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When COVID-19 affects labour laws

Nigeria’s labour law non-compliance situation is alarming at the moment and nothing has affected the country since its independence in 1960 as the COVID-19 pandemic…

Nigeria’s labour law non-compliance situation is alarming at the moment and nothing has affected the country since its independence in 1960 as the COVID-19 pandemic which, incidentally, has brought a number of labour issues to the fore.

In Nigeria, 90 per cent of the production line was disrupted, especially in the transport and hospitality sectors with challenges of huge job losses.

According to the president of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN), Justice Benedict Kanyip, one of the main issues about the pandemic is that “we were all compelled to stay at home”.

“In the world of work, majority of workers that we see as not critical are in fact the ones that really matter. These are the cleaners, medics, pharmacists, sewage cleaners – these are the categories of workers that are easily outsourced but the new coronavirus has opened our eyes to the reality that these are actually the categories of workers we cannot do without,” he said.

While employers who fail to provide job must pay the worker, the employer also has a right to reorganise his business as well as to downsize, right size or out-source workers.

Section 17 of the Labour Act provides that every employer shall provide work suitable to the worker’s capacity and if the employer fails to provide work, he is to pay the worker his normal wage as if he had performed his job. Except where the inability of the employer to provide job is due to a temporary emergency beyond the employer’s control, initially not to exceed one week.

Thus, if you do not work and the employment is not terminated, there is compulsory salary. However, to end or terminate employment or declare redundancy, due process must be followed.

Normally in an employment contract, parties will give one- or three-month’s notice to terminate the employment or one month’s salary in lieu of notice. Despite the pandemic, the law has not changed. People go to business to make a profit. Employers cannot unilaterally lay people off.  It is only based on special circumstances that employers can get rid of workers. In fact, employers should treat employees with respect and people should lose their jobs through the due process.

Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) President Comrade Ayuba Wabba said 70 per cent of affected workers are in the informal sector – those who do not belong to any of the 51 affiliate unions under the congress.

According to him, salary cut is more pronounced in the organised private sector. He said Access Bank wanted to lay off 60 per cent of its workforce, same in the aviation sector where Arik Air and Chevron laid off 170 workers while others threatened layoffs. He added that workers affected were, however, brought back following NLC’s intervention.

Consequent upon the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been difficult for employers to respect labour laws. According to the NLC President, more than 25 million people in Nigeria may lose their jobs as a result of the pandemic. However, experts advise that government should support enterprises so that they (enterprises) can repay their loans.

Wabba said the union’s investigations have shown that interventions are helping to stabilise the society at the moment.

The role of the court is that jobs are not just lost. But if they are to be lost there has to be an acceptable reason.

The position of the Common law is that an employer has the right to hire and fire even without reason. But the National Industrial Court holds that you cannot just terminate jobs, but that if employers must terminate, they must have reasons. For example, an employer may terminate for redundancy.

The good news, however, that more courts are using virtual tools such as Zoom to conduct their hearings which does not impose additional expenses on litigants, as more industrial -related cases are filed in states like Lagos, Rivers, Kano and the FCT.

The NICN president said judges may have required flight to adjourning states but with digitalisation they can stay at their base (Lagos, Abuja etc) and conduct their cases without physical appearance.

According to him, the nature of cases is such that courts can dispense with physical presence. But litigants believe that if they do not appear physically in court, they won’t get justice.

Meanwhile, Nigeria has a peculiar challenge as there is no clear official statistics on how many jobs have been lost. The unionised sector can determine statistics of sacked workers but 70 per cent of workers are in the informal sector. Many are not covered by social protection like pension.

On the whole the new pandemic may as well turn out to have its advantages.


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