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Minimum Wage: The Fire This Time

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Following the disagreement between the Federal Government and Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) over minimum wage, not a few are predicting heady days for the country. Already, tension is casting its pall of uncertainties over next week’s planned resumption of strike by organised labour. NLC’s planned action, according to sympathisers of the government, is simply a ploy scripted by opposition politicians to further worsen the waning popularity of the All Progressives Congress (APC)-led administration of President Muhammadu Buhari.

Beyond the need for review of minimum wage, the realities on ground require quick overhaul of not only the reward system in the country, but tackling issues from a holistic perspective. The history of minimum wage started in 1981, when the Federal Government approved N125 as the minimum wage for workers per month after a strike by the NLC led by Hassan Sunmonu. The deal was arrived at after extensive negotiations between organised labour and government, then represented by Vice President Alex Ekwueme, Senate President Joseph Wayas and Speaker Edwin Ume-Ezeoke.

A demand for a review was later to increase the sum by 100 percent between 1989/90 during the NLC leadership of Pascal Bafyau. An organised labour body led by Sylvester Ejiofor during the brief tenure of General Abdulsalami Abubakar (retd) saw the minimum wage reviewed from N250 to N3, 000 per month.  Another negotiation in 2000 and 2001 led to yet another review of N5, 500 for state workers and N7, 500 for federal workers and oil-producing states, with a proviso that in 2002, there would be a 15 per cent increase across the board and another 25 per cent increase in 2003. The planned increase in 2002 and 2003 never saw the light of the day.  The current N18, 000 minimum wage was negotiated by former NLC President Abdulwaheed Omar, with a promise by government for another review in 2015.

Considering the tension generated by organised labour for increase in wages since 1981, it seems that these reviews, instead of improving living standards for the Nigerian workers, have only led to biting poverty, endless frustration and worsening conditions of the workforce. Focusing on minimum wage paid to less than five percent of the nation’s population can only cause a disequilibrium in the system. While it may not be dismissed that the increase in wage may provide temporal relief, but inflationary trend sooner or later has the tendency to wipe off such reliefs.

It may not be presently expedient to criticise the proponents of wage reviews, but it is imperative to note that constant wage reviews have never translated into improved living conditions for the workforce. In the 1980s, the minimum wage of N125 took care of workers’ needs, with many of them still having enough to save. However, it is a different kettle of fish now, as inflationary trend and devaluation of the naira have rendered workers victims of an economy that is still dependent on oil. In a bid to cushion the poor reward system, workers have perfected many ploys to stay afloat the hard times. Before the emergence of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua as president in 2007, the concept of “unspent funds” was strange to most Nigerians. In 2008, over N500 billion not spent in the 2007 budget was returned to the treasury. Multiply this figures with several past decades, including the military era, one can just imagine how humongous billions disappeared into private accounts of top and middle technocrats to the detriment of the nation’s economy.

The question is: Why is the NLC not in the vanguard of demanding for a total war against corruption in the civil service? What is the justification for organised labour to be engaged in demanding minimum wage reviews in order to improve their economic condition, when their own members can facilitate the exposure of these sleazy deals? Several industries are down due to power outages, just as there are discriminatory reward systems in various public and private organisations. What stops the NLC from being in the forefront of demanding for workable policy to stabilize the power sector? Why is Labour not fighting to ensure “peculiarity allowances” are only paid to workers working in “juicy” organisations?

Apart from demanding for increase in salaries, what efforts has the NLC done to ensure the resuscitation of moribund industries that once provided means of livelihood to millions of Nigerians? Presently, the Kaduna textile firms that once provided jobs to over 10,000 Nigerians have been taken over by rodents. Despite billions of naira that was once approved for the resuscitation of these textile firms across the country, it has been an embarrassing silence. Has the NLC done much in seeking to find out what has happened to these funds? Is it enough for labour leaders to only seek for wage reviews without demanding for increased job opportunities for teeming unemployed youths?

As it stands, no private business can thrive on loans obtained from Nigerian banks. If the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) lends to commercial banks at more than 10 percent, and the banks lend at more than 15 per cent, how can businesses thrive? Little wonder, Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs) are down and the unemployment figures are hitting the roofs.

It is high time labour restrategised on its current struggle and expand its fight on a broader horizon beyond minimum wage reviews. NLC leaders must work for the emergence of a productive economy where Nigerians can be gainfully employed and participate in the economy. The present trend where Nigeria is turned into a dumping ground for foreign goods must cease. Public schools should be made to provide quality education for Nigerians’ children and wards. The health sector that has been in comatose must be made to function. Once our public schools and hospitals are made to work, then the urge to steal will be killed, as the bills for quality education and health will provide relief to workers and Nigerians.

For now, if many of the state governors are incapable of paying the N18, 000 minimum wage, what hope is there that they can pay either the N22, 500 as agreed by the governors or N30, 000 as demanded by the NLC?  Some state workers are in dire need as they are being owed several months in arrears. Even the Federal Government cannot meet with the task of funding its 2018 budgetary allocations without resorting to external borrowings.

Yours sincerely is not in any way defending government that has failed to sincerely live up to its billings in promoting economic development. It is regrettable that Labour has confined itself to minimum wage reviews and forgetting the bigger picture of demanding for a conducive environment capable of engendering economic development. There is a paradox that instils a certain form of enigmatic postulation. Just as the present government has not done much in advancing economic development, organised labour must rally not only workers but also Nigerians to emancipate the country from the shackles of government’s policies that have held us down, in collaboration with foreign agents. 





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