May Day: A Victory Dance for Workers

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BY Onyebuchi Ezigbo

This year’s May Day celebration is significant in many respects. For one, this year’s May Day coincided with the centenary celebration of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Secondly, it came at a time when the organised labour  emerged from a successful struggle for the N30,000 new minimum wage for Nigerian workers. It also happened at a period in history, when the nation is going through very challenging economic times. May Day is very significant in the life of workers the world over. For the labour movement in Nigeria, the day presents an auspicious opportunity to appraise the contributions of workers to nation-building. It is also an occasion to reflect on the progress and setbacks in the struggle to improve the lot of workers. Apart from the theme of the day’s celebration: ‘Another 100 Years of Struggle for Jobs Dignity and Social Justice in Nigeria’, the organised labour also seized the moment to drum support for the implementation of the new minimum wage. The two labour centres, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) delivered a joint speech at the May Day celebration, signifying unity of purpose and the fact that when it comes to the issue of workers welfare, they are ready to work together to achieve results.

 Minimum Wage Implementation

With the cloud of uncertainty hovering over the implementation of N30,000 new minimum wage, especially at the state level, the leadership of the labour movement used the occasion of the workers’ day to send warning to those state governments, which might be contemplating defaulting in payment of the new minimum wage. But the federal government gave labour a reassurance that it is going to implement the new minimum wage with effect from April. Also 17 states have so far indicated that they will pay.  

The states that have agreed to pay are Delta, Oyo, Lagos, Ondo, Ebonyi, Rivers, Edo, Kano, Zamfara, Kogi, Niger, Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Kaduna, Anambra, Ogun and Enugu. For the federal government, the May Day event provided it with an opportunity to indulge in self-praise. It said the new minimum wage was the best gift it can offer the workers. Addressing workers at this year’s celebration at the Eagle Square, Abuja, the Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Prof. Stephen Ocheni, said the federal government had shown that it cared for the welfare and well-being of Nigerian workers by hastening action on the N30,000 new minimum wage. Ocheni, who stood in for the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, said the new minimum wage law took effect from April 18, 2019, and that all entities, including states and local governments are to start paying immediately. That pronouncement came as a soothing balm to the workers, who thronged the Eagle Square venue of the event. The minister got rewarded with corresponding applause. He urged  private sector employers  to do the same. Ocheni stated: “We expect immediate discussions with the different Joint Negotiating Councils for consequent adjustments upstairs as a result of the movement from N18,000 to N30,000.”

Ocheni further stated that the federal government had converted the tripartite committee on negotiations for new minimum wage to a standing committee, which will be responsible for setting new minimum wage after every five years. He said having assented to the N30,000 minimum wage bill, the federal government said it was committed to its immediate implementation. 

Ocheni added that workers now had the right to approach the Industrial Court to enforce the payment of the new minimum wage at all levels of government. Labour movement is not known to have such patience to wait for court to adjudicate on the  issue of worker’s welfare. It will be  difficult to say at this stage what will happen when indeed labour heeds federal government’s advice to drag states defaulting in the implementation of the minimum wage. 

Tripartite Committee

One recurring decimal in the history of minimum wage matter is that it has always been a subject of controversy. However, in attempt to guard against the mistakes of the past, the federal government said the tripartite committee on negotiations for minimum wage will now serve as a standing committee with the mandate to negotiate a new minimum wage every five years. 

According to the minister, the tripartite committee will be expected to commence talks on review of the present minimum wage six months to the end of the five-year-timeline. 

Also the minister in a bid to forestall industrial crisis resulting from any form of default in the implementation of the new minimum wage by states, said that trade unions have the right to approach the National Industrial Court on matters relating to the non-compliance with the New Minimum Wage Act for adjudication.

Looming Labour Crisis

With organised labour insisting on immediate implementation of the new minimum wage law and some state governors vehement that they will not be able to foot the bill, the stage may be set for another round of struggle by the labour union. As stated in their address at the workers day celebration, NLC President, Ayuba Wabba, said they insisted on timely implementation of the wage increase. According to him, the tripartite committee has already wasted a lot of time arriving at the new national minimum wage. “We should not waste a single more second implementing the new national minimum wage across board. We urge workers to remain vigilant till total victory is won.”

NLC and TUC said they would not only push for compliance with the minimum wage payment at all levels but noted that henceforth the national leadership of labour will also take action against states owing salary arrears to workers to ensure that it is cleared.

The Deputy Chairman of Senate Committee on Labour, Senator Victor Umeh, who represented the Senate president, commended Buhari for giving timely assent to the new minimum wage bill after it was speedily passed by the National Assembly.

He said there could be no meaningful development without the contribution and support of workers. Many who addressed workers at ceremony applauded the federal government and labour movement for resolving the issue in a relatively peaceful manner. The senator representing Anambra Central on the platform of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), spoke on behalf of the Senate President. He made a case for more investment in the development of human capital, adding that the future of the country depends on how efficiently and effectively the government is able to utilise the human resource potential. 

In her goodwill message, Head of the Civil Service of the Federation, Mrs. Eyo Etta, commended the resilience of Nigerian workers and urged them to continue to support the government. She said the president had succeeded in putting a smile on the faces of Nigerian workers by not only approving funds for payment of arrears of salaries, allowances and pensions, but also signing into law the new minimum wage.

 Assessment of State of the Nation

The labour union made some valid observations on the just-concluded general election, saying the elections were characterised by lots of electoral infraction. It therefore, demanded the implementation of the Justice Muhammed Uwais-led Committee Report on reform of the nation’s electoral system as a way forward. On the mounting debt profile, the apex labour union said workers were concerned over the increasing debt accumulation by governments at all levels. The concern of labour is quite understandable when one considers the fact that most of the states are currently witnessing economic hardship. According the labour movement, figures from the Debt Management Office put Nigeria’s debt burden as at December 31, 2018 at N24.387 trillion, adding that the breakdown of the debt stock revealed that the federal government’s external debt increased by 42.69 per cent from N4.527 trillion in 2017 to N6.460 trillion in 2018. 

Records indicate that about two-thirds of the government’s revenues go into servicing interest payments, with the principal still waiting for redemption at maturity. Another issue that attracted concern of labour is the deteriorating situation in the electricity sub-sector. It said that the privatised  electricity distribution companies (DISCOs) have failed the nation and should have their terms of agreement reviewed. The union said: “It is sad that the Nigeria Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) appears soft on operators and hard on consumers. We call on the federal government now that the tenure of the DISCOs is due for renewal to review the entire privatisation exercise and come up with the best approach to deal with this challenge.”