Nearly one year after the federal government initiated steps for a new minimum wage, the negotiations with organised labour and the private sector have yet to be concluded. This is raising concerns about the sincerity of government, Paul Obi writes
President Muhammadu Buhari says the cardinal agenda of his administration is to tackle corruption, insecurity, and the poor economy. With the zeal to revamp the economy, poverty reduction and a living wage for the masses became a priority for the government in its quest to scale up Nigeria’s economic indicators. It was against this background that the government agreed to a new minimum wage, championed by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), the umbrella body of workers.
Many believe the current monthly minimum wage of N18, 000 is below par, considering the country’s inflation rate and the poor performance of the economy.
At the last nationwide industrial action led by organised labour, a timeline for a new minimum wage was agreed upon, and the process for its realisation was initiated. A tripartite committee made up of representatives of the federal government, organised labour, and the private sector was set up to streamline modalities for a new minimum wage.
After several engagements, September 2018 was agreed as the final dateline for a new minimum wage for Nigerian workers.
However, the federal government, through the Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, said the September date was no longer feasible. According to Ngige, though the template set up by the government and organised labour for a new minimum wage had targeted September as the take-off date, the process of arriving at new wages has been difficult and cumbersome. Ngige added that the critical role state governors, organised private sector, and other stakeholders expected to play had all combined to delay the process and agreement the a new minimum wage.
The minister said, “While some state governors want the new minimum to be pecked at N50,000 a month, others are calling for N30,000, while some are insisting on the status quo as they cannot pay much.”
The federal government’s position came as a big shock to the NLC. Speaking on the labour minister’s argument, NLC President, Ayuba Wabba, said, “Nigerian workers are shocked by statements credited to the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige, that Nigerian workers should wait beyond September 2018 for the new national minimum wage.
“We used the word ‘shocked’ because it was the same minister that in February 2018, without prompting or pressure, announced to the whole world that by September 2018, the federal government would start paying the new national minimum wage. It will be a great disservice to his boss, Mr. President, if he keeps taking for granted this very important issue of a new national minimum wage. The current volte face by the Minister of Labour is not only provocative, it is also insensitive, especially, in the face of the excruciating suffering being endured by Nigerian workers, particularly, as occasioned by the increase in the cost of living.
“Do we need to remind the minister that he was once a civil servant who always looked forward to his monthly salary?”
Wabba further stated, “Nigerian workers who are not privileged to earn fat salaries, allowances, estacodes and other perks of political appointment are looking forward to enjoy minimal relief in the form of the new national minimum wage.
The leadership of the NLC regard the gaffe as inconsistent with the fervour so far demonstrated by the tripartite committee set up by Mr President to review the national minimum wage.
“The minister’s stance is also at variance with the declaration made by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo when he represented Mr. President at this year’s May Day celebrations.”
The NLC president added, “Who is the Minister of Labour speaking for? Nigerian workers want to know who has sent Dr. Chris Ngige on this nebulous errand. On whose side is the minister of labour on the upward review of the national minimum wage?
“Our position was that we would expedite actions at the level of the tripartite committee on the minimum wage and ensure that discussions and negotiations are concluded by August 2018 so that Nigerian workers can start benefitting as quickly as possible from the new national minimum wage. Finally, may we remind the minister that the review of the national minimum wage is long overdue. The NLC, therefore, categorically rejects the continued delay in approving our demand of N66,500 as the new national minimum wage.”
Speaking with THISDAY on the matter, Director-General of the Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Association, Olusegun Oshinowo, explained that the federal government could not unilaterally shift the date for the new minimum wage. Oshinowo said, “The National Minimum Wage Committee has a timetable, which it is following, and if there is any course to adjust the timetable on when to end the negotiations, the committee would have to take a decision. It is not the right of the federal government to decide. The federal government is just one of the three parties in the committee. And whatever you might have heard from the federal government is not binding on the committee.”
Oshinowo further cautioned the federal government against “pre-empting the decision of the minimum wage committee.”
The bargain for a new minimum wage is a strategic victory that organised labour hopes to win under the Buhari government. After much bickering and nationwide strikes, the new minimum wage was seen as the beckon of hope for those who toil for Africa’s biggest economy.
The federal government was also believed to have embraced the new minimum wage as an achievement to appease Nigerians who thought the administration had faltered in the economy and many other fronts. The attempt by the government to shift the goal post at the twilight of the new minimum wage negotiations may turn out to be double jeopardy for Buhari and the All Progressives Congress (APC) ahead of the 2019 general elections. Many feel it is a move that would amount to political suicide in an era labour is waiting to seize the opportunity to do damage.
Should government disrupt the negotiations for the new minimum wage and shift the September 2018 date to 2019, labour will be more fortified by then to return to the streets. The story will certainly not be palatable for the government.
Wabba warned, “The 2011 Belgore tripartite committee set up by government agreed that the review of the minimum wage should happen every five years. It is now close to eight years that the last review of the national minimum wage took place. Nigerian workers demand a change in the humiliating culture of forcing workers to bargain too hard and wait too long for meagre increases in their salaries. For many Nigerian families, this is the difference between survival and extinction.”