass murder of public sector jobs!) credited to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governor, Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, is in itself an off-point policy advice.  Having the courage to be counted against such a dangerous policy advice as the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) did was certainly preferred than an artful dogging of the real points as Nwogwugwu consistently does with respect to labour market issues.

The new narrative fad is cutting the costs of governance. But lest we forget; what we voted for (assuming votes counted) are not reduction in costs of governance but the promised benefits of governance which include wealth creation and job creation not jobs destruction. Even at that, the numbers must include the maintenance costs of our governors inclusive of the costs of unelected CBN governors, costs of cronyism; legislators and other political office holders in general.  Against the backdrop of Nigeria’s tip-of- the -pyramid prohibitive costs, it is diversionary to promote a one sided notion of “too many public servants” or argue for so-called “slim” and “trim” workforce.

Behind many official figures in Nigeria are many false assumptions, one of which falsely holds that labour is just a cost item with no benefit or value addition whatsoever.  The point cannot be overstated; labour remains a critical factor for wealth generation. Nigeria cannot be part of leading 20 economies in year God-knows-when with miserably paid workforce during and after work. As a unionist, I readily agree that we must interrogate the value adding activities of the country’s labour force. There is certainly room for productivity improvement. But we must first share the globally accepted principle that labour creates wealth.

Let us put paid to an entrenched prejudice and unhelpful managerialism in which we reduce complex issue of development to mere numbers, not the people. For those with business school orientation, obsessed as usual with numbers, 50 per cent cut in jobs is just another number in the art of balancing books. But can we for once consider the plight of that person suddenly and arbitrarily retrenched?  If he or she is the breadwinner, it is clear then that the family support collapses.  Food may be difficult to find to feed the children with all the implications for malnutrition.  Some kids may be withdrawn from school on account of non-payment of school fees, while during Maulud or Easter, cloth will necessarily elude them. Pray the family is not sick either.  Since the breadwinner cannot meet expectation, depression logically replaces love within the household.

The options before retrenched men and women in a society without social security like Nigeria are therefore better imagined. Fourteen per cent unemployment rate in Tunisia triggered the Arab spring in 2010 from which most Arab nations are yet to recover. With Nigeria’s existing 50 per cent open unemployment, additional retrenchment and job losses take us closer to generalised chaos of Afghanistan. Official hesitation must precede mass termination otherwise we further deepen the existing social dislocation, called national insecurity. The knowledge and appreciation of the dire economic consequences of joblessness must temper the current fashionable business school mantra of “slim” workforce.

Another false assumption rests on the fake Berlin wall erected between recurrent and capital as if they are mutually exclusive.  Nwogwugwu promotes the same unhelpful binary discourse. According to her, “it is rather ironic that everyone agrees on the need to divert more resources to infrastructure development for electricity, roads, water, refineries, etc, but few acknowledge that one of the major impediments to this is the size of the Federal Government’s wage bill”.

The wage of public civil servants is a relatively small faction of the so called recurrent budget. Interestingly, she rightly accepts that the recurrent spending comprises not just wage bill but the so-called overheads of political appointees, service wide votes and debt-service payments totalling some N3.031 trillion last year. It is unacceptable to romanticise capital spending and demonise un-disaggregated recurrent spending. With the great transformation of countries like Korea, India and China, development literature has long recognised the primacy if human capital (note; human capital!) in emerging economies. It is a false received wisdom that the more the capital expenditure, the more development while high recurrent spending leads to stagnation and underdevelopment.

In the real world of nation-building, both recurrent spending and capital expenditure are complementary not competitive variables. We must be back to balance; if Nigeria must get out of underdevelopment. With the crisis of human capital at hand, it is time we invested more on human capital. Grossly under-capitalised human resources are capable of vandalising pipelines, even dare suicidal armed insurgencies (witness most recent Niger militants and ongoing Boko Haram saga). We cannot build schools without teachers nor can there be teachers without schools.

Roads are built and supervised by work force, while workers cannot get to work without good roads. Good governance calls for appropriate mix of both recurrent and capital expenditure. In any case, the real issue is the quality of spending not necessarily quantum of an item. Whence the value for the relatively small capital expenditure given the open robbery called corruption and abysmal capital flight of unimaginable proportions? Policy thinkers must get out of the box, rethink labour and workers in general; task labour like other critical success factors on development through mass engagement not through retrenchment and whimsical jobs cut.

One of the objectives of CBN is full employment. CBN under Sanusi Lamido through development financing has creatively promoted intervention funds in automobile, aviation, textile and agriculture with an eye on wealth generation and job retention. That is the commendable way to go. The challenge is how to make sure that marginal productivity of labour equals the wage income but workers must be at work in the first place. What Nigeria needs is not a lean or big government but government that delivers goods and services by productive work force.

To meet the eight millennium development goals in three years’ time (eradicating illiteracy, poverty, promote human dignity, achieve peace, and environmental sustainability in the 21st century), we need more teachers and medical workers among others.  The spectre of “cost-saving devices” must hunt elsewhere; public debts and attendant prohibitive interest rates, bloated executive pay, public theft including wage and pension theft, public and private corporate fraud and endless examples of profound mismanagement and sheer corporate criminality.

Economic recovery will elude Nigeria until it stops treating labour at arm’s length. President Woodrow Wilson of United States once said: ‘the great struggling unknown masses of the men who are at the base of everything are the dynamic force that is lifting the levels of society. A nation is as great, and only as great, as her rank and file’. Similarly, Vice- President Walter Fredrick Mondale under Cater Administration (1977-1981) remarked that ‘we have the most wealth of any nation because our workers have the skill to create it. We have the best products because they know how to make them. We have the most democratic system because of the values our trade unions have to sustain it’. Whence the quotable quotes of our leaders underscoring the significance of workers and their organisations in the nation’s development?


Issa Aremu is the Vice-President, NLC


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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