Collective bargaining as tool for industrial harmony

Olusegun Oshinowo

Olusegun Oshinowo

Industrial action by labour unions is one step that has many implications in the lives of people and nation. While it is deployed by labour unions to achieve their aim of improvement in the conditions of work of their members, the public most of the times are at the receiving ends as such action disrupts free flow of goods and services.

Most of the times, employers and government fall to the antics of the labour unions that often seek justification for their actions by seeking refuge under the freedom of association and movement as espoused by the International Labour Organization’s conventions and standards.

But what is the main course of strives and acrimonies in the workplaces? Indeed, absence of collective bargaining at the point of entry into the workforce has been blamed for most lockouts and strikes that often take place.

First, what is collective bargaining as defined by the ILO? The labour intercontinental body defines collective bargaining as an “instrument that measures appropriate to national conditions shall be taken, where necessary, to encourage and promote the full development and utilization of machinery for voluntary negotiation between employers or employers’ organizations and workers’ organizations, with a view to the regulation of terms and conditions of employment by means of collective agreements.”

As it is called ‘Collective Bargaining Convention, 1981 (No. 154)’ by the ILO, it also promotes collective bargaining for public employees, as well as other methods allowing public employees’ representatives to participate in the determination of their conditions of employment. It also provides that disputes shall be settled through negotiation between the parties or through independent and impartial machinery, such as mediation, conciliation and arbitration.

Indeed, there are many ‘contributors’ to the reasons industrial strikes have been the first instead of the last resort by labour unions.

Sharing his thoughts on the possible reasons strike has become prevalent in recent times, the Director General of the Nigerian Employers Consultative Association (NECA), Olusegun Oshinowo, blamed government for abdicating its roles as an employer but rather sees itself as a sovereign.

He submitted that non-attachment of importance to industrial harmony in promoting economic growth, industrial harmony and industrial relations and by extension the trade unions by government as the crux of the matter.

He also opined that the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment has become more of a burden in the administration of industrial arbitration processes owing to its ineffectiveness.

His explanation: “In Government’s machinery for governance, the Ministry and its role are confined to the lower wrung of the pecking order. This of course has implication for resource allocation and quality of headship. The belief is that anyone can just be appointed as Minister of Labour and Employment. Labour relations is not seen as an area of expertise at the same level as Health and Finance that requires technocrat at the political level to be at the helms of affairs.”

He rued the absence of procedural agreement and reign of impunity to the rule of law in the system, which often leads to breakdown of agreements or non-implementation of agreements.

“This is as true for the Government as it is true for the Trade Union; particularly in the Public Sector. The Government acts more as a sovereign than an employer. Hence, it sees itself as the law. It does not believe or engage in Collective Bargaining; flout agreements at will and has scant regard for the terms and conditions of employment of workers. The situation is more appalling at the state level.

“On the Union part, grievance and dispute settlement procedures are hardly respected in the pursuit of their issues. Strike has now become the first resort rather than the last option. Some Union officials do not know the limit of union immunity and often recourse to criminality in the name of Trade Unionism. Others have literally taken over the management of their organisations from ignorant and hen- pecked administrators, who are better described as “management abdicator”. All parties have chosen to act as if there are no longer Trade Union rights and their limitations; and no Management rights (prerogatives) and their limitations,” he said.

He also pointed at the absence of procedural agreement to regulate the bargaining relationship of the parties in terms of negotiable items, non- negotiable but discussable items and purely informational issues, duration of agreement and internal grievance settlement procedure. Oshinowo said Nigeria has a dysfunctional structure of collective bargaining in the public sector where there is one at all.

He added: “One incident that has consistently plagued Industrial Relations in the public sector is the predilection and penchant of government to breach Collective Agreement. Perhaps, one issue that lies at the root of this seemingly incurable ailment is the centralised nature of some of these negotiations. It is assumed that every entity covered in the bargaining unit has the ability to pay the agreed rates. Often times, the negotiators on government side are different from the eventual implementers of the agreements.

This may partly explain the intractable labour crisis in the tertiary institutions. While the employers, in the strict sense of the word, are the various Councils of the tertiary institutions, and ordinarily should be the party engaging the unions but what you find in reality is that the Federal government negotiates with the national unions. I believe the time has come for us to take a second look at the structure of collective bargaining in our country.”

According to Oshinowo, absence of managers of labour relations experts outside of the ministry of labour and employment is also responsible for the lack of collective bargaining machinery in government agencies, parastatals and departments.

Oshinowo maintained that lack of legal instrument for collective bargaining at the state level is responsible for both the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) going to the state level to negotiate with state government, saying, “the industrial unions could hardly on their own engage the governments but often depend on the machinery of the central unions, NLC and TUC, to take up their fights. This is, of course, an aberration because the industrial relations laws in Nigeria do not recognise the NLC and TUC as bargaining units in the states.”

As a way out of the quagmire, Oshinowo submitted that government must government, as a sovereign, must feel sufficiently disturbed about the current atmosphere of pervasive industrial disharmony, with the consequence of massive loss of manpower and productive hours for the economy and threat to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) adding that this consciousness is yet to dawn on the managers of the nation’s economy.

To him, this is the job of the Ministry of Labour and Employment which should now know push and put this matter on the front burner as an issue in the change agenda of government.

He stressed that the social partners – government, labour, employers – at the level of their pinnacle organisations must all come to the conclusion that the system is collapsing or has collapsed and a wholesale reform is urgently required.

He submitted that now is to call for a reform conference whose intended outcome must include timeline for implementation, which should be driven by the tripartite constituents.

He explained: One would expect a huge dose of capacity building for social dialogue at all levels of government and education and enlightenment for unions and employers on the rights and limits of all parties involved in Industrial Relations to be a key component of the reform agenda.”

Oshinowo was quick to point out that collective bargaining is not a magic broom that sweep all the industrial challenges away, saying, “there had been moment of resource challenge, which inhibits the capacity of employers to honour collective agreements, and yet both unions and employers were able to come to reasonable conclusions through the machinery of collective bargaining: a practice which has evolved the terminology of a “sweet heart agreement” in the lexicon of industrial relations. I implore the public sector actors, both the union and government alike, to emulate the benchmark practice in the private sector.”

Speaking on the topic: “Conflict resolution in season of change, resource scarcity and new social contract,” the President of TUC, Bobboi Kaigama, urged a change in attitudes of Nigerians if the present government would deliver on its ‘change’ mantra.

He declared that conflict could be constructive as long as is managed and dealt with directly and quickly.
“The first major challenge in conflict resolution is identifying the problem. As a country, we have identified our challenges but have never demonstrated enough sincerity to tackle them holistically. We can solve our problems through dialogue rather than spend our fortunes on arms and ammunitions to destroy ourselves,” he said.

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