Even with Nigeria’s mounting challenges, it would be sad not to prioritise workers’ remunerations, writes Monday Philips Ekpe

What’s the worth of your education – formal or informal? How much of that are you productively bringing to your job? What’s your employer in a position to pay for the services? To what extent can your own remunerations affect the overall performance of the national economy? What, in practical terms, is the real value of your sweat and time? If these posers had straightforward answers, there most likely wouldn’t have been any basis for the ongoing anxiety in the nation’s labour space.

But, now, Nigerian workers have cogent reasons to worry about their true chances of survival as they navigate the murky government policies that have compounded an already desperate situation. Various efforts to extract tangible concessions from the administration of President Bola Tinubu have yielded little or nothing. But not wanting to be viewed as insensitive and inactive, the government seems to have been torn between fixing the minimum wage that would be acceptable and sensible, and effecting salary increase across board for its own staff only. After all, a government that has “renewed hope” as a driving force behind its campaign and the selling point for its programmes afterwards can’t afford to lag.

So, late last month, the National Salaries, Incomes and Wages Commission announced a 25 to 35 percent raise for federal government workers on six payment platforms, namely Consolidated Public Service Salary Structure (CONPSS), Consolidated Research, Allied Institutions Salary Structure (CONRAISS), Consolidated Police Salary Structure (CONPOSS), Consolidated Para-military Salary Structure (CONPASS), Consolidated Intelligence Community Salary Structure (CONICCS) and Consolidated Armed Forces Salary Structure (CONAFSS). Probably to demonstrate its sincerity of purpose, the government back-dated the operationalisation of the change to January 1 this year. It remains to be seen, however, how that gesture would assuage the growing apprehension of workers about their threatened welfare.

Indications that that step fell below the expectations of labour are here. On May 1, Workers Day, heads of the organised workforce informed the federal government that by the end of this month, industrial harmony will not be guaranteed without the declaration of a meaningful national minimum wage. For the workers, that figure is not anything most economic eggheads had thought of. N615,000! Different shades of reactions, ranging from outright dismissal to disbelief, have trailed that disclosure.

But the justification for the minimum wage proposed by the organised labour came through the National President of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Joe Ajaero, naturally. According to him, “Living wage is such that will, at least, keep you alive. It is not a wage that will make you poorer and poorer. It is not a wage that will make you borrow to go to work. It is not a wage that will lead you to be in the hospital every day because of malnutrition.

“Let me give you a breakdown of how we arrived at that figure. We have housing and accommodation of N40,000. We asked for electricity of N20,000 – of course, that was before the current tariff increase. Nobody can spend this amount currently. We have a utility that is about N10,000. We looked at kerosene and gas, that is about N25,000 to N35,000. We looked at food for a family of six, that is about N9,000 in a day. For 30 days, that is about N270,000. Look at medical, N50,000 provided there will be no surgery or whatever.

“For clothing, we looked at N20,000. For education, N50,000. I don’t know about those who tried to put their children in private schools; they will not be able to cope with this amount. We also have sanitation of N10,000. Where we have another bulk of the money is transportation. This is because the workers stay on the fringes and because of the cost of petrol, which amounted to N110,000.”

The amount put forward by Ajaero may appear outrageous and unreasonable but the things that are still normal in the country, especially prices, must be very few indeed. The NLC president and his co-travellers in the struggle for enhanced conditions of living for workers have understandably spoken from the point of view of entitlement to some form of socio-economic security. A nation not known for any worthwhile safety nets for the generality of its citizens should, at least, make provision for a robust compensation for those working.

Even if President Tinubu, his team and any other person consider this demand irrational, they don’t have an opportunity here to disparage workers, if for nothing else in honour of the roles their organisations have played in the country’s socio-political evolution. A statement by former President Barak Obama of the United States is instructive in this regard: “It was the labor movement that helped secure so much of what we take for granted today. The 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, family leave, health insurance, Social Security, Medicare, retirement plans. The cornerstones of the middle-class security all bear the union label.”             

The parallel between the achievements of labour in these opposing climes may be unequal, yet it underlines the capability of workers everywhere and across various timelines to fight for and win landmarks for their entire national populations. What makes this possible in most cases is that they have their hands on the major instruments of production, those tools that ensure prosperity for individuals, families, corporate bodies and nations. In times past, Marxist and socialist countries weaponised this phenomenon and built ideologies on it which, in turn, sustained their political structures for long.

Today, Nigeria is a democracy, all its impurities notwithstanding. We shouldn’t forget that not even the collapse of the workers-based systems of government has erased the influence of labour in the dynamics of nation-building, hence an urgent need for the government to sit down with the labour leaders and iron things out. So far, there has been some sort of master-servant relationship in which workers have held the short end of the stick. Proper dialogue about macro-economic issues like hyper-inflation, shut down of more factories and millions of small and medium enterprises (SMEs), joblessness and the further endangering of the naira should be initiated by the authorities. Till now, some state governments are struggling to pay the scandalous N30,000 minimum wage without the capacity or political will to do more. Granted, any raise in the volume of money at the disposal of workers doesn’t necessarily translate to happiness.

But then, what are unionists supposed to do in the face of a badly diminished purchasing power? Agitate for whatever would boost the workers’ motivation and self-esteem, of course. So, their pursuit of respectable wages is clearly in order. Another ex-US President, Theodore Roosevelt, had also made a supporting proclamation. His words: “We stand for a living wage. Wages are subnormal if they fail to provide a living for those who devote their time and energy to industrial occupations. The monetary equivalent of a living wage varies according to local conditions, but must include enough to secure the elements of a normal standard of living-a standard high enough to make morality possible, to provide for education and recreation, to care for immature members of the family, to maintain the family during periods of sickness, and to permit of reasonable saving for old age.”

Before our political leaders can tag Ajaero and his colleagues as insensitive, they should first demonstrate genuine sacrifice and leadership. The percentage of Nigerians who work in government and organised private sectors is small compared to the populace but that would be a good place to start from. In the midst of the pervasive hardship, this matter mustn’t be belittled.  

Dr Ekpe Is a member of THISDAY Editorial Board

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