Averting another national strike

By Adewale Kupoluyi
The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the United Labour Congress (ULC) have threatened to resume strike action on November 6, if the Federal Government fails to heed the demands of Nigerian workers for increase in minimum wage. According to the trio of NLC President, Ayuba Wabba; the TUC President, Bobboi Kaigama; and ULC President, Joe Ajaero, the unions decried the Federal Government’s decision to implement a ‘no work, no pay’ policy.

The organised labour had insisted that the Federal Government should rather implement a ‘no pay, no work’ policy just as it would criminalise the non-payment of salaries by employers. Generally, the essence of national minimum wage is to protect the right of the worker to earn a decent standard of living in the country.  It is also a means of promoting fair distribution of income and wealth. The minimum wage is usually adjusted through a continuous process of comparing the purchasing power of minimum wage in relation to different baskets and across the regions within the fiscal regime.

It would be recalled that last month, NLC declared a nationwide strike over the stalled process of providing a new national minimum wage for workers, but the strike was suspended after a few days because an agreement was reached to resume negotiations by reconvening the tripartite committee set up to find a lasting solution to the problem. The 30-member tripartite National Minimum Wage Committee was set up by the Federal Government, to negotiate a new national minimum wage for workers by reviewing the current one and recommending a new wage that takes care of the current conditions of living.

After some meetings, the parties agreed that the existing minimum wage had expired because it no longer reflected the cost of living realities in the nation. Unfortunately, the Federal Government could not get the nod of state governors to present a proposal for an acceptable minimum wage to the committee, leading to indefinite suspension of deliberations.  The workers had initially demanded for N56,000 as the new minimum wage while the governors had argued that under a federal system, states should be allowed to set their own minimum wage, especially as many states were hardly able to pay the subsisting one.

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The process of deciding and implementing a new national minimum wage had always become problematic in the country over the years. The unions were saddened that state governors could work against the N30,000 minimum wage while still expecting workers to vote for them. In other climes, national minimum wages are fixed alongside those set by subnational governments.  The assumption is that because of the peculiarities of federating states, there is likely to be minimum wage differentials across regions. This is in tandem with the line of arguments of the governors that seem to be critical of the payment of the new minimum wage. Should workers bear the brunt of this failure to reconcile positions?

In Nigeria, series of criticisms and objections had made wage adjustments and minimum wages discourse to be politicised such that the events are usually attended by industrial actions as a way of showing disaffection by workers. The truth is that many workers are of the opinion that labour agitations in Nigeria have been politicised to the extent that union leadership appeared to have lost direction and are only interested in getting undue attention, cutting corners and short-changing the system for their personal gains. It is for these reasons that labour leaders at times get serious knocks from their members for allegedly being unfaithful.

The issue of new wage negotiations would have been over by now, if government had been consistent while our labour leaders are tactical and focused like some of their predecessors of old that sacrificed their personnel comfort and interests in their campaign for get better package for the workers. To put an end to the persistent unrests, the Federal Government should stop foot-dragging and playing antics that would further delay the implementation of a new wage regime for the already starved Nigerian workers.

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Come to think of it; can N18,000 adequately feed, clothe and cater for an adult working in our country today? The answer is simply ‘no’. Many workers in the country are perpetual debtors. They rely on loans to get basic needs for themselves that should ordinarily be provided for by the state. That is why many of them are not financially stable. Many of them are just working; they have nothing to show for it because of the bad shape of the economy. To make government performing its constitutional duties to the citizens, a number of fiscal rejuvenation initiatives have to be embraced.

 For instance, the pattern of public expenditure that is not prudent and wasteful should be jettisoned. They include avoiding misplaced priorities and white-elephant projects that have no direct impact on the peoples. The reality is that many states across the federation are not doing well financially as they continue to embark on borrowing spree. Not only that, many workers are being retrenched in the face of the harsh economy that the country faces in the midst of acute unemployment. There is need for more pragmatism in our disposition to public finance. Nigeria is a blessed country such that with adequate planning and fiscal discipline, it should be able to stand tall among leading industrial giants across the globe.

 The federal, state and local governments should look inward and realistically manage their bureaucracies for better service delivery without necessarily increasing costs. They should undertake radical reforms hinged on public expenditure template such that elected officials and political appointees should no longer live in affluence at public expense. Public funds should be allocated and spent on social services and important infrastructure while leaving business ventures to the private capital in the form of public-private partnership. Senior citizens and pensioners should be accorded great priority. Focus should be placed on overhauling the taxation system to make taxes the main source of public revenues by getting more informal actors to pay correct taxes and dragging them into the tax net, as at when due.

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Standard practice in federal systems supports minimum wage legislation by the different tiers, though none should be lower than the federal rate. Nigeria could adopt what is obtained in other developed countries by separating minimum wage from general salary review and allow federating states to set their own pay based on their capacities. The nation cannot afford to witness another strike at this critical time, not only because preparations are at the peak for the general elections, but because the nation has just come out of a recession. Therefore, the government should urgently do the needful by engaging the workers in sincere dialogue and negotiation that would pave way for the actual implementation of a new minimum wage for workers without further delay.

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