Labour should be realistic in their demands

Barring any last-minute change of position, workers in the country will from this morning commence an industrial action to protest what the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) have termed the non-resolution of the disagreement on a new national minimum wage. But the federal government has defended the proposed N60,000 minimum wage on offer. The decision by the NLC and TUC is predicated on the alleged failure of the federal government to come up with living wages, following the removal of fuel subsidy, and floating of the Naira which have triggered inflation and general increase in costs of living, including prices of food items. Although the proposed strike could still fail like previous ones, we do not want the federal government to misread the mood of the nation and the hardship most Nigerians are currently going through.

A minimum wage is the lowest amount of salary that employers of labour, whether in the private or public sector, can legally pay their employees. So it is not solely about government. And that is the point often missed in the conversation. Some of the figures being touted by organised labour seem unrealistic considering the nation’s financial state. The Organised Private Sector of Nigeria (OPSN) has expressed concerns over the inability of the committee to achieve a consensus while defending the N60,000 on offer. “While it is important to note that socio-economic conditions over the years have rendered the N30,000 minimum wage inadequate, the same conditions have incapacitated many businesses, fatally affecting their sustainability and ability to pay,” said the Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Association (NECA) and OPSN spokesperson on the minimum wage negotiation, Adewale-Smatt Oyerinde. “The demand by organised labour at this period has the potential to cripple small and medium enterprises and push many other businesses into comatose.”

We agree with the position of the OPSN and urge representatives of labour to be realistic in their demands. There is no doubt that many of the businesses in the country are facing hard times and may not be able to afford even the minimum wage being proposed.​The main concern is the federal government approach to a serious national crisis. On skyrocketing food prices, for instance, there is an urgent need for both immediate and medium-term measures. Millions of people are struggling to feed or even starving. Experts have suggested allowing emergency imports, or elimination of tariff, on certain foodstuffs for a specific period.  Will there be leakages? Unfortunately, yes. But considering that we are already in an emergency situation, there will be a net gain. Improving security in agriculture zones should also be a priority so that when the proposed short-term imports run their course, the expected boost from improved security can kick in. 

Beyond tokenism, there must be practical measures to tame the food inflation in the country. Meanwhile, we query the assumption that minimum wage should be uniform across Nigeria, without isolating the peculiarity and operating environment of each state. We have always argued that state governments should be at liberty to negotiate what they can pay with their workers. That, of course, is not a licence for the kind of irresponsibility that we see in many of the states. But as late in the day as it may seem, we still encourage the NLC and TUC leaders to exhaust alternative means of making their point, given the precarious security situation in the country.

However, if they think street protest is necessary, they must cooperate with law enforcement agencies to ensure that a constitutionally guaranteed exercise does not degenerate into violence or get hijacked by hoodlums or others with political motives.

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