By Tony Akowe and Victor Oluwasegun, Abuja

House of Representatives Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila made a last ditch effort on Sunday to prevent Labour strike. But his effort was rebuffed.

He met with Labour leaders in Abuja and promised them palliatives which he said would be included in the proposed 2021 budget.

Gbajabiamila met with a Labour delegation led by Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) President Ayuba Wabba and Trade Union Congress (TUC) President Quadri Olaleye.

The palliatives, according to the speaker, include distribution of food items, reduction of taxes on minimum wage and payment of some special allowances.

Others are involvement in ownership of housing programmes through mortgage and distribution of special buses to public institutions which run on auto gas.

Gbajabiamila said the palliatives would go a long way to assuage the suffering of Nigerians.

He said the lawmakers would also make provision in the budget to tackle the eight million meter deficit to enable Nigerians have access to meters.

Gbajabiamila, who described estimated billing as a scam, said: “I have never heard it anywhere in the world. So, if we may have to provide for the deficit, we will have to do that.”

He appealed to Labour to suspend the planned strike, saying embarking on industrial action at this critical time would not augur well for the citizenry.

He said: “You know, you cannot go on strike at this time, if you go on strike, the people you think you are protecting will be at the receiving end. Se share your philosophy regarding workers’ rights.

“We know what Nigerians are going through, our position on electricity billing is obvious, the only thing now is to continue to talk, I am concerned about the people out there.

“This is an appeal to you to tarry a while, maybe for a few weeks. My concern is the consequence of the action on the people we are trying to protect. When you shut down the economy, the people will be at the short end of the stick.”

Read Also: Electricity tariff hike: What does NASS leadership know?

He added: “We left this meeting to the last minute because I thought that it was safe to assume that the ongoing talks between you and the Ministry of Labour would yield some results. I was so sure that at the end of the day, wise counsel would prevail on both sides for the good of the country and the good of the common man.

“But unfortunately, talks seems to have broken down and it is incumbent on us as a House, as elected representatives to see how we can come in to mediate and perhaps be a third voice and be able to broker some amicable resolutions.

“We have done this in the past trying to intervene in several looming strikes and we have been successful in many regards and we hope that this will not be different. I just commend the Labour union for doing what you have been doing over the years, by being the watchdog of the government and the society, protecting the common man.

“But, you know we can’t do this. We can’t go on this strike. In good conscience, we can’t. In most of the things, you know that we are on the same page. The leadership and the House of representatives are on the same page with you. But what is the consequence? That is the bigger picture of going on strike.

“Sometimes, no matter how long negotiation last, at the end of the end, the interest of the people matters. The leadership of the House share your thoughts and philosophy regards to workers plight.

“My position on electricity metering and estimated billings has remained.the same over the years. We understand the pains that Nigerians are going through and will not compromise that because we don’t want to put them in more hardship. There is the saying that the end justify the means. But in this case, I think the only means left is to continue to talk and I know that we will arrive at something at some point.

“I would like the government to reverse if need be, but I am also aware that anywhere in the world, whether in an advanced democracy or developing democracy, rarely does a government reverse policy decisions. It is not impossible anyway, but it rarely happens. In many places, it is called policy summersault.

“We have made our position very clear. We have had meetings with the vice president and the executive on this issue. On the issue of electricity, we told them to wait till second quarter of next year and that is where we left it. So, how do we move forward and achieve the result that we want without halting the common man.

“This agitation is even coming at the right time in the sense that in the next couple of weeks, the budget will be presented and many of these things have alot to do with the budget.

“I also remember that it was the position of this House and the National Assembly in general that the issue of tariff increase should not be effected until metering is done. Infact, part of the conditions precedent to the privatisation is that within two years of privatisation, meters will be provided.

“We have also looked at the template they have used in implementing the increase and we noticed a lot of discrepancies which the government has.also agreed to investigate. Seven years down the line, we are still going in the wrong direction. How can we privatise and government is still putting in money. Instead of addressing the issue, we are now transferring the burden to Nigerians by increasing tariff.

“We have had two meetings with government and at the last meeting, government requested that we adjourn for consultation before the meeting is reconvened. We are expecting that the issues will be resolved in the interest of all Nigerians.”

Wabba said “The bottom line is that we want this burden that has now been shifted to Nigerians as consumers also be lifted so that  we can have a decent life.”

On the court injunction stopping the strike, Wabba said Labour were yet to be served, but added “are you not aware also  that there is a court judgment stopping the tariff? There is a valid judgment from the High Court stopping the tariff increase and that judgment is still subsisting. Are you not aware of that?

“And on the issue or the court injunction (stopping the strike), we have not been served.

Therefore, our expectation is that we should be able to in good faith continue to dialogue, not to try to ambush because we have not received the order as of today (yesterday).

“I have said it from day one and will continue to say it that estimated billings is the biggest crime to have ever been committed against Nigerians. I have never heard of it anywhere in the world. Estimated billing is supposed to be in a situation where you cannot enter a house to read the meters. It is a service industry and you must pay for what you get.

“I don’t know what your position is on the tariff, but government is saying it is the lowest in the world. If that be the case, then we have to take another look at it because nobody is in business to lose. Then, what we should be talking about here is the timing. We agree with you on the timing.

“This is an appeal. I want you to see the House not Representatives as your partner. There will always be clashes between government and labour everywhere in the world. But let it not be said that in the case of Nigeria, it has become a recurring decimal.”

The NLC President told the Speaker that the “two policy announcement were made without consultation with Labour and it has led to a lot of dislocation in the economy of many Nigerians because the purchasing power of alot of Nigerians has been completely eroded. Inflation is also souring while the cost of goods and services is out of the reach of Nigerians. As I speak to you today, a bag of 50kg of rice is selling for about N33, 000.

“It is because of the fact that it has had negative impact on the wellbeing of Nigerian workers and Nigerians in general that we thought that these issues needed to be discussed. Labour has engaged these issues for the past 30 years. The first increase was inn1988 under Babangida and Labour responded.

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