Adewale Kupoluyi urges government to engage NLC in a sincere dialogue

The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the United Labour Congress (ULC) have threatened to resume strike on November 6, if the federal government fails to heed the demands of Nigerian workers for increase in minimum wage. According to the trio of NLC President, Ayuba Wabba, the TUC President, Bobboi Kaigama; and ULC President, Joe Ajaero, the unions decried the federal government’s decision to implement a ‘no work, no pay’ policy. The organised labour had insisted that the federal government should rather implement a ‘no pay, no work’ policy just as it would criminalise the non-payment of salaries by employers.

No doubt, the essence of national minimum wage is to protect the right of the worker to earn a decent standard of living and also a means of promoting fair distribution of income and wealth. The minimum wage is usually adjusted through a continuous process of comparing the purchasing power of minimum wages in relation to different baskets and across the regions within the fiscal regime.

It would be recalled that in September, NLC declared a nationwide strike over the stalled process of providing a new national minimum wage, but the strike was hurriedly suspended after a few days because an agreement was reached to resume negotiations by reconvening the tripartite committee set up to find a lasting solution to the problem. The 30-member tripartite National Minimum Wage Committee was set up by the federal government to negotiate a new wage for workers by reviewing the current one and recommending another that takes care of the current conditions of living in the country.

Unfortunately, the federal government could not get the nod of state governors to present a proposal for an acceptable minimum wage to the committee, leading to the lock-jam. Workers had initially demanded for N56,000 as the new minimum wage, now reduced to N30,000 while the federal government and state governments are offering N24,000 and N20,000, respectively. State governors are insisting that they should be allowed to set their own minimum wage, as many of the states were hardly able to pay the subsisting one. Labour unions are saddened that state governors could work against the N30,000 minimum wage while still expecting workers to vote for them under the current political dispensation.

The process of implementing a new national minimum wage had always become problematic in the country over the years. In other climes, national minimum wages are fixed alongside those set by subnational governments. The assumption is that because of the peculiarities of federating states, there is likely to be minimum wage differentials across regions. This is in tandem with the line of arguments of the governors that seem to be critical of the payment of the new wage. Should workers bear the brunt of this failure to reconcile positions?

In Nigeria, the series of criticisms and objections had made wage adjustments and minimum wages discourse to be politicised. The truth is that many workers are of the opinion that labour agitations in Nigeria have been heavily politicised to the extent that union leadership appeared to have lost direction and are only interested in getting undue attention, cutting corners and short-changing the system for their personal gains. It is for these reasons that labour leaders at times get serious knocks from their members for allegedly being unfaithful. Cabinet ministers and government officials overseeing labour matters in the country have equally been accused of taking sides and compounding the problem.

The issue of new wage negotiations would have been over by now if government had been consistent while our labour leaders are tactical and focused like some of their predecessors of old that sacrificed their personnel comfort and interests in their campaign for get better package for workers. To put an end to the persistent unrest, the federal government should stop foot-dragging and playing antics that would further delay the implementation of a new wage regime for the many starved Nigerian workers.

Come to think of it; can N18,000 adequately feed, clothe and cater for an adult working in our country today? The answer is simply ‘no’. The devaluation of the Naira, increase in the price of petroleum products and inflation have rendered the income of an average worker useless. Many workers in the country are perpetual debtors because of their weak purchasing power. They often rely on loans to get basic needs for themselves that should ordinarily be provided for by the state. That is why many of them are not financially stable. Many of them are just working; they have nothing to show for it because of the bad shape of the economy. To make government perform its constitutional duties to the citizens, a number of fiscal rejuvenation initiatives have to be embraced almost immediately.

To begin with, the pattern of public expenditure that is not prudent and wasteful should be jettisoned. They include misplaced priorities and white-elephant projects that have no direct impact and bearing on the people. Many states across the federation are guilty of this, as they continue to embark on borrowing spree. Not only that, many workers are being retrenched in the face of the harsh economy and pervading acute unemployment in the land. There is need for more pragmatism in our disposition to public finance. Nigeria is a blessed country such that with adequate planning and fiscal discipline, it should be able to comfortably stand tall among leading industrial giants.

Federal, state and local governments should look inward and realistically manage their bureaucracies for better service delivery without increasing costs. They should undertake radical reforms hinged on public expenditure template such that elected officials and political appointees would no longer live big at public expense bearing in mind that we all go to the same market. Public funds should be allocated and spent on social services and critical infrastructure while leaving business ventures to the private capital in the form of public-private partnership. Senior citizens and pensioners should be accorded great priority by paying their entitlements on a regular basis. More focus should be placed on reducing public debt, overhauling the taxation system to make taxes the main source of public revenues and getting more informal sector operators to pay correct taxes by dragging them into the tax net. More importantly, the labour minister should be unbiased, perform his duties objectively and stop fuelling the impasse.

Standard practice in federal systems supports minimum wage legislation by the different tiers, though none should be lower than the federal rate. Nigeria could adopt what is obtained in other developed countries by separating minimum wage from general salary review and allow federating states to set their own pay based on capacities and capabilities. As an enlarged meeting of stakeholders holds on the matter, the nation cannot afford to witness another strike at this crucial time when the nation is still battling with ripple effects of economic recession. Therefore, the government should urgently do the needful by engaging the workers in sincere dialogue and negotiation that would pave way for the actual implementation of a living new minimum wage for our workers.

Kupoluyi wrote from Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta