National President, Association of Senior Staff of Banks, Insurance and Financial Institutions (ASSBIFI), OYINKAN OLASANOYE, in this interview with GLORIA NWAFOR, faults plans by some banks to retrench workers over coronavirus pandemic crisis. Due to the current world of work, she said all critical sectors of the economy needed a viable and modern collective agreement, coupled with the government having a social insurance system in place for all Nigerians, among sundry issues.
When it comes to issues like this, I will first of all talk from the standpoint of employees. We are still meeting with customers, we can’t stop doing it. We are still working on almost all mutilated noted; money that is no longer new. Again, Nigerians are still spraying in parties; some of us are still putting the money all over our bodies; the local market women, which is still touching their sweats and their saliva. As a nation, we have never had respect for our Naira, and this is what my members work with every day. If we can ask schools and other organizations to shut down due to COVID-19, can we ask for a total shut down of the banks? Even if we decide to shut down the banks, there will still be persons who will load the ATM machines, if not the total economy of the nation will collapse, as there will few buying and selling. For us, we know there is no way we can protect ourselves 100 percent except we decide to do the individual basic things. So, for the banking halls, our managers have introduced hand sanitizers at their entrance before you enter any branch, we have also advised our members that individually they should all have hand sanitizers and sanitary wipes, and we have also advised them that they need to wash their hands frequently when they are work. We have introduced all these to our members. We have also had a talk with their management and they are working on it.
Besides the effect on your members, how about the effects on jobs of your members, are we likely to see banks sack workers?
Presently, I am not anticipating banks, laying-off workers, because of this virus, because the moment we have a clearer condition of health, I know there will be a run on the banks. Any bank that is going to lay-off people now, they are going to face the repercussion very soon. I am not expecting any bank in Nigeria to lay-off staff. However, there will be an effect on the profitability of the banks and there are going to be effected on people that took loan because they cannot go into production. Although the Federal Government has announced that there should be a reduction in an interest rate for people that have loans, but now we are not talking about the interest rates but them producing in order to have the ability to pay back. When we look at all these, it is going to affect production, affect the exportation of our crude oil, and the importation of petroleum products very soon, because when you can’t export, you can’t import too and there are people that most of the raw materials they use are imported. I know it is going to affect the banks because many of these companies are on one loan or the other, and the only loan the CBN can specifically ask is the interest rate to be reduced on are the loan that is directly sourced from them. I could see that it will not be immediate, which at the end of the year, there may be a job loss because, at the end of the year, when it comes to the profitability of the banks, it is going to be very low.
How do you intend to save your members from this impending job loss?
Early this year, the CBN came up with a law that before any bank lay-off any worker of more than five, they must get across to the CBN. We have also written to CBN that it is not about getting back to them. There is a provision in the Labour Act that says there must be a meeting with those banks and staff representatives, which is the union. We are working on that and we have written to the CBN. This is one of the reasons we have proposed last November 2019 that we are going to go off on strike, because we realized that with the current world of work, and now with the current economic and health situation, this is the time that every sector of the economy needs a modern and viable collective agreement. For example, what will happen if we close down these banks, maybe the Federal Government says shut down.
Apart from financial workers, what will happen to companies that could not produce, will they be willing to still pay salaries at the end of the month for people that did not work? But because we are ready to work; it is the economic situation that says we cannot work, this brings me to the agitation for government to have a social insurance system in place for all Nigerians for a situation like this, because if we are not careful, if we shut down the economy due to the virus not quickly contained, what has been put in place for those that are not working to enable them earn income? It is not about the financial sector but all employees in Nigeria. This is a global issue and it is more of a national issue than sectoral.
Currently, there is a Bill at the National Assembly criminalizing casualization and outsourcing agencies. Already, the organized private sector had said that since the review of the labor law is ongoing, and as such, the bill shouldn’t come up. Also, some banks have said that casualization has come to stay in Nigeria that there is nothing unions can do about it. What is your view on this?
For me, I prefer to use the word, non-permanent workers rather than casualization when it comes to the financial sector. The difference is this, for casualization, according to the Labour Act, it is for a provision of jobs for six months, which is not what we are complaining about in our sector. We are complaining about contract workers that are given a contract of one or two years and they end up spending 10 years with this contract being renewed every two years, and the previous years are not counted because they are given new conditions of service at every renewal. If we all concentrate all our efforts on casualization in the financial sector, it will affect us in the sense that we are indirectly giving the banks the opportunity to employ people only for six months, because our Act speaks to only six months. I appreciate the fact that the national legislative arm is coming out to know what contract workers are going through in the country, but what the senator is proposing is that after six months, it is either the bank confirms the staff or let the staff go. What will happen when the bank does not want to confirm the staff? It means the person will go. This will lead to more fraudulent activities; because with all sense of responsibility, I believe the person at home not working still have hope rather than after six months you are going back home. For me, the person’s condition would be worse- off. When the public hearing comes up, we will make our position known. We will be meeting very soon to ratify our position on the Labour laws. The Labour Minister and his state counterpart are on it and have been of immense value to us and with some banks. We demand a contract that is non-permanent in nature. If everyone cannot be a permanent staff, but at the end of the period of two years, there should be a sort of career growth path.
But if the institution agrees to retain or confirm you as permanent staff, you move to the right. But when the institution says we don’t have a position for you then it will still allow you to grow with a percentage increase in your salary so you won’t be stagnant, and your length of service be counted for you. The reason why it is difficult for the union to fight the battle is that majority of the current contract workers are given contract letters for two years and at the end of the period some would be retained, which is as if they are doing you a favor. After two years, you will be given a new letter of employment, a new staff ID, a new staff role, and most of them on the new employment is the same salaries. Such a person can be a contract staff for six-year, in three stances, and two renewals of the same thing. You will be wondering that you have been working with X Bank for 10 years, but if you look at the legal document, it may be just two years because it is a new contract. This is where we are touching. With respect to all these contract workers, when you see a disgruntled employee, an employee that is not well-motivated, that feels bitter, that is just doing the job because of the salary, it is easy for fraudulent Nigerians to come and in through them as a troughing horse because they are not professionals they don’t have the ethics of the business and also have nothing to lose. But if we decided that until they become permanent staff, they will have the opportunity to grow. They can decide to move to other banks if the previous bank no longer needs their services because they no longer stay over there. My take is that let there be an ability for them to grow. Let there be a career path, that is what I am canvassing. I believe when there is a public hearing we will make our position known.
Where does organizing then come in, understanding the fact that most banks in Nigeria don’t allow workers under contract to unionize? How do you organize them and talk for them, and what is the banking sector position on organizing?
When it comes to unionization and organizing, the financial sector is playing on the weakness of the law. The law talks about volunteerism. But how do you volunteer to belong to something you don’t even understand, and because of that, majority of our employers, right from your letter of employment they put it in your condition of service that you are not going to belong to any “unlawful union”. We have had reason to challenge some employers on what they mean by “unlawful union”, which they said is a term for groups like cultism. But verbally they have told them they must not belong to any trade union. But with the review of this current labor law, we are saying that it is time for employers to give everybody the free will to join trade unions. In every bank in Nigeria today, the percentage of their casual workers is more than the permanent workers. For every 10 employees in a branch, it cannot be more than two that are permanent workers, the remaining eight are non-permanent workers. In the new Labour Act, we are proposing that such conditions shouldn’t be there. We have seen such letters where employers put it as part of conditions of employment that you don’t have any right to belong to “unlawful association “, but with the high rate of unemployment in the country, many would rather stay than losing their jobs on account of joining a union.