Avoiding A Blind Debate On the ILO and Politics, By Owei Lakemfa
Do the claims of Adewusi suggest that labour leaders are stupid when they make the cost of living the foundation of wage negotiations; or is it political? Is he suggesting that all along, the NLC and the Trade Union Congress (TUC), which called strikes over such matters, are ignorant of ILO rules or are violating ILO Conventions? Is Adewusi speaking for labour or the Buhari government?
It was unfair, except for purposes of clarification, elucidation and mass education, for Nigerian human rights lawyer, Femi Aborishade, to engage in a debate on the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and politics with former deputy president of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Promise Adewusi, who also, incidentally, is a lawyer. This is partly because as far back as 1984/85, Aborishade as NLC’s education officer was teaching workers and labour leaders about local and international trade unionism, including ILO conventions. Also, he was not an accidental trade unionist, but a conscious one by ideological choice, based on his abiding fate in the working class.
Adewusi had kicked off the debate on September 28, with his fallacious arguments that Nigerian trade unions backed down on the general strike and protests against increases in fuel, electricity and taxes because “…what protects and guides labour is the ILO Conventions”, adding: “Sadly, under these Conventions political strikes are illegal and therefore not protected.” Contrary to our lived experiences, Adewusi added the sophistry that only non-trade unions can organise so-called political strikes which “workers can always join as citizens, not as labour”.
Aborisade, amongst other matters, had educated Adewusi by pointing out that page 55 of the ILO Committee of Experts states clearly that political strikes, “which seek a solution to major issues in economic and social policy”, are justified. Contrary to Adewusi’s claims, unions do not need the permission or protection of the ILO to embark on any type of strike they want.
The trade unions had been agitating and going on strikes for over a century before the ILO was born in 1919. The May 1886 international strikes that led to the massacre of American workers and the rise of May Day had taken place 33 years before. Famous intellectuals on labour and production like Adam Smith and Karl Marx had long passed away, and the Russian Workers Revolution was two years in the making before the ILO was born. So, how can Adewusi insinuate that the ILO is the policeman of strikes?
In any case, who determines which strikes are ‘political’ and which are not? Strike itself is the political expression of workers agitations against unjust conditions of work and a continuation of industrial relations by other means, whether at the workplace or on the streets.
In any case, who determines which strikes are ‘political’ and which are not? Strike itself is the political expression of workers agitations against unjust conditions of work and a continuation of industrial relations by other means, whether at the workplace or on the streets. What strike could be more political than the Polish workers ‘solidarity’ strike, which overthrew the communist system on August 24, 1989? Yet, it was supported by the ILO, which hailed the Polish trade unionist, Lech Walesa, as a hero.
If the ILO is against politics, why does it invite non-trade union political figures like Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi to address its annual conventions, even before they held any political office in their countries? Nigeria’s first outing as an independent country in the ILO was in 1961. There, the delegation tabled a motion for the expulsion of apartheid South Africa from the organisation. That country remained expelled until it overturned its political system. Was that industrial relations or politics? The ILO has a standing rule that governments which come to power through unconstitutional means would not be allowed into its ranks; is that industrial relations or politics?
So, Adewusi’s claims are an embarrassing ignorance. Electricity is the bedrock of industrialisation, the bloodline of the economy and development. So, if electricity is not connected to employment, what is? Many workers in Nigeria, such as those in Dunlop, lost their jobs due to the inability of their employers to cope with the rising cost of energy, including crazy bills and the cost of generating private power. If that is not related to employment, what is? The high cost of transportation, which is by road, takes a large chunk of the worker’s income, yet this is not connected to employment?
The high cost of food, which is partly due to the high cost of transporting farm produce to the urban centres, is crippling to the poor worker, yet it is not related to employment? Do the claims of Adewusi suggest that labour leaders are stupid when they make the cost of living the foundation of wage negotiations; or is it political? Is he suggesting that all along, the NLC and the Trade Union Congress (TUC), which called strikes over such matters, are ignorant of ILO rules or are violating ILO Conventions? Is Adewusi speaking for labour or the Buhari government?
I am aware of campaigns by parasites at the ILO against the right to strike, but this will fail because the choice of a worker at any given time to work or refuse to work (strike) is a fundamental human right. To argue otherwise is to campaign for forced labour.
The ILO has permanent members on its governing board, like those of the United Nations Security Council. Is that labour relations or global politics? I think part of Adewusi’s lack of knowledge about the ILO might stem from his ignorance about the circumstances and reasons for its birth, and its constitution. The ILO was created by the victors of the First World War under the June 28, 1919 Versailles Peace Treaty. It was not established for purposes of industrial relations but for universal peace based on social justice. The Preamble of the ILO Constitution states its objectives: “Whereas universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice; and whereas conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled; and an improvement of those conditions is urgently required; whereas also the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries.”
On May 10, 1944, the Declaration of Philadelphia was made an annex to the ILO Constitution. It emphasised the centrality of human rights to social policy and the need for international economic planning. Amongst other issues, the Declaration states that: “Labour is not a commodity” and that “all human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity“. It also famously declared: “Poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere”. In 1946, the ILO was made a specialised agency of the United Nations.
Since the above are the ILO’s stated reasons for its existence, the strikes against unreasonable, punitive and suffocating increases in the prices of fuel, electricity and taxes, which, as envisaged under the ILO Constitution, would lead to “…hardship and privation to large numbers of people” are in order. I am aware of campaigns by parasites at the ILO against the right to strike, but this will fail because the choice of a worker at any given time to work or refuse to work (strike) is a fundamental human right. To argue otherwise is to campaign for forced labour.
Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of African workers, is a human rights activist, journalist and author.