Organised labour should be realistic and appreciate President Bola Tinubu’s good faith, writes Bolaji Adebiyi

The warning by organised labour on Wednesday over the new minimum wage could not have come as a surprise to keen watchers of Nigeria’s industrial relations. “The NLC and the TUC have made it clear, and emphatically, that should the minimum wage negotiation continue and linger till the end of May, we can no longer guarantee industrial harmony in this country,” Joe Ajaero, the president of the Nigerian Labour Congress, had said at the May Day celebration in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory.

Since February, the labour movement has been restless over the perceived delay in negotiations for a new minimum wage for workers and the 16-point agreement it reached with the federal government in October last year. It had issued a 14-day ultimatum, asking the government to fulfil its obligations under the agreement or face an industrial action. But yielding to appeal for more time by the government, and pressure from the populace that had become wary of its tactics of down-tooling at the slightest provocation, it shelved the plan.

The latest warning, though surprising, ought to be taken seriously by the federal government because it signifies not only labour’s impatience, perhaps owing to pressure from its rank and file, but also because the President Bola Tinubu administration cannot afford any disruption to economic activities in an economy that is struggling desperately to stay afloat.

Without a doubt, life has been very rough since the implementation of the twin policies of removal of subsidies on petrol and convergence of the multiple foreign exchange rates. Although the consensus of economic experts is that they were necessary steps to restructure and reposition the economy for recovery, growth and development, they have had a painful impact on the people’s standard of living as inflation spiked. Food prices have quadrupled, with many citizens grumbling loudly about how difficult it has become to feed their families.

While the complaint against rising prices of food and other essentials subsisted, the government took another necessary but painful step of reducing the subsidy on electricity, raising the tariff of the Band A consumers by over 230 per cent. Although it was argued that only about 1.5 million of the 12 million consumers would be affected by the hike, the poor delivery of electricity across the country has formed another source of massive resentment against the government.

A combination of hunger, arising from food inflation, especially; frustration caused by an inadequate supply of electricity despite the rise in tariff; and anger triggered by the recent shortage of petrol despite the high cost of the product, has welled up workers’ pressure that the labour leaders could understandably no longer bottle up. So, the May Day outburst is understandable.

However, it is necessary to make the point that President Tinubu has been consistent in empathising with the people, assuring them that relief will soon come even when he contends that the economic policies are important measures that are required to save the national economy from collapsing. It is noteworthy that unlike in the past when the bulk was passed, he has taken full responsibility for the policies and their negative, but unintended, impact on the people, putting in place specific measures to alleviate the suffering of Nigerians.

Of note is the fact that he has increasingly shown good faith, at least since the February strike warning. Not only has the tripartite committee on new minimum wage chaired by Buka Goni-Aji, a former Head of Service of the Federation, been inaugurated and has been meeting to fix the new lowest wage, the federal government has taken measures to augment workers’ pay in the hope that they would alleviate the harsh impact of inflation. The N35,000 wage award across the board, pending the implementation of the new minimum pay he promised in October last year, has been paid up to date. On 30 April 2024, the Salaries and Wages Commission announced a 25 to 35 per cent wage increase for six categories of federal staff on Consolidated Salary Structures. The pensioners also got a 20 to 25 per cent pay raise.

The pay raise, which is without prejudice to the ongoing negotiations on the new base salary, is to take effect from 1 January 2024. Perhaps to assure the workers that the policy was not a pre-emptive action to hoodwink labour over new minimum pay, the federal government has announced that the outcome of the tripartite negotiations will take effect from 1 May 2024. If any labour enthusiast is still doubtful of the federal government’s sincerity to implement the impending outcome such a doubt ought to be cleared by the president’s provision of a trillion naira in the 2024 Appropriation Act for the payment of the new minimum wage.

What is left, therefore, is for the tripartite committee made up of the government, organised private sector and organised labour to speed up the negotiation process within an agreed timeline. The success of this initiative, however, will depend on a realistic assessment of the capacity of the economy to carry an agreed wage structure. In this regard, organised labour, as already advised by one of its great past leaders and icons, Adams Oshiomhole, has to be realistic about its demand. According to him, “The NLC should make realistic and affordable demand. Organised Labour should not just centre on minimum wage, it must engage the government on appropriate industrial policies that will enhance the manufacturing industry. We need a level of protection of Nigerian industries.”

Labour had joined the negotiating table with a demand for an increase from the prevailing N30,000 to N447,000 per month. That demand has since moved to N615,000. There is no doubt that the government needs to raise pay and enhance the purchasing power of the citizenry given the high rate of inflation but as Oshiomhole and many others have argued, the ability to pay is a critical factor to be considered bearing in mind that many states and employers of labour are still struggling with the current N30,000 monthly wage. While the demand for adequate pay to enhance productivity is a justifiable quest, it must be tempered by reality in the form of a balance in which all parties are met halfway.  

Adebiyi is the special assistant on Media to the Minister of Budget and Economic Planning, Senator Abubakar Bagudu

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