Labour’s Push for New Minimum Wage

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Over the years, organised labour has continued to cry out about the poor wages government and the private sector pay to workers across the country. The current push by Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) for a living wage within the range of N56, 000 has opened the door for debate and confrontation amid government’s silence. Paul Obi writes

From time immemorial, workers have often bargained for more wages, with the argument that government and the corporate world constantly exploit workers through poor wages. That of Nigeria dates back to the colonial era. From 1960s to date, the agitations for wage increase have not ceased. The argument is that, Nigeria as an oil producing country, with one of Africa’s biggest Gross Domestic Product (GDP), N18,000 minimum wage is too tokenistic to be classified as a living wage.

Many Nigerians tagged the minimum wage slavish, exploitative and peanuts from hell into the pit of servitude. But, even the arrival of the N18, 000 was not a tea party, labour fought vigorously before government yielded in. Now, times have changed, Nigeria’s economy has plummeted, stocks have nose-dived, there is hike in unemployment and job losses, while forex is in crisis. Under President Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s economy once christened Africa’s shining star and emerging market giant, has taken a back seat as both the formal and informal sectors suffocate.

Under this sordid atmosphere, the federal government and the pack of governors across the states have been reluctant to kick-start talks about a new minimum wage, which the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) pegged at N56,000. On the other hand, the looting spree and the naked thievery that characterised the Nigerian ruling class have further embolden labour to argue that the N56, 000 proposed new minimum wage is realistic. The various scandals and investigations of the past administration, including the perceived corrupt political appointees in the current government have emboldened labour to insist on its demands despite the prevailing economic downturn. With the change mantra of President Buhari, the Pandora’s Box of the primitive accumulation and stealing so far has also been slit open, to the vexation of ordinary Nigerians and labour, who are now forbidden to tinker with the idea of a new minimum wage at this juncture.

NLC President, Comrade Ayuba Wabba, in his address on Workers’ Day provided the basis upon which labour is anchoring its demands. “During the last May Day, we had stated that as soon as the new government to be sworn in on May 29, 2015 settled down, we would table a proposal for a new National Minimum Wage demand. The National Minimum Wage Act which former President Jonathan signed into law in April 2011 has a five year re-opener clause for new negotiations to review the new minimum wage,” he said.

According to Wabba, “in fulfillment of the above provision, we recently submitted a N56,000 proposal as new minimum wage to the federal government, and requested it to constitute a tripartite committee made up of government (Federal & State), NECA/organised private sector, and labour, made up of NLC and TUC, to start the new negotiations in earnest. Our proposal of N56, 000 is just N4,000 more than the figure we put out for negotiation in December 2008, which was N52,000. This represents our awareness about the prevailing economic situation in the country.

Advancing further the rationale for wage increment, NLC Vice President, Comrade Peters Adeyemi, told journalists that, “some are asking if there is a justification for wage increase in view of the current economic situation on ground, the answer is yes. The naira itself has collapsed beyond the expectations of every Nigerian. As of this morning it’s about N321 to the dollar, and they say it’s stable now. If you do the calculation, that’s more than 100 per cent fall. What that means is the N18, 000 has gone down from the time it was negotiated. With good conscience, you can’t insist that N18, 000 should be the minimum wage.”

He explained that when we renegotiated the minimum wage then, the exchange rate was N145 to a dollar.” Adeyemi stated that “with this proposed new minimum wage, life will be better for our workers. At this point in time, we believe that the figure of N56, 000 is realistic and it’s supposed to be affordable by our employers,” Adeyemi said.

But, All Progressives Congress (APC) National Chairman, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, at a briefing in Abuja last week told journalists that the dismal economic situation in the country does not augur well for a new minimum wage as proposed by the organised labour. He deplored labour’s decision to hang the whole talk about new wage on the federal government. He had informed journalists that the demand for a new minimum wage “shouldn’t be a federal matter, states should be allowed to make their decisions based on their abilities to pay. The cost of living is not the same in every part of the country,” the APC national chairman said. In the same token, former Senior Special Assistant to Ex-President Goodluck Jonathan, Dr. Doyin Okupe, had suggested to governors facing difficulties in paying salaries to consider sacking workers in their states.

But labour on the other hand, had argued that should government plug the leakages in the system, halt corruption and harness the recovered looted funds, it will be in a better position to meet the NLC and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) demand for new minimum wage of N56,000. Speaking to THSIDAY, NLC Secretary General, Dr Peter Ozo-Ezon, dismissed the claims by APC national chairman that the demand for a new wage is not feasible, stressing that, he barely understands the issues of new minimum wage at stake.

“The demand for a new minimum wage is genuine; it is not focus on the federal government, the issue of minimum wage is not only a government issue, it is a wide issue on the economy, involving the private sector,” Ozo-Ezon said. He told THISDAY that “the chairman did not understand the issues; he needs to understand the issues on how a new minimum wage can be arrived at.” NLC Secretary General further argued that what is needed is not for the federal government to negotiate alone, but to constitute a tripartite commission or committee to include the three tiers of government on one side, organised labour and the private sector. According to him, “that’s the ILO convention for fixing minimum wage and Nigeria is a signatory to the convention, where it pledged to obey the rules.”

Ozo-Ezon contended that the tripartite commission in the negotiation of minimum wage is not new to the government. He cited the last committee headed by former Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Alfa Belgore (Rtd), as a clear example. The NLC scribe contended that any opposition to the proposed new minimum wage should be based on verifiable facts, adding that, individuals or groups opposed to the proposal should “support their argument with analysis, all these are matters of the process.” Asked whether labour would soft-pedal on the N56,000 wage bill and reduce it to a workable plan, Ozo-Ezon said: “We cannot be telling you whether we will reduce the amount we have put forward or not.”

Further, Human Rights Activist, Femi Falana, SAN lampooned the government for failing to heed the demand of labour, calling the N18,000 minimum wage starvation wage.

“By virtue of section 17 of the Constitution, the government is under an obligation to provide for a living national minimum wage and make conditions of work just and humane and ensure that the health, safety and welfare of all persons in employment are safeguarded and not endangered or abused. But in total disregard of its constitutional responsibility to Nigerian workers the government has provided for a starvation wage of N18, 000 per month. Even the starvation wage is not paid as and when due as stipulated by law.

“According to President Buhari, workers in 27 out of 36 states are owed arrears of salaries. Although the Nigerian people have been asked to be prepared to tighten their belts, no tier of government in the country has taken steps to reduce the expensive costs of running the public service. Over 70 per cent of the budget still goes for servicing a parasitic bureaucracy. No government has reviewed projects that constitute a drain on public treasury. Governors still travel so regularly to Abuja and other places in hired jets. There are 11 planes in the presidential fleet! Public officers move around in long convoys,” Falana said.

Minister of Labour and Employment, Sen. Chris Ngige, kept mute on the issue at the last May Day.

That’s understandable. From post to post; the federal government has been grappling with enormous challenges it promised to tackle during the campaigns. To demand new minimum wage when the purse is near empty will be suicidal, according to government officials.

On the flipside, Labour’s argument that blocking the leakages in the system, cutting cost of governance and dealing a big blow on corruption will afford government the resources to pay the proposed minimum wage, is also reason.

At the moment, there are no signs that government and labour would seek neither a meeting point nor consensus on the issue. To calm down nerves and rescue the economy from the current crisis, both parties would have to look for ways to soothe the taste of the bitter economic bill of the moment. But to government, the idea of N56,000 as new minimum wage appears spooky even in the surface.

The proposal itself has lit up the debate for a living wage, at least to bring the Nigerian worker on board also. In the next couple of weeks, if labour’s threats are real, Nigeria may be heading for another labour crisis.