Buhari, May Day and the Question of Workers’ Welfare

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Simeon O’diwe

To eloquently assert from this very beginning that President Muhammadu Buhari runs a labour friendly administration is a better way to lead this piece. Why not anyway for an administration whose easy ride to power emanated from an overwhelming trust of the people in its promise to better their lots? Notwithstanding therefore the teething challenges occasioned by vastly depleted national purse, and further hobbled by furious economic recession, the upliftment and welfare of the people have remained on the top burner. Close watchers of the internal workings of the administration often reveal how dear the welfare of the people is to the President. In fact, insider sources did recount how difficult it was to convince the President after over a year of persuasion, to agree to the increment in the pump price of petroleum products. “The people will suffer,” he would say each time he was approached.

 However, if there was any guess in the public sphere as to the commitment of his administration to lessening the sufferings of Nigerians, an unprecedented act of compassion on July 6, 2015, barely a month in office, cleared it all. That day, the President approved a whopping sum of 1.2 trillion Naira to bail out bankrupt states and enable them pay a long list of embarrassing arrears of workers’ salaries.  The President again went on further rescue when on December 2, 2016, he approved another round of N522 billion to states. The Paris Refund of March 16, 2017 was also to enable the states discharge their primary obligations and fight poverty by putting money in the hands of the people.

Worthy of mention at this juncture is the sum of 16 billion Naira earmarked in the 2016 budget for partial offset of an accumulated promotion arrears, retirement benefits, death benefits and re-location allowances totaling about 63 billion naira, owed since 2008.  Though the virement expired with the budget, it has been recaptured in 2017 budget and will be disbursed to deserving workers once the budget is passed.

But in all these, the arm of the federal executive directly charged with the welfare of the Nigerian workers has left no one in doubt of its clarity of vision, firm-footed direction and iron-cast resolve to push their wellbeing beyond what the administration met. The Minister of Labour and Employment, Sen. Chris Ngige, a former Governor of Anambra State, former Senator and former federal civil servant has in the last seventeen months in office, abundantly represented the mantra of the administration as the best labour –friendly government in the country’s recent history. Though in-charge of labour and employment in a historic moment of ever crushing national poverty, his ingenuity in labour administration has in no small measure arrested what would have been conflagrating industrial unrests, resulting from rioting industrial disputes too many to recount here. The effect of such distraction on the stability of the nation can easily be imagined.

With “if we can’t create new jobs, let’s retain what we have” as a charter, the Labour Minister relentlessly pursued this goal by making sure that no worker was sacked in the civil service of the federation and went further to impress same on the states governments.  Having done that, he urgently waded into simmering volcano of massive retrenchment in the Petroleum, Banking and Financial Institutions as well as in the construction sectors, securing a firm agreement to dial back on unilateral declaration of redundancy. “We shall not keep silent while workers are being mistreated in their own country. Our strategy is to save jobs by convincing the operators in these sectors to thinker with the heavy allowances at the top so as to save medium and low level jobs down the line,” Ngige was quoted in July 2016. And he largely succeeded.

The issue of the minimum wage which has received a lot of prominence, and is in fact the crux of the May Day agitation needs elaboration here. Unknowing to the generality of workers but very well known to their leaders, the Federal Government has committed enormous effort towards the review of the law which the constitution made mandatory every five years. Nigerians will easily recall that when in May last year the Federal Government effected the appropriate pricing of petroleum products, it subsequently set up a Technical Committee on Minimum Wage and Palliatives.  It comprised government officials and labour leaders; and chaired by the suspended Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Engr. B.D Lawal. The committee rounded off its assignment, recommending a broad based, knowledgeable twenty–nine member minimum wage committee, which will soon be inaugurated by the President.

However, it should be borne in mind that the Minimum Wage is a national law, properly scheduled in the Constitution and binding not just on the Federal Government and the states but also on the private sector, hence the reason for  tripartite negotiation. Therefore when the committee on Minimum Wage is inaugurated by the President, it will table a broad based negotiation involving the federal and state governments as one leg of the tripartite; the employers represented by the National Employers Consultative Assembly (NECA) the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria( MAN) National Association of Chambers of Commerce as well as associations in the Small and  Medium Enterprises. On the other hand, the recognized Federation of labour unions represented by the Nigeria Labour congress (NLC) the Trade Union Congress (TUC) will represent the organized labour. However, other unions not affiliated  to either NLC or TUC are not necessarily shut out from the negotiation. Therefore, it is going to be a large body of negotiators in compliance with the International Labour Organisation  (ILO) convention  before an acceptable minimum wage is arrived at. Verily, the passage of time in between deliberations from this committee, the Federal Executive Council and the National Assembly may be a little long but it is sure a new minimum wage is real and in the offing.

––O’diwe writes from Abuja