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 Nigeria and May Day in the Centenary of the ILO

Nigeria and May Day in the Centenary of the ILO


By Owei Lakemfa

THE 2019 May Day is on Wednesday. May Day is both a distress call and a battle cry by workers. This year’s commemoration also marks the centenary of the International Labour Organisation, ILO, which has become the universal symbol of Labour. But just as May Day was born in the quite bloody circumstances of the 1886 state murder of American labour leaders, so was ILO born in the bloody peace treaty of the First World War; a war with 40 million casualties, including 19 million deaths.

The world was in turmoil and in November 1917, the Russian Revolution sprouted, threatening to trigger workers’ revolts in many countries. On June 28, 1919, the Versailles Peace Treaty ending World War I was signed. Thirteen of its 15 parts punished defeated Germany. The Treaty forced the disarmament of Germany, imposed on it heavy reparations, seized some of its territories and gave them to Poland, Czechosolovakia and Belgium, and confiscated (instead of granting independence) Germany’s colonies in China, the Pacific and Africa. These included Togo, Cameroun, Namibia, Tangayika (now part of Tanzania) and Botswana.

However, the first part of the Treaty was the Covenant which established the League of Nations, while the 13th part established the ILO in the name of universal peace based on social justice. The ILO constitution stated that the prevailing conditions of  injustice, hardship and privation in which millions of workers exist, is capable of producing “unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperiled” and, therefore, called for urgent improvement.

It argued that the establishment of the ILO is essential because “the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries.”

On May 10, 1944, the Declaration of Philadelphia was made as an annex to the ILO Constitution. It emphasized the centrality of human rights to social policy and the need for international economic planning.  Amongst other issues the Declaration stated that “labour is not a commodity,” and that “all human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity.” It also famously declared that “poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere.” In 1946, the ILO was made a specialised agency of the United Nations.

Although the ILO could neither stop the bloodier Second World War nor other wars, including those that today engulf a fifth of the African continent, it has introduced Standards and Conventions  which have helped to regulate Labour Relations in most countries. One of the major challenges of the ILO, is the rich Western countries lording it over the rest of humanity. However, it was at  the ILO Nigeria scored one of its most stunning diplomatic victories in the interest of the African people and to the glory of humanity.

Nigeria  became independent on October 1, 1960. At its first attendance of the ILO Conference in Geneva nine months later, Chief Joseph Modupe Johnson (JMJ) as Nigeria’s Minister of Labour and Head of the Nigerian Delegation personally moved a motion that Apartheid South Africa should be thrown out of the ILO.

He stood up at the ILO Conference and pronounced that the resolution was in the name of the Government of Nigeria and that “of the 40 million people of Nigeria”. He said the Nigerian people “have good will, love and affection towards other people irrespective of the colour of their skin, (and) believes in the equality of all races, abhor racial discrimination in all its forms and with all its trappings, wherever and by whomever it is practised.”

The motion by Johnson and some amendments made on the floor read: “Whereas the International Labour Organisation, dedicated to the pursuit of lasting peace based on social justice, has stressed the need for freedom of expression and of association, and the right of all human beings irrespective of race, creed or sex to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of economic security and equal opportunity, as fundamental to the attainment of the aims and purposes of the organisation.

“Whereas the organisation has adopted a series of Conventions and Recommendations calculated to implement these aims and purposes, especially as regards the promotion of freedom of association, the abolition of forced labour, the elimination of discrimination, the free choice of employment, and just and favourable conditions of employment.  Whereas the Government of the Republic of South Africa, in spite of its long association with the International Labour Organisation, accepts and practices the policy of apartheid, which said policy subjects indigenous African citizens to racial discrimination to their economic and social disadvantage, in contravention of the principles, aims and purposes of the International Labour Organisation.

“Now, therefore, this General Conference of the International Labour Organisation, meeting in its Forty-Fifth Session in Geneva, this day of June in the year nineteen hundred and sixty-one, hereby – ‘1. Condemns the racial policies of the Government of the Republic of South Africa. 2. Expresses the utmost sympathy with those people of South Africa whose fundamental rights are suppressed by the apartheid policy of the Government of the Republic of South Africa as well as those courageous people who irrespective of race and colour, are opposing apartheid.

“ ‘3. Declares that the continued membership of the Republic of South Africa in the International Labour Organisation is not consistent with the aims and purposes of the Organisation. 4. Resolves that the Governing Body of the International Labour Office is requested to advise the Republic of South Africa to withdraw from membership of the Organisation until such time as the Government of the said Republic abandons apartheid which is against the declared principles embodied in the constitution of the International Labour Organisation, and further requests the Governing Body to ensure speedy implementation of this resolution.’”

Most European government and employer delegates including those of the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Australia, Italy and Spain abstained as did the United States and of course, South Africa. The claim was that Nigeria was introducing politics into the ILO which is a non-partisan UN agency. Despite this opposition, the motion received an overwhelming endorsement. The other Nigerian delegates to that momentous ILO Conference were Messrs Tom Edogbeji, Aitkins Salubi, Tijani. M. Yusuf (Government), Mrs. Moore (Employers) and Comrade Lawrence Borha (Workers). Twenty nine years after Nigeria moved that motion, Nelson Mandela, newly freed from apartheid jail after 27 years, stood before the ILO Conference on Friday June 8, 1990 to thank the international body for that decision. The struggle continues.

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