The need for harmonious and stable labour relations environment cannot be over-emphasised as healthy labour-management relations are sine qua non to the development process in the nation's economy.
To this end, industrial relations experts have continued to canvass the use of social dialogue as a strong tool to resolve industrial conflicts between unions and management. They maintained that for the country to sustain the existing democracy, it needs to encourage social dialogue with a view to coping with conflict issues nationwide.
In recent years, workplace relations have been turbulent arising from conflictual situations in the world of work. Industrial conflict has been identified as the discord that occurs when the goals, interest or values of different individuals or groups in an industrial setting are incompatible.
This conflict is however, inevitable. Some of the causes of industrial conflict include refusal of union recognition, public policies and failure of collective bargaining. In the employment relationship, the interests of employers represented by management and the employees represented by the industrial unions have been diametrically opposed. This has historically been the cause of conflict in industry.
Other identified causes of workplace conflict include conflicting goals, conflicting perceptions, unpredicted policies, conflicting resources, conflicting styles and conflicting roles.
Conflict in the workplace may be productive if it leads to positive change, but can also be stressful and unpleasant. Therefore, resolving disputes and clashes at work is important for employers and employees and this can be achieved through social dialogue.
An industrial relations expert, Prof. Sola Fajana, described social dialogue as a process of exchanging information and viewpoints that may ultimately facilitate harmonious labour relations. He pointed out that the process may be tripartite or bipartite depending on the parties involved.
"In its tripartite form, dialogue involves co-operation among government, employers' organisations and workers' organisations in formulating or implementing labour, social or economic policy. The bipartite relationship involves employers and trade unions where the government acts as a silent partner by setting the parameters for the parties' interaction. Both forms may be purely advisory to the government or may involve negotiations leading to agreements. The relevant International Labour Organisation (ILO) instruments concerning social dialogue are the Consultation (Industrial and National Levels) Recommendation, 1960 (No. 113)," he said.
Fajana, who is the Vice Chancellor of Joseph Ayo Babalola University, Ikeji Arakeji, Osun State, pointed out that productivity-enhancing dialogue requires continual dissemination of management's labour policy to workers.
He explained that, managements sometimes feel reluctant to release information to the unions because they believed information (e.g. accounting reports) may be misused. The unions, he added on the other hand, often claim they are entitled to know their employers' general and human resource management policies. Thus, employees often express the desire to know what is happening, and the extent to which their jobs are affected.
According to him, there has been no global consensus as to what policies should be made available to unions and in what areas of management decisions the unions should be involved.
The lack of consensus is accounted for by differences in the level of growth and affordability of firms as well as absence of an industry-wide structure bringing all employers together. Thus, employees have different values and aspirations from those of management, and these values and aspirations are always in conflict with those of management.
Fajana, who argued that conflict is inevitable, rational, functional and normal situation in organisations, however stressed the need for workplace to be resolved through compromise and agreement, collective bargaining or social dialogue.
"Various policies are employed by management to ensure good employment/ industrial relations between workers and their employers. Nevertheless, matters generally covered include corporate performance and plans for structural changes like mergers and acquisitions, redundancy arising from changes in the organisation environment. Others are the job requirements of an employee and the reporting system, disciplinary rules, social and welfare facilities, safety rules and suggestion schemes," he explained.
Another industrial relations expert, C. Wokoma, further averred that industrial conflicts, strikes and work stoppages affect tremendously the economic development of the nation's economy through low national productivity. He added that it also has serious sociological consequences such as the dislocation and severance of the socialisation function of work.
He therefore, recommended that all stakeholders involved in industrial relations should adopt systematic and sustainable mechanisms - including collective bargaining in addition to political solutions toward arresting the embarrassing, incessant and recurring spate of strikes.
Role of Stakeholders in Promoting Social Dialogue
All stakeholders in the nation's industrial relations system must play a significant role in the promotion of social dialogue in the country. Although industrial relations expert are of the view that government has a major role to play given the fact that government is a major employer as well as a 'neutral' observer.
Thus government must make available a multi-party mechanism for dialogue whenever issues arise that cannot be resolved bi-partite.
This action, according to Fajana, is in conformity with ILO Recommendation 113, which Nigeria has ratified. Specifically, he stated that the recommendation stipulates that consultation and co-operation should aim at ensuring that the competent public authorities seek the views, advice and assistance of employers' and workers' organisations in an appropriate manner, in respect of such matters as the preparation and implementation of laws and regulations affecting their interests and the elaboration and implementation of plans of economic and social development.
"The state also has a legislative role to play in meeting its social dialogue imperatives. The State institutes the National Labour Advisory Council as a tripartite structure for the formulation and review of industrial relations policies. It is also required that the bi-cameral National Assembly ought to provide a forum for national debates of laws in industrial relations. Consequently, the National Assembly did take over a number of critical issues in the oil sector, such as privatisation of state-owned oil firms; the plight of those workers who may be adversely affected by privatisation; and other labour reform bills, some of which are currently being attended to by the legislators.
"Although the National Assembly seems to be doing something for labour generally, it is expected that some of the contending issues would have been subjected to public hearings, traditional of most global democratic legislative institutions and processes. But this has not been the case in Nigeria. At the State and Local Government levels, very little or nothing can be done because labour issues are on the exclusive legislative list, indicating that only the Federal Government can commit the state on labour matters.
"Nevertheless, state governors and chairmen of local government councils do intervene in conflict situations. Given the cultural imperative of respecting elders and people in authority, conflicts that initially appeared intractable with the formal due process might just wither away at the intervention of a very influential personality, even though these people are not even envisaged in the formal disputes machinery," he explained.
Speaking further, he said the effectiveness of Nigerian trade unions may have been limited by a rather unconducive political environment, as dictated by the incompetence of the legislature, a dysfunctional federalism and other explored reasons.
Rather than remain encumbered without remedy, he noted that unions have taken some commendable measures. He added that "At the initiative of the unions, some advocacy has turned up also as a form of dialogue for collectively influencing state policies".
Use of Dialogue in Resolving Conflict
Dialogue remains the socially acceptable form of interacting in the workplace, especially for taking decisions over issues of mutual and divergent interests. This is because social dialogue has positive impact on industrial relations, especially on the two parties, employers and employees who deepens mutual respect in the process, and who dwelling under the experience and faith of previous practice is assured of future peaceful relations.
Fajana however, explained that at the macro level, tripartite social dialogue is expected to provide the framework for dealing with issues that have general applications across all industries and all levels of governance.
According to him, state intervention at this level is to put all actors on a minimum platform, below which none of them should fall. He added that "The State, as an interested arbiter, intervenes at will, sets up a National Advisory Council and creates a public hearing forum at the National Assembly, all for social contestation".
This, he said, explains the frustration of the trade unions who are sometimes forced to pursue dialogue in forms that are somewhat unconventional, to the mutual disadvantage of all the social partners.
He therefore recommended that all social partners should increase their capacities for effective social dialogue on account of the received contemporary turbulence in the political environment.
"Aside from traditional and evolving techniques of communication, including electronic, house publications, open door policies, and opportunities to participate in decision-making, joint consultation remains the most visible and the most significant form of communication in Nigerian industries.
"It enables the employer to achieve co-operation and organisational effectiveness, and the workers are able to advance the object of their unionisation, i.e. improvements in the terms and conditions of employment. Dialogue is a natural and socially acceptable way of interacting in the workplace, especially for taking decisions over issues of mutual and divergent interests," Fajana added.
Speaking also, President of the Nigeria Employers' Consultative Association (NECA) Chief Richard Uche, called for an urgent reform of the nation's industrial relations system that would enthrone rule of law and promote productivity.
Uche described the current dispensation as the worst in the annals of industrial relations in the country, arguing that the current clime was characterised by flagrant disobedience of court orders, spontaneous and illegal strikes, vandalisation of company properties in the name of strike and disrespect for union jurisdictional scope.
He called on the Federal Ministry of Labour to rise up to the challenge and restore the tripartite enthronement of rule of law and reciprocal respect of right as espoused by the ILO).
Uche also called for an urgent revamping of the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) that has been moribund for years in order to facilitate an enhanced government effort at reforming the industrial relations system.