Friday, May 1, will be marked as Labour Day in Uganda and elsewhere in the world. It is a day on which we celebrate labour and pay well-deserved tribute to millions of workers who toil day and night in farms, factories and other workplaces. I would like to say a big thank you, asante sana, webale nyo, apwoyo, awadifo ambo and eyalama noi to the workers of Uganda on this auspicious day.
I am advised by reliable sources that the national celebrations for Labour Day this year were scheduled to take place in Mbarara District, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the event has been cancelled. The theme originally selected for the occasion was, “improved access to financial services for employment creation,” which is appropriate and timely.
At such difficult, trying and uncertain times, the workers of Uganda must of necessity unite, join hands, close ranks and work together in order to survive and chart a meaningful way forward. As a popular saying goes, united we stand, divided we fall.
According to the director general of the International Labour Organization (ILO), Mr Guy Ryder, the Covid-19 pandemic is not only a medical crisis, but also a social and economic disaster. The human dimensions of the pandemic demand that the United Nations and national governments act decisively, take coordinated, effective and urgent measures which should focus on the most vulnerable people in society, such as women, children and persons with disability.
ILO estimates that as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, as many as 25 million people will be rendered jobless or unemployed. The loss of workers’ income as a direct result of unemployment is estimated to be as high as $3.4 trillion.
In a world where only one out of five workers are eligible for unemployment benefits, layoffs spell disaster for millions of families, especially in African countries, most of which do not have national welfare programmes for citizens.
It’s already happening here in Uganda. According to a story published in Daily Monitor of April 16 (Companies lay off more employees), more business enterprises have suspended workers following extension of the lockdown by 21 days on April 14 by Sabalwanyi. In the hospitality industry, which is among the hardest hit, thousands of workers have been laid off or sent on indefinite unpaid leave as 80 per cent of hotels have closed down. Hundreds of Ugandan workers are literally on the streets while government appears to be helpless and clueless.
What is the way forward?
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed structural weaknesses, bottlenecks and deep fault lines in labour markets in Uganda, elsewhere in Africa and the world at large. Many small and medium size enterprises have closed down or cut down working hours, or dismissed workers. Many companies are on the verge of collapse, while thousands of flight and hotel bookings have been cancelled.
In this regard, government must bear in mind the fact that decisions made and measures taken today will have negative or positive consequences in the short and long term. As the ILO constitution states, poverty anywhere is a threat to prosperity everywhere.
Instead of shamelessly squandering Shs10b allegedly to facilitate Parliament and MPs to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, that money should be used to purchase personal protection equipment and other essential items for doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, who are in the frontline of the war against this dangerous and invisible enemy of the people.
The leadership of the National Organisation of Trade Unions must demand and ensure that NSSF resources are not misused or stolen under the guise of fighting the coronavirus pandemic. On April 21, Mr Richard Byarugaba, the managing director of NSSF, announced a hefty Shs380 million donation to the national taskforce on Covid-19. One hopes that NOTU was consulted on this matter, if not the union should take appropriate legal action.
The question of a minimum wage for the workers of Uganda remains an open sore on Uganda’s body politic. I would, once again, like to urge government to do the right thing and urgently provide a decent and reasonable minimum wage for all workers of Uganda.
Despite dark clouds hovering ominously over our beloved country, I wish the gallant workers of Uganda a Happy Labour Day.
Mr Acemah is a political scientist and retired career diplomat.