Suffice to say that Part 1 of the Nigerian Labour Act, Chapter 198 of 1990 makes general provision as to the protection of wages, contract of employment, terms, and conditions of workers’ employment.
This provisions of the Acts rest on section 17 (1) that states thus: Except where a collective agreement provides otherwise, every employer shall, unless a worker has broken his contract provide work suitable to the worker’s capacity on every day ( except rest days and public holidays) on which the worker presents himself and is fit for work as aforesaid, he shall pay to the worker in respect of each day on which he has so failed wages at the same rate as would be payable if the worker had performed a day work.
It could be seen from the above, two key criteria that guarantee worker’s income during a period like this are:
- Provision of work by the employer, and,
- The ability of the worker to present herself for work.
Note, however, that with COVID-19 and the compulsory lockdown by the government, these provisions could not be realized, why, because the employer could not provide work and the worker could not present himself for work.
However, section 17 (1) (b) made provision for temporary emergency or other circumstances beyond the employer’s control and clearly states that (the period of which shall not exceed one week or such longer period as an authorized labour officer may allow in any particular case), the employer is unable to provide work, the worker shall be entitled to those wages only on the first day of the period in question). Here there is a restrictive clause that makes the payment of wage in case of emergency to the first day of the emergency or lockdown as the case may be.
It is clear from the foregoing that job security and income assurance can only be implemented based on the ability of the company to engage in regular day-to-day business activities and the assurance of the worker to work and earn income. If the lockdown situation is prolonged, companies will run out of operational and production capacity and the workers would lose their jobs.
WHAT CAN BE DONE TO SALVAGE THE SITUATION
As we expect and hope that there will be a scientific breakthrough in the search for a vaccine or cure for the COVID-19 pandemic, it should be noted that the government has a herculean role to play in ensuring job security and some level of income protection especially for workers in the private sector.
The government needs to support the private sector employers by rolling out palliatives and measures that will assure them of government understanding of their plights. Business owners need government support to enable them to make a strong commitment to workers retention and some level of wage security; A glean into what countries with the highest rate of job security do will help us in this regard. The countries are Switzerland, Japan, Norway, South Korea, and Germany; these countries took decisive and critical steps to prevent massive job loss during a period of emergencies. What can be done, will or may include the following:
- Tax relief for businesses. Value Added Tax, Company Income Tax, and Personal Income Tax should be written off for a period of time.
- Provision of free healthcare thereby taking off the burden of an organization contributing to the health insurance scheme or taking up healthcare bills for their workers in isolation or that are affected with the coronavirus.
- Bailout funds should be provided for companies whose operations have been obstructed by the lockdown
- A pledge that companies will retain their workers especially those in self-isolation
- Reimbursement of paid sick leave for workers on self-isolation or confinement by the government.
It should be noted that the private sector’s employers cannot be compelled or forced to retain their staff at a moment of emergency, such an arrangement can only be achieved based on negotiation and the ability of the government to carry business owners along using NECA, TUC, and NLC.