President, Association of Senior Staff of Banks, Insurance and Financial Institutions (ASSBIFI), Oyinkan Olasanoye, in this interview with Gloria Nwafor, speaks on the impacts of COVID-19 on bankers, the challenges of working from homes, uncoordinated regulatory policies and the correlation between financial frauds and contract employees in the banking sector, among other issues.
How would you assess the financial sector during COVID-19 pandemic and how much was lost during the period?
The financial sector is the nerve of the country when it comes to economic matters. Whatever affects the economy globally also affects the financial sector. The sector has lost trillions of naira in various ways. Most of the institutions took loans from foreign institutions, which they pay mostly quarterly. When they signed the loans, the exchange rate was not this high. Repaying the loans has really affected the sector.
There have been some government policies that have also greatly affected the sector. For us, COVID-19 has had more effects on our sector but we were able to seem that we will recover faster because while others were still enjoying, we had gone through various recessions and the fifth industrial revolution has really affected us.
Since our sector had suffered before now, we are used to working with artificial intelligence, machines and other technologies, which has made it easier for us to recover faster. However, we have been affected. Till now, it is still affecting us. Nigerians are complaining about long queues in the banks and time wasted. All these are still the effects of COVID-19.
How many workers were affected in terms of job cuts and how has it impacted your membership?
We will see more of these in 2021. My fear is in the first quarter of 2021. The policies the government put in place to combat COVID-19 was that only 60 per cent capacity should open in the financial sector that is why not all banks’ branches have opened.
For those that have opened, 60 per cent of the workers must work from home. Our employers have been able to see that they need more technology than human beings. Those who work from home use technology from home. They have been able to see some departments that may need to be merged next year because those working from home and the 60 per cent that is physical in the bank have been able to do more.
However, we appreciate our employers on their agreement with NECA that no worker would be laid off on the effect of COVID-19. That was the palliative we asked for when the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) met with Vice President Yemi Osinbajo that there shall be no layoffs and that the recapitalisation of the banks and insurance companies be suspended. However, our fear is this- before now, people were laid off after poor performance. Presently, Nigeria doesn’t have 100 per cent automation in the financial sector. We still have people who want to come to the banking hall to perform their transactions due to the high level of scammers in the sector. Now that some branches have been locked down, it means that a particular branch is not performing. Despite that we have our members working from home; there are some things you cannot perform from home. So, at the end of the year, I could see more financial sector workers being declared unproductive. That is why I earlier said it is in 2021 that we will have issues.
What does post-COVID-19 portend for financial institutions?
Looking ahead at 2021, we are adequately prepared to negotiate on behalf of our workers. None of our members would be laid off, the secretariat will bargain on behalf of our members. We will make sure that due process is followed, that our PFAs are updated so that we have something to fall back on when we leave. However, our preparations are being affected by policies. The collective agreement we have is outdated. When companies want to lay off, our collective agreement is based on industrial sectoral collective bargaining (CB). So, where we have a CB that has not been taken into consideration amidst the global pandemic, definitely, we are still going to have issues based on policies. We have tried within our capacity to call the government to order and we had given the ultimatum that the ministry of labour appealed to. When it comes to that time there would be negotiations.
What is your take on companies converting their employees to contract workers?
In a country that has high unemployment and underemployment with the huge number of graduates churned out of the universities yearly without a future, where a worker has over 20 dependants and you are about to lose your job, and there is an opportunity for you to become a contract worker, you will definitely take it. Unionism is voluntary. It is going to be tough. That is why we are prepared; early this year, we worked with some banks that instead of laying off our members can we have a salary cut and they accepted. We’ve been able to work with three banks this year, we have an agreement for three, six months of salary cut rather than laying off. We are looking into that again next year against laying everyone off because if you have six in a department and you lay off four, the remaining two will still do the job of the six. We are already losing out on our work-life balance in the financial sector. We are well prepared that instead of the six to go we don’t mind having a salary cut so that some of us will remain. However, we are careful with our employers so they don’t capitalise on it.
Nigerians allege that labour has lost relevance. How can labour get back its voice?
I appeal to Nigerians to show more understanding. It is not about sell-out but the situation we find ourselves in. The Labour Act specifies processes of going on strike. For civil society, there is no law that specifies the way they go on strike; so we can’t be compared. When the issue of strike arises, we have to follow ILO and the United Nations stand on what the law says about social dialogue. We will do more to enlightenment for Nigerians to be able to understand what we are going through.
How can we have effective trade unionism in Nigeria?
Our employers are trying as much as possible to make labour irrelevant and the situation we find ourselves in in the country is also to the disadvantage of labour.
An International Labour Organisation (ILO) law said if we have an issue we should use social dialogue. The last time labour proposed a strike, the government called for a meeting and we had to attend to embrace social dialogue. The labour Act is not to the advantage of industrial unions, we have tried to manage in between. In the financial sector, our collective agreement expired 2007 and we are in 2020, running round to get it renewed. This is something that is contained in the National Wages Act and a convention of ILO.
It is not the union that is not relevant but where we found ourselves these days is everything around us is squeezing the life out of us. They make us look irrelevant that it takes people to understand how the union works to want to be part of the union. They make it very tough. It is the totality of the environment that the union finds itself in that made it look inefficient.
What can labour do to break the jinx?
We are trying at present to change the Labour Act. We are doing more enlightenment for our members on advocacy and to get the accurate information before our employers. We are doing more advocacy, leveraging of information, more training, and everything to get our members enlightened. We have become more open to members, part of which we send to our members weekly what the labour law talks about different sectors and advocacy to know where really the problem is.
Do you see threats on the jobs of your members with the presence of bank agents? Do you plan to unionise them?
It all still boils down to the policy. With banks closing down branches, these agents have to bridge the gap. But if we can have our collective agreement in place, then we can find a way to unionise these agents. There will be more fraudulent practices where people refused to control each other. The fraud level in the banks became high since banks started employing contract workers. These workers are not core professionals, they are not well trained and they don’t have ethics for the job. It is easy for them to be used as a trojan horse that is why they can be used as soft targets to commit financial fraud. Nigerians should be prepared to see more scams from these agents not because they lack integrity but because they are not core professionals it will be easy for scammers to use them.
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