States should negotiate with labour and agree on what is feasible

A bill seeking to remove negotiations on minimum wage from the concurrent list passed the second reading in the House of Representatives last month. The essence of the legislation, according to the sponsor, is to allow both the federal and state governments to freely negotiate minimum wage in line with the idea of a federation which we still practice, although mostly in breach. It is titled, ‘A Bill for an Act to alter the constitution of the federal republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) to, among others, transfer the subject matter of minimum wage prescription from the Exclusive Legislative List set out under Part I of the Second Schedule to the Concurrent Legislative List set out under Part II of the Second Schedule to the constitution; and for related matters’.

The proposed legislation has stoked anger from many stakeholders, including the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC). It is understandable. If the bill passes through concurrence in the Senate after passage in the House, it will translate to the federal government losing its exclusive power to negotiate and determine the minimum wage for workers across the three tiers of government in the country. And when such becomes law, each of the 36 states and 774 local governments will have the power to determine different wages for their workers. It therefore came as no surprise that, following passage of the bill by the House, there was a protest by organised labour.

Speaking at the National Assembly where he led workers to protest, NLC President, Ayuba Wabba, argued that if the bill passes, apart from creating minimum wage variations across the country, it will introduce politics into the wage determination and negate the collective bargaining principle. Wading in, the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF) has held sessions with organised labour on the issue of minimum wage. But their position remains the same: each state should negotiate with labour on how much they can afford.

Whatever may be other misgivings, there is merit in the argument of the governors, especially at a period the clamour for restructuring the country to enthrone fiscal federalism is strident. As a newspaper, we have always queried the assumption that minimum wage should be uniform across the 36 states, without isolating the peculiarities and operating environment of each. Our position has therefore always been that state governments should determine the wages of workers and be at liberty to retain only those that are productive. We have always advocated the need to reflect on some of the cadres of workers in the civil service that are superfluous.

However, while we subscribe to a drastic re-orientation that requires labour leaders to understand that states cannot continue to pay the same wages due to several factors, the governors can also not continue to live in luxury and yet deny workers in their states living wages. That is precisely where the problem lies. Living like modern-day emperors with little or no checks from the legislative arm, it is difficult for many of the governors to offer logical persuasion to workers in the states that they indeed cannot pay the federal minimum wage. But we are also of the view that Labour must shift from its fixations. Standards of living, for instance, in states like Yobe and Rivers or Lagos are not the same. So, you cannot expect that workers in these two states be paid the same wages.

We urge the National Assembly to interrogate all the issues in the bill and take on board the arguments of all stakeholders. But we endorse the principles that underpin the idea that states cannot be compelled to pay the same wages.