MADEMBA SOCK is the President Organisation of Trade Unions of West Africa. He speaks with FRIDAY OLOKOR on issues affecting West African economies and why Nigerians should not accept the economic policies of IMF and World Bank on increases in electricity tariffs and petrol

What  has your organisation – OTUWA been involved in since the outbreak of COVID-19?

When in March 2020, the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, it took everyone including workers and the trade unions unawares. Since workers in the health sector, in the cleaning sector were in the frontline of the fight against the new (almost invisible) illness, we in the trade unions had to find ways to become helpful in the fight to preserve lives. Though our governments took emergency measures to lock down in the effort to curtail the disease and there was no time to consult with stakeholders including unions on the measures taken: as trade unions, we soon started trying to find ways of engaging government. This was because workers were being asked to do their jobs under hazardous conditions without the right Personal Protective Equipment. It became one of our responsibilities as union leaders to fight for the provision of PPEs for Nurses, Doctors and other medical workers.

As OTUWA, what specifically did you do as an organization?

We did quite a few things. By October 2020, we had produced the report of a survey finding on the Impact of COVID-19 on Health Workers in six West African countries. We followed this up with another survey finding on “Accessibility of Healthcare for Informal Sector Workers”, again in six countries of West Africa. Both were with support of Solidarity Centre, which is an International Trade Union Partnership arm of the American Central trade union. Earlier, we produced a podcast in English and French on how trade unions in the West African sub region were contributing to the fight against COVID-19, and produced a report on trade union support of government efforts in the ECOWAS countries to fight COVID-19.

How will you assess labour issues in West Africa, compared to what is going on in each country?

With the COVID-19 global pandemic, this is not the best of times for trade unions in the West African Sub-region. As you can imagine, the period of the lockdown which characterised the earlier reaction to COVID-19 led to the shutting down of almost all work places that are not considered essential to fighting the pandemic. Unlike in advanced and developed countries of Europe, America and other Western countries, our workers didn’t have the type of protection that our counterparts in the developed North had. We have witnessed a lot of job losses as a result of this crisis, especially in the private sector of the economy.

Which of the countries in West Africa has a robust and the best welfare programme for workers and can you shed more light on it?

This is relative to the specific conditions in each country. It is therefore difficult to assert categorically that this or that country is good or better than that country. Having said this however, there is always a point in which one can state that countries like Nigeria are playing a leading role in the sub-region because of the state of development of industries and other social infrastructure. As trade unions we are constantly fighting to improve the living and working condition of our members. The pandemic has brought to the fore the need to invest in social protection for the mass of our citizens; the importance of investing in our healthcare infrastructure and other institutions has become very manifest. This is because in time of global pandemic like the current one, each nation is expected to be able to care for the health needs of its population. As trade unions in the ECOWAS Sub-region, we hope to continue to raise the necessity to rebuild our healthcare infrastructure.

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There are concerns about the  cost of governance amidst dwindling revenue. Some people have blamed this on bloated civil service. People are saying it is because of over bloated civil service among West African countries. What is your view about it?

It is true that most of our governments in the sub-region are concerned about the dwindling governmental revenue. However, blaming this on bloated civil service is just finding an easy escape route, or finding a scapegoat for the crisis. I think the major problem that needs to be addressed by governments in the sub-region is the cost of governance which in my view is way too much. The money we spend on maintaining our political leaders – as ministers, legislatives and the priorities they chose are responsible for much of the drain on government revenue and not the cost of maintaining the civil service to implement their programmes. They prefer to use consultants and contractors which do a lot to increase the cost of governance.

Now, the debate about minimum wage! In Nigeria for instance, people have been agitating for minimum wage, even some states are not comfortable, they still want to remain at the N18,000 minimum wage whereas labour demand N30,000 and government has acted on it. Do you even think that N30,000 as minimum wage is okay for workers in Nigeria?

By the International Labour Organization definition of minimum wage, it is supposed to be the basic minimum wage that a worker requires to sustain himself/herself for a period, say in a month. I know that our affiliates in Nigeria led by the NLC fought for and won N30 000 national minimum wage around 2-3 years ago. Giving the way inflation has risen over this period, and how the national currency, the Naira has been devalued over this period vis-a-vis the major international currencies – Dollar, Euro, the Pound etc. It is obvious to everyone that workers and their families on N30 000 minimum wage cannot be said to be adequately taken care of. It is important to have a minimum wage that a worker can live on. Therefore, NLC and others need to do more to fight to increase the minimum wage. Of course I understand the Nigerian law says minimum wage should be increased after every five years. I’m sure that our comrades in NLC are currently fighting to ensure that the state governments implement this 2018 National Minimum Wage.

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The economic powers like International Monetary Fund and World Bank are advising developing countries to increase fuel and electricity tariffs. What is your view, will this benefit workers?’

No, the IMF and the World Bank have a history of prescribing unworkable solutions to the problems of economic development in developing countries, especially in Africa. Nowhere in the African continent has IMF prescriptions of economic model been a success in the last three to four decades. Therefore, it is unwise for any of our countries in the sub-region to listen to the IMF or World Bank to increase fuel and electricity tariffs – which in plain words is an advice to increase the prices at which electricity and fuel is sold to the public so that governments can make more money to balance its books and pay debts owed Western financial institutions.

The Asians are really making inroads into African countries and taking the jobs meant for Africans; the Chinese abuse expatriate quota. Do you think this is true and if yes, what is your organisation, doing to make sure that this thing does not continue?

While this may be true, we have to look at the root cause of these problems. Why has it become easy for citizens of other continental blocs to have easy access to our labour markets in Africa and in our sub-region, while we do not have reciprocal treatment in their own continents. The first blame in my humble opinion must go to our policy makers – our governments. We have in a number of countries, what is called expatriate quota, by which an enterprise can seek to bring in labour/manpower from abroad if there are insufficient qualified manpower in that field in the country. This quota system has been abused with collaboration of government officials responsible for protecting our national interests. Our governments have responsibilities for providing jobs and protecting jobs. They must implement our laws designed to protect our nationals from undue competition. Of course, we know of the arguments that under globalisation, we cannot be an island to ourselves in Africa and in our sub-region. But the globalization that fails to protect the rights of African workers to migrate freely to Europe, America and Asia to seek for jobs like they do here in the African continent is an unjust one, and not to the benefit of Africans and its working people.

Many West African countries have democratic governments. I don’t know  if your organisation, as a pressure group,  has the mandate to address the penchant of governments  for not fulfilling  election promises…

Yes, there is leadership crisis in our sub-region, in West Africa and in the rest of Africa as a whole. Speaking about the West African sub-region our democratic consolidation is not going smoothly in countries like Mali, where there have been two coups within a period of 12 months. In Guinea, we just witnessed a military coup against President Alpha Conde, who won a controversial election in Guinea after controversially amending the constitution to give himself a third term in office. This similarly third term in office happened in Côte d’Ivoire not too long ago too. In the Gambia even though elections are scheduled for this December, what is coming out of the country isn’t very pleasant. We hear that President Adama Barrow is trying to enter into an alliance with the former tyrant Yahya Jammeh, who ECOWAS troops chased out of Banjul four years ago when he lost election and was unwilling to relinquish power. This development is a negative sign from the Gambia, because it shows that our politicians are prepared to do anything in order to cling on to power. It is our hope that the Gambian people will resist the effort bring made to find an escape route for the ex-tyrant from facing justice for the crimes he had committed against the people of the Gambia. Democracy may be facing stress in Nigeria, but it is important that the political leaders in Nigeria get their acts together not just for the interest of 200 million Nigerians, but the entire West African Sub-region and the African continent and the black race as a whole. Nigeria as you know was instrumental to the formation of ECOWAS in 1975, and it has pushed for the socio-economic integration of the entire West African States. The vision of the founders of ECOWAS to have a common currency- ECO is still being pursued, the effort of extra regional forces to frustrate this notwithstanding. Africa’s problem basically is that we have allowed extra-African forces to appropriate our huge national endowments for the benefit of their people at the expense of we Africans –North, South, East and West. 

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The West African economies are battling to survive; what do you think should be done to make sure our economies become role models before the global community?

We need to return to structured national development plans, which our leaders in the early post independent period were practising and we had more accelerated results in developments than what presently obtains in most of our countries. We need to utilize our youthful population and modernize our agricultural cultivation as well as use agriculture to be a cornerstone of our industrialisation drive.

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