By Oludare Mayowa
The announcement by the chief executive of Access Bank, Herbert Wigwe of plans by the lender to slash salaries of its staff and declare some outsourced staff redundant has triggered some measures, of anxiety in the mind of many Nigerian workers. As the country gradually eases the lockdown on Lagos and Ogun States and the federal capital Abuja, many workers are no longer sure of the fate that awaits them as they return to work beginning from Monday, May 4.
“We were paid our March salary promptly before we went on that long break, but so far nothing has been said about our April salary,” said Abiola, who works with one of the banks with head office on Marina Lagos. She said the leadership of the bank is yet to communicate to them the category of workers expected to resume for work on Monday. One of Nigeria’s biggest lenders, Access Bank had in a teleconference by the CEO with some staff had on Thursday said it will effect a pay cut for all categories of staff with the chief executive accepting to take up to 40 per cent pay cut.
Wigwe, however, told those on the teleconference with him that about 75 per cent of the workforce of the bank are outsourced and the management intends to hold talks with the owners of the outsource firms on the way forward. He said the bank will not be reopening some of its branches, so it would not require the services of security personnel manning those outlets, some of the cleaners are not going to be needed, likewise other non-essential workers.
“The fact is that the economy is contracting. Economic outlook is bleak. Many businesses will downsize (staff and pay) to adjust costs. That’s what happens when an economy is heading towards a recession. The question is who’s next?” said Wilson Erumebor, a senior economist at the Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG)
He said many more banks and companies will have to adjust and perhaps do some downsizing, noting that projections on the economy are very bleak. However, many Nigerian workers may be assuaged by the assurance from the president of the intention of the government to protect jobs and ensure that due process in staff disengagement in the private sector is followed.
In his speech to the labour union at the May day celebrations, President Mohammadu Buhari said that the government will ensure that no employer would retrench or lay-off workers. “I understand the anxiety which has plagued the minds of workers over the possibility of job losses due to economic downturn caused by the pandemic and lock-down especially in the private sector. “In this regard, the Government will ensure that no employer would retrench or lay off workers without going through due process of social dialogue which includes consultations with workers and with the Competent Authority – Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment,” the president said in his speech at the labour day celebration. But analysts said they are not clear on steps the government intends to take to protect jobs, especially in the private sector, considering the fact that there are no specific guidelines on labour issues relating to outsourced staff and casual workers. However, beyond the issue of job loss, a pay cut and even inability of companies to meet their obligations to their workers, there are other considerations as contained in the guidelines issued by the governments on the modalities for the gradual easing of the lockdown.
According to the guidelines rolled out by the government on the gradual reopening of the country, in Lagos, only civil servants on grade level 13 and above are required to resume work from Monday on the need basis and assessment by the head of their units, while those from level 1-12 are expected to work from home. This directive, according to some analysts may lead to redundancy in the civil service because the system is not structured to function off-site for this category of workers. Beyond the lack of capacity in terms of tools and technology to enable these sets of workers to work from off-site, there are speculations that most workers in Lagos parastatals may not get their April pay due to paucity of funds.
A circular issued in one of the government agencies in the state has already indicated likely delay in payment of salaries in the month ahead as a result of insufficient funding.
Private sector operators are directed to reopen on the condition that they will ensure ‘controlled easing phased’ and expected to operate at 60 percent capacity while working hours have been reduced to between 9 am and 3 pm daily. This particular directive will surely hit the manufacturing sector hard because this will lead to a drastic drop in production capacity and probably a possible declaration of redundancy for workers that will not be required to report to work.
Some businesses are not structured to function in a manner that will make compliance with the set rules for reopening an easy task. The guidelines also indicated that everyone going out of their houses must wear a facemask, make provision for hand sanitizers while companies must ensure the provision of temperature measurement for both staff and visitors and maintain physical distancing within the workplace. Most workers have to prepared to adjust to the next phase of the new normal in the work environment, which may look like what was in practice during the days of Ebola outbreak in the country. The new normal will probably start with changes in sitting arrangements in the offices in compliance with the physical distancing requirements, people wearing facemasks within the office space and the conscious efforts to ensure sanitization of the environment and personnel.
Apart from the anxiety of not knowing their fate and their future place in the workplace, many workers will have to adjust to the new normal of waking up time and going through the traffic to and from the office, which has not been for over a month that the lockdown has lasted. The regulated working hours may throw up a new challenge for those who have been used to rush hours to beat the traffic to get to work early and staying back in the office till late in the night to avoid traffic congestion on the way home. One of the many challenges that may also confront workers, especially those without a mean of personal transportation is that they have to contend with long waiting at the bus stops for buses because of the fact that transporters are now expected to carry about 60 percent of their capacity in a city that is overburdened by inefficient transportation system.
Some companies may have to boost their staff bus fleets to accommodate the new normal of fewer passengers in a bus to and from work, those companies that may not be able to adjust may have to organise other means of transporting their staff to and from the offices. The companies have to incur additional cost to buy sanitizers, temperature reader equipping their security and front office personnel on how to handle such preventive measures within the office space. Another aspect the workers resuming duties on Monday would have to adjust to is the fear of the possibility of catching the virus through commuting to and from work or in the process of interactions with strangers in the course of performing their duties.
Would the wearing of facemasks, hand sanitizer and adhere to all the protocol safeguard people from being infected, even when those on the frontlines of the fight against the coronavirus such as medical personnel are being reported to have contracted the dreaded disease in spite of the conscious efforts to wear protective gear. Many Nigerians may have to live with the fear of the deadly virus in the days ahead because of the fact that there has not been a cure, even though there have been claims by some local herbalists and researchers on the discovery of effective vaccines against the disease.
Will the private sector, even the public sector employee be willing to offer safety and hazard insurance to cover their workforce they are asking to report to work in the midst of a pandemic that cure or vaccines are yet to be discovered, would they be ready to provide medical support for those workers beyond the established facilities on their staff manual? Would the government have the capacity to monitor compliance with its guidelines on the reopening of the economy? Can it compel the private transporters to comply with the directive on 60 percent capacity utilisation or can it monitor the regulation of how many staff would be allowed to resume at the various companies in accordance with the rule?
All these will pose great challenges of execution, implementation, and compliance to the authorities as the country gradually return to life on Monday. It is definite that the country cannot afford a prolonged lockdown at this period even in the face of threats by an invisible enemy like the virus as the implications of the economy slipping deeper into recession will be dire on the country’s large populace.
The global oil prices have dropped further effectively curtailing the ability of the country to earn income to support the fight, while there is a threat of economic recession as a result of possible loss of revenue, production cut, and disruption in the supply chain, including threats of food shortages. The government must balance its permutations and come out with a clearer solution to the impending danger posed by economic doom and a possible surge in the spread of the disease going forward. The pressure will surely be on the government to ensure that people comply with its directive while the private sector operators may have to balance their quest for their business continuity, profitability and compliance with government directives on safety.
*Mr. Mayowa, a highly respected financial journalist and publisher of Global Financial Digest (GFD) originally did the feature article for his publication on May 2, 2020