Deregulation Makes Life Harder for Workers

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The pump price of petrol rose once again at the beginning of February. It now sells for as high as N175 per litre in some petrol stations. This is a result of the full-scale deregulation of the downstream sector of the oil industry. This was put into effect on 2nd September last year, when the federal government announced what was the second price hike last year, with further information that prices of fuel would now be determined by the ghostly market forces.

There was a mass anger against this policy which was condemned by poor working-class people in both the formal and informal sectors of the economy. It was a heavy blow on the masses who are yet to recover from the impact of Covid-19 crisis and lockdown.

The fuel price hike in September came on the heels of the announcement of over 100% hike in electricity tariff, which was to take effect from 1st September 2020.  The electricity sector was privatized in 2013 and for the past 7 years there is no meaningful improvement in power generation or distribution. Yet the population that relies on the power grid has expanded from what it was in 2013.

On 16th September, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) gave the federal government a 2-week ultimatum to reverse the electricity tariff and fuel pump price. Organized labour declared that if by 28th September the federal government failed to reverse these price increases, there will be total shutdown of the Nigeria economy.

The working masses were prepared for the industrial action that was to commence on 28 September because they understood that it could at least pressure the insensitive government to roll back its attacks on the people. At the same time, the mass of the people was sceptical about the commitment of the labour bureaucracy to fight the current regime and its anti-people policies. The scepticism of the people was justified when organized labour called off the strike in the early hours of 28th September and set up a joint technical committee with the government.

That late hour turnaround of organized labour or better put of the labour bureaucracy made rank-and-file workers and the poor at large to question why the labour leadership conceded to the state’s policy on deregulation. Meanwhile, the labour movement has a rich history of struggle against privatization and deregulation as any other policy of neoliberal capitalism.

To concretely grasp what deregulation means for the poor working people in Nigeria and to understand the various struggles against it, we have to go back in history to the period of the 1980s when the structural adjustment programme (SAP) was introduced. This was by the Babanginda military regime which implemented SAP based on dictates of International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Reduction in state funding, free market, privatisation, and deregulation; these are the fundamental elements of SAP.

The immediate results of SAP included abandonment of state projects, cuts in funding of public services and deindustrialization of the economy. The State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) that existed prior to 1980s were either not funded or were consciously mismanaged to fail and sold cheaply afterward to private entities. The American political commentator, Noam Chomsky puts it very clearly when he says, “that is the standard technique of privatization: defund, make sure things don’t work, people get angry, you hand it over to private capital.”

Unemployment skyrocketed; many factories, and workplaces were shut down and more workers were pushed to informal economy which is worse in term of precarity. The labour market too was deregulated, and trade union membership drastically reduced.

Meanwhile, in the last three decades the wealth of the handful of bosses has tripled, if not more in many cases. For instance, Dangote who is now building the largest refinery in west Africa is a beneficial of deregulation. In this period, he has established companies in three important sectors of the economy: automobile, textile, food, and chemical products. He is now adding the energy sector into his money-generating machinery.

It is however sad to state that in all of these establishments only one is unionized. Dangote does all he can to kill efforts at unionisation by workers, including having some jailed as he did at Dangote pasta in Ikorodu. Like all big business in Nigeria, the Dangote group is part of global capital. And it has been playing a leading role in the exploitation of workers in several African countries, particularly through his chain of cement factories.

Deregulation is clearly terrible for workers and the nation’s economy. We must confront global capital (which includes the local bosses) and ensure decent jobs are guaranteed, at the very least. Ours is not to commend some private establishments who have done nothing but enlarge their capital at the detriment of poor workers. We should be able to ask the critical question of why the state-owned enterprises are failing.

It is not enough to build industries or create jobs. More importantly the jobs created must be made to provide decent work. And it is the role of organized labour to continuously mobilize and reinforce workers’ power to fight precarious work and defend workers’ rights won through struggle. Deregulation, like all neoliberal policies undermines the living and working conditions of working-class people. We must not only condemn it, but we must also fight it and demand for all major sectors of the economy to be publicly owned and placed under the democratic control of workers.

by Lai BROWN

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