There is more to the role of labour in nation-building than the wage fight, writes Shola Oyeyipo
Restructuring should be at the heart of the Nigeria Labour Congress’ wage demands. At the moment, majority of states struggle with paying workers’ salaries even at the present N18,000, with many owing a backlog. While there is no doubt that Nigerian workers deserve the N30,000 minimum wage they’re asking for, if not more, the truth is that the states cannot afford it.
Statutorily, the fundamental responsibilities of the NLC is to protect, defend and promote the rights, well-being and the interests of all workers, pensioners and the trade unions; to promote and defend a Nigerian nation that would be just, democratic, transparent and prosperous and to advance the cause of the working class generally.
This job description also entails promoting, defending and advancing the economic, political and social well-being of Nigerian workers.
Going by this and the fact that the N18,000 minimum wage took effect since 2010, it truly should have been reviewed due to current economic realities. In fact, the amount had been due for upward review since 2015, as provided for in the National Minimum Wage Act (amendment) 2011.
However, it is election period and apparently the best time to hold ‘unyielding’ governments by the jugular and make them do the needful by agreeing to an increase in workers’ salaries. Why not? Workers are more or less the lifeline of the nation’s economy and should be well-treated. Not many Nigerians will contest that.
However, particularly instructive and clearly missing in the whole of the negotiations that went down is the feasibility of payment by the states. Labour went to war with the federal government over minimum wage, forgetting that the chunk of the civil service bill is picked by the states. What this means is that the last has not be heard of wage crises as states with less financial strength will continue to sustain the wage war.
According to Governor David Umahi of Ebonyi State, 95 per cent of states in the country cannot pay the proposed N30, 000 minimum wage to workers.
Umahi, who is the Chairman of the South East Governors Forum, said the payment of the N30, 000 can only be realised if the federation account allocation formula is reviewed to offer more earnings to states.
“The federal government collects 52 per cent of the revenue from the federation account and when I tried to put the N30,000 figure to Local Government Areas (LGA), it means they will borrow N1billion to add to their allocation, in paying salaries. “I will definitely not be a governor to govern such a state and will never preside over a state that will allocate 100 per cent of its earnings to pay salaries,” he said.
To this end, making the states more viable, which can only be achieved through a return to true fiscal federalism, should be the focus of the NLC in particular, and well-meaning Nigerians in general.
With that well situated, it is about time labour began to refocus its struggle and start to fashion out a more generally acceptable method and approach to national issues rather than embarking on just strikes.
For instance, earlier in the year, human rights activist, Femi Falana (SAN), advised the NLC not to limit its struggle to the issue of minimum wage. He suggested that the NLC should get involved in active politics, because it was the only union that could fight for the interest of Nigerian workers.
Falana’s thinking is that since no political party represents the interest of the Nigerian people, labour could form a coalition that would take control of power and administer the country.
“The NLC can no longer limit itself to the defence of wages alone, it has to get involved in the issue of politics as it did in the past and intervene politically. The union has over the years fought for the interest of the masses much more than the members of the ruling class … which sold our common patrimonies.
“The only time you see the ruling class defending the masses is when there was going to be an election and after they won election it is now preservation of the status quo and of imperialism,” he opined.
Falana’s suggestion is not out of sync with realities in other parts of the world. There is the Labour Party, a centre-left political party in the United Kingdom. It has been described as a broad church, bringing together an alliance of social-democratic, democratic socialist and trade unionist outlooks.
There is also the U.S. Labor Party (USLP), a political party formed in 1973 by the National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC), which served as a vehicle for Lyndon LaRouche to run for President of the United States in 1976, and it also sponsored many candidates for local offices and congressional and senate seats between 1972 and 1979.
Since the NLC commands such huge powers to ground the economy and subject every Nigerian, irrespective of whether it is against their wish, to stay at home, it is therefore not out of place for the NLC to present a formidable political party that would always canvass labour’s position.
A columnist recently wrote that Nigerians are inundated with labour strikes and that they would rather prefer an action that contributes largely to changing the Nigerian narrative, for example, by redirecting their nationwide strike to demand for a crash in the allowances of members of the National Assembly, which is above N13 million and N8 million for the Senate and House of Representatives respectively.
It is rather selfish on the part of labour leaders never to consider industrial action over the plight of thousands of lives that have been callously taken by rampaging herdsmen. Would that mean that members of NLC and their affiliates have not been victims of these attacks?
Right thinking Nigerians are querying why the NLC never deemed it right to take to the streets over several monumental frauds that have been exposed in the country. The federal government was accused of having released a lot of money without legislative appropriation – a clear constitutional breach – but labour has never taken up the issues to reprimand the government. Examples abound.
Rather than wait till when the very potent union loses the goodwill with which Nigerians support it, now is the most appropriate time for labour to take its pride of place in the national space by stepping in to take proactive positions that will sincerely and ultimately lead to better living conditions for workers and every other Nigerian, rather working from outside the box in the interest of a political party.
To this end, there is no issue more important to the soul of Nigeria than the restructuring of the country, especially regarding fiscal federalism. Each state should be able to decide how much it can afford to pay workers according to its viability. For this to happen, the states need to be viable.