3 December 2012

Nigeria: Rethinking Labour


Mni — Arguably no Nigerian central banker has in recent times promoted development financing with an eye on growing the real sector and ensuring job creation like Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the CBN governor.

The issues are refreshingly familiar by now; critical intervention fund for automobile, agriculture, aviation and textile among others. In the case of textile, United Nigeria Textiles Plc. in Kaduna had since reopened and reengaged over 1500 workers on account of Bank of Industry (CBN) long term intervention fund. CBN, living up to its brief as a lender of last resort initiated a globally acknowledged timely bailout funds of some trillion naira for some five banks (2.6 billion dollars). It is therefore a curious irony that Governor Sanusi would be the one pitched against the organised labour on the question of job retention and job creation to which both the NLC and CBN as institutions to my knowledge share common understanding.

The CBN governor was reported to have called for some 50 per cent downsizing of the country work force. Investigation however reveals that the media embellished the work force alleged story more for sensational value than a serious policy discourse. True to the governor's well known position, he has been consistent in interrogating the costs of governance that include the maintenance costs of governors and legislators and other political office holders in general. But even the "correct version" of the reported work force sack story according to the CBN still raises a conceptual problem of "too many public servants" and the need for so-called "slim" and "trim" work-force.

It is regrettable that labour has been condescendingly treated in our top-down/managerial perception of the economy particularly since the inception of Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) in mid 80s. We often engage in unhelpful binary discourse between recurrent and capital expenditure. It is almost a received wisdom that the more the capital expenditure the more development while high recurrent spending leads to stagnation and underdevelopment. May be. But in the real world of nation building, it is misleading to pitch recurrent spending against capital expenditure. A nation needs the two in equal development proportions. It is not one or the other but both if Nigeria must get out of underdevelopment. You 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. The bane of development crisis in Nigeria is that we have not been having value for public expenditure in general. In the age of deficit financing it is convenient to blame high recurrent spending for all the woes. But are we having value for the relatively small capital expenditure given the open robbery called corruption and abysmal capital flight of unimaginable proportions? I think policy makers must rethink labour and workers in general. Labour well motivated creates wealth. Labour is not just a cost item but value adding assets which we must cultivate for development. The challenge is how to make sure that marginal productivity of labour equals the wage income.

It is an open knowledge that most governments and even enterprises and managers do not know what their costs are or how to cut them. Interestingly, the "cost-saving devices" handy to most employers are retrenchment, cut in wages and cancellation of negotiated benefits among other anti-labour measures. Government as employer of labour is also guilty of these unjust measures often informed by the rule of the thumb. Labour, at all levels of analyses accounts for less than 10 per cent of cost of doing government businesses. Thus, the spectre of "cost-saving devices" must turn elsewhere; public debts and attendant prohibitive interest rates, bloated executive pay, public theft, public and private corporate fraud and endless examples of profound mismanagement and sheer corporate criminality as CBN discovered with some banks recently.

The message here is: if we must halt the unjust measures that shift the burden of the economic crisis on labour and labour alone otherwise we should expect less in terms of productivity. . The motto of NLC reads: Labour Creates Wealth. This means trade unions are conscious of their responsibility to productivity beyond the trouble -making function/ wage collecting-do no job function attributed to them. Every employer or investor knows that of all the factors of production human resource is the most important. Indeed the key to the success stories of countries like China, Japan, Malaysia and India is the creative manner labour has been motivated and mobilized for unprecedented growth and development. These countries lack non-renewable resources like crude oil but are nonetheless abundantly blessed with human resources in quantity and quality as in China. Successive Nigerian governments have been unable to appreciate the role of labour as a source of wealth that needs to be cultivated for development through a defined structure of incentives, training and retraining, involvement in decision making processes and organizational building and not budget balancing downsizing feverish proposals. Economic recovery will elude Nigeria until it stops treating labour at arm's length.

President Woodrow Wilson of United States (1913) 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'. In similar vein, 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 in nation's development?

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