When Nigerian Workers Downed

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Tools over Minimum Wage

In this piece, Onyebuchi Ezigbo reports on how the Nigeria Labour Congress is working to press home its demands and challenge the apathetic appetite of the All Progressives Congress-led federal government

Members of the organised labour recently embarked on a nationwide warning strike to press home their demands for a deal on the new national minimum wage.

On its first day, the workers’ strike recorded partial compliance by workers in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and in most of the states. The strike action also failed to bring activities to a halt in the cities as some of its affiliate unions especially in the private sector defied the strike order to open their businesses.

The workers’ industrial action did not come without a warning because the labour leaders gave a two-week ultimatum to government to address their demands. The 14-day ultimatum was first issued at a joint press conference in Lagos by labour leaders.

According to labour leaders, the current minimum wage was due for review since 2016 but the Federal Government pleaded with workers to show understanding over the prevailing economic difficulties. However, the organised labour and government got into negotiations on the new minimum wage after waiting for almost one year.

President Muhammadu Buhari set up the tripartite committee involving other stakeholders like the state governments and private organisations. The inauguration and eventual take off the committee came in March this year.

Notwithstanding the delay that dogged its take-off, the committee went into business and was about reach a consensus before the meeting was suspended indefinitely.

The National Minimum Wage Committee was set up in November 2017, but commenced work in March, this year. Explaining the genesis of the present deadlock, the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Ayuba Wabba, said that there were initial assurances by the federal government that negotiations will follow a timeline, which is to terminate with an agreement on new minimum wage latest in August or September, 2018.

Explaining further, the NLC president said the tripartite committee in course of its work, received several memoranda and inputs from 21 state governments, organised labour, agencies of the federal government and organised private sector.

According labour’s account of the negotiations, the committee has almost concluded deliberations on the need for an increase in minimum wage, and except that a few states are still dragging their feet on the matter. Figures between N65,000, N45,000 and as low as N25,000 were being canvassed by NLC, FG, states and the Organised Private Sector negotiating teams. The governors had complained of lean finances to carry additional wage burden.

They had set up a study committee to try to assess individual state capacity to absorb new wage bill. But Wabba frowned on the statement attributed to the governors that they should not be compelled to pay a national minimum wage.

He said: “We do believe that the reasons why governors find it difficult to pay the national minimum wage are lack of political will, high level of corruption, excessive cost of governance and indulgence in obscene lifestyle and white elephants.

However, the federal government explained how the negotiations were moving before the strike began.

The Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, said the presidential committee charged with task of working out details of the new wage package has almost completed its assignment except that agreement on figures for new minimum wage were yet to be reached. Ngige also went to brief Buhari on the progress made so far on the negotiations for a new minimum wage.

During a meeting with the labour leaders, Ngige assured them that the talks with the organised Labour will resume next Thursday. The minister also explained the National Economic Council was currently deliberating on the issue.

According to the Minister, after agreement on the new minimum wage may have been reached, the Federal Executive Council will consider and review it and subsequently forward same to the National Assembly.

Also last week, the chairman of the tripartite committee negotiating the minimum wage, Mrs. Ama Pepple, promised that the government will restart negotiations with the Labour.

The labour had first issued a 14-day ultimatum to the Federal and state governments to reconvene the tripartite negotiating committee on new minimum wage. However, both the federal government and the governors were unable to conclude their consultations over the issue.

In expressing support, General Secretary of the Non Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU), Peter Adeyemi, lamented the dismal state of workers’ welfare particularly the non-payment of salaries to workers in state-owned tertiary institutions.

According to Adeyemi, it amounts to great insensitivity on the part of the president to inaugurate a tripartite committee on new minimum wage only to allow it to be toyed with.

Adeyemi asked workers in states, where there are backlog of salaries to mobilise and vote the governors out at the next election.

He accused most of the governors owning workers their salaries of neglecting their core mandate.

Similarly health workers under the auspices of Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria (MHWUN) yesterday rallied support for industrial action which entered the second day today last Friday.

The President of MHWUN, Biobelemoye said: “We at the Medical and Health Workers’ Union of Nigeria wish to register our unalloyed support to the Nigeria Labour Congress under the leadership of Comrade Ayuba Wabba. We have watched with keen interest recorded partial compliance by workers in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).”

The strike action also failed to bring activities to a halt in the city as some of its affiliate unions, especially in the private sector defied the strike order to open their businesses.

With events leading to this unfortunate situation not a few Nigerians are convinced that the organised labour has exhibited the highest level of civility, patience and respect for due process in the quest for the legitimate aspirations of the working class.

From what the labour unions have said, it is apparent that reconvening the meeting of the tripartite committee and fast-tracking negotiations for a new wage is what is needed to halt the industrial action.

NLC has, however, suspended its strike on the promise by the federal government to reconvene the tripartite committee.