Article from www.nigeriasolidarity.org --- Campaign for Democratic and Workers' Rights in Nigeria


TOWARDS A LIVING PENSION: CDWR HOLDS WORKSHOP ON PENSION

Emmanuel Adikwu

14 April 2008

The Campaign for Democratic and Workers’ Rights (CDWR) held a workshop on issues around pensions in Nigeria at the Textile Labour House Lagos on Wednesday, April 09, 2008. The workshop is part of the series of activities by the CDWR to create awareness on plight of pensioners and place demands on labour leadership to come up with a fighting programme that will bring about living pensions for retirees. It has been observed that a new pension scheme that came into operation last year has not removed the excruciating suffering of pensioners in Nigeria or shown potential of improvement. Besides, many workers are in dark of the operation of new scheme they only hope it would be better.

As a follow up to a press conference held on the subject by CDWR in January which was widely reported in the media, the workshop with theme Towards a Living Pension drew speakers from trade union, civil society, pension fund administrator. The speakers at the forum were John Kolawole, General Secretary, Trade Union Congress (TUC) (the second trade union federation after NLC) Niran Okewole, General Secretary, National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD), Mr. Femi Sofola of PENMAN {Pension Administrator}, Biodun Aremu, Executive Director , Kolagbodi Memorial Foundation; Rufus Olusesan, Chairman CDWR and Segun Sango, General Secretary, Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM).

Nobody from the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) or its affiliates were present, though invited, because of the National Executive Council meeting of the Congress taking place the same time in Bauchi, Northwest Nigeria.

The attendance at the workshop belied the massive mobilization done for the programme. About 5, 000 flyers were distributed at a number of workplaces, schools and communities in Lagos in the run-up to the workshop. The relatively small attendance was not however discouraging if taken against the background of fuel scarcity that could have prevented many ordinarily willing to attend from making it. That about 23 journalists from both electronic and print media were present in spite of fuel scarcity underscores how topical pension issues have become. Indeed, some newspapers have recently begun running special page on pension weekly. The Vanguard edition of Thursday, April 10 used almost three-quarter of its pension page to report the CDWR statements and press conference on plight of pensioners. The same paper at another page ran one of the photos taken from the CDWR workshop.

First to speak at the workshop was Dr. Niran Okewole, General Secretary of NARD. He spoke on the topic: Plight of Pensioners, beyond lamentation. He averred that the issue of pension had gone beyond lamentation and that solutions must be proffered. This is because pensioners have given their all to the development of society, and hitherto, the state had been solely responsible for payment of pension. He argued that if unemployment is reduced, more money will come into the economy and pension can be paid through taxes and other means by the government. According to him, the new pension scheme is just a design by government to shirk its social responsibility. Asking workers to contribute 7.5% of their salaries as pension is double charging the workers which had already contributed to the wealth of society or company through their labour power. He made historical comparison between what obtains here and in some European countries, especially France. He stated how issues got to a head in France and workers had to embark on strikes and demonstrations which had become today like a tradition. He thus charged trade union leaders not to turn blind eye to pension issues.

He stressed on the fact that government and big business do not care about aged and retired workers. He stated that despite that fact the state accumulates more and more wealth, it was shared among politicians and business associates while basic amenities are either obsolete or non-existent and social services have been abandoned or commercialized. Okewole submitted, “We should rise up from this meeting and call for the abolishment of the new pension scheme because it means more impoverishment and sufferings for the working masses. We should also call for an increase in State funds committed to pension. It is possible for this society to commit a larger portion of the GDP to pension”.

Femi Sofola of PENMAN contributed through the topic: Pension Reform Act 2004: Blessing for retirees or booty for Pension fund administrator? Expectedly, Sofola considered the new pension scheme as best to have happened to workers and retirees in Nigeria. He stated in the old system where government deducts and keeps pensioners money but as a result of endemic corruption government officials easily spend pensioners’ monies in their care, thereby creating problems for pensioners. However, under the new pension scheme the monies that pensioners contribute are with the custodians and not the administrator- this makes their money safe.

He also stated that the scheme empowers workers because their employers do not have power over the money contributed, even if the contributor loses his employment. He stated that the new scheme also encourages savings. In conclusion, he called on workers to embrace the new pension scheme because of all the merits it has in store for them.

Speaking on the topic, The Plight of Pensioners: Beyond Lamentation, Biodun Aremu, Executive Director, Kolagbodi Memorial Foundation, asserted pension is a right that is due to an employee. He explained that what a worker is paid is just a fraction of his/her labour input. When companies declare profit, it is the input of workers that generates such profit. He cited sections of the Nigerian constitution that guarantees the right to pension, stating that it is the irresponsibility of government that led to the collapse of the old pension scheme. As immediate measures, he stated that 10 percent of both state and national budgets should be dedicated to the welfare of the aged and unemployed.

He further stated that with advancement in science and technology that have made things easier today, it should have been less working hour and more money for workers but for a system that is built on exploitation. He argued that pension has to be related to inflation and the effects of the international market in a commensurate measure. He averred that before there could be living pension, workers have to be paid a living wage. He asserted that that struggle for improved pension has to be linked with struggle against neo-liberal attacks of privatization and commercialization. He stated that even from the laws we have today, it is criminal for government to privatize our collective assets. In conclusion, he called for system change as the long-term solution while issues of health, education, housing, jobs etc., are basic needs that must be addressed.

John Kolawole, General Secretary, Trade Union Congress (TUC) spoke on the topic: Plight of pensioners, the role of Trade Unions. He began by saying, “We live as if we are not going to die, but we will all die. Whether we are casuals, self employed or gainfully employed, we will all retire one day. Because most pensioners are simply helpless, we all have a certain amount of work to do. Pension is a social security scheme of a sort; pension is not a privilege but a right of everybody.” He lamented the fact that most people only earn pension when they have withered away through sickness, old age or have become totally incapacitated – reinforcing the fact that we don’t have a living wage in Nigeria.

The trade unions have a role to play, which a according to him, “they are not playing very well and there is a need to change that”. He said that to make labour leaders responsible they have to be educated. In his words, “We must continue to train and educate our union leaders to be able to relate to many issues. Through forums like this, we should be able to educate labour leaders”. He concluded, “We have a lot of role to play when the worker is still working; we should ensure that if the system is not working properly, it is replaced by a system that is workable. There can be no living pension unless there is a living wage. Workers are only able to rest after retirement if there is a living pension to retire to.”

Rufus Olusesan, Chairman CDWR observed that the new pension act is totally silent on the area of gratuity; there is no part of the law that completely indemnifies contributors. On fund management, he stated that the contributor does not have a say on how it is managed. Tactically, he said, government has shifted all its responsibilities to the individual with pension reform. Worse, by the nature of the new scheme, if an individual has cause to spend all his money before he dies, he is left on his own. In conclusion, he stated that the current scheme cannot be workers-friendly because it does not accommodate workers input since it was drafted by bureaucrats and big business.

Segun Sango, General Secretary, Democratic Socialist Movement {DSM}, in his contribution commended the organizers and thanked the various resource persons for gracing the programme and making contributions. He proposed that the CDWR should work towards a publication and collate the lessons and contributions from today’s programme. He stressed the point that labour must fight for a living wage because there can be no living pension without a living wage. According to him, the present pension fund is an arrangement to make available all the naira and kobo of poor people for big business to loot and tap from.

He used occasion to task labour on the power project scandal and called for mass action against looters that have siphoned all the wealth that should have been used to fund the power sector for us to have electricity. He said as at today, only one-third of Nigerians are connected electricity which is even epileptic while the money embezzled should have provided a large population an effective power supply. On the growing clamour to probe Obasanjo and other treasury looters, he called on labour to take up this duty through mass action; if not, nothing good will come out of it because the present political parties cannot do it. He rounded off, “Labour should think political and put up an arrangement where pro-masses leaders will come into power more importantly on working people political platform; labour must rise to the challenge.”

An appeal was made for donations/ pledges towards the next CDWR project, which is publication of pamphlet on pension issues. The consensus was that CDWR should write formally to participants\speakers for donation towards the publication.