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Minimum wage, maximum wahala

By Josef Omorotionmwan

THE  life of the public employee in Nigeria is a chain of constant struggles only punctuated by rare moments of delight – he struggles to go to school; he struggles to get a job; he  struggles to do the work; he struggles to get paid for his labour; and he struggles to get the occasional adjustment to his pay based on the ever-rising cost of living, which is taken for granted in other climes.

Yet, he is constantly told that whether in the public or private sector, the compensation for the worker ought to be commensurate with the responsibilities and demands of his office; and must be realistic in terms of permitting him to meet his personal and family obligations.

Again, workers in the public sector must be able to maintain a standard of living that enables them to associate with dignity and respect with their counterparts in private pursuits. After all, the purchasing power of the Naira, whether earned in the public or private sector is subject to the same economic conditions.

Why must the Nigerian worker be taken through the rough road in salary adjustments? In the more advanced democracies, the worker’s first point of contact with an increase in the minimum wage is in the pay cheque. He picks up his pay packet and finds that it is heavier than usual; and it then dawns on him that a new minimum wage has come into effect.

But here in Nigeria, which is largely the sellers’ market, the minimum wage is open to attack at various fronts. It happens all the time.

As soon as Labour mutes the idea of a new minimum wage, the landlords and market woman reckon that workers have already got the increase. The general price level goes up.

At the end of the tortuous process of negotiating the minimum wage, the power of that minimum wage has become totally eroded. Meanwhile, a measure of garri that was about N300 at the beginning of the process now goes for N1000; and a room in a passage house that was N1000 in the beginning now rents for about N3,500, thus rendering the new minimum wage dead on arrival!

As usual, Labour is currently engaged in the wrong argument. Labour should not be seen at this time trying to prevail on government to raise a team to start discussing the modalities for the new minimum wage. Labour should all along stay glued to the National Assembly, insisting on a permanent mechanism that automatically produces increased minimum wage at regular intervals, without all the unnecessary rigmaroles associated with current demand methods.

For how long shall we continue to engage in this bull fight? As if the world has just begun, the struggle for the National Minimum Wage Act, 1981 still represents an archetype of our historical struggle here: at that time, President Shehu Shagari first had to assemble the best crop of economists in the country under the chairmanship of Dr. Pius Okigbo, to examine the minimum wage issue in all its ramifications.

Okigbo’s Committee Report was transmitted to the National Assembly from where it went through all the Committee processes after which the State Governors took their turn in appearing before both chambers of the National Assembly.

In spite of all the rigmarole which virtually rendered the National minimum wage almost worthless, it is instructive that many States were unable to pay it. Up till now, many States scattered across the Federation are still unable to pay the current N18,000 minimum wage.

Evidently, there is something wrong somewhere, particularly with our revenue allocation formula. As currently constituted, any discussion of a new minimum wage that does not first seek to correct the obvious imbalance in the revenue sharing formula between the federating units is a complete waste of time. A situation in which the Federal Government has enough to spend and throw about while the States and Localities wallow in abject penury is most undesirable. That’s one side of the coin.

On the other side, who really wants a national minimum wage or a national wage structure? Elsewhere, apart from the banana Republics with a total population of a few thousand people, different localities decide for themselves what level of wage they can sustain. In the US, for instance, there are localities that can barely afford to pay more than a paltry allowance to their workers. Yet, there are some wealthy areas that afford higher remunerations and better conditions of service than obtain even at the Federal level in Washington, DC.

Our Local and State governments must be free to decide the level of remuneration they can afford for their work force without vitiating the compelling need for development. No government should exist for the sole purpose of paying salaries.

As currently constituted, the National Assembly bears the unnecessary burden of creating a balance between the salaries of the Abuja worker with that of the dispensary attendant at Ekudo, a small hamlet in one obscure corner of Uhunmwode Local Government Area.

Evidently, the cost of living in both locations is not the same. While the Abuja worker spends his entire salary on housing and transportation, every Ekudo person would feel highly honoured if the dispensary attendant (Doctor) agrees to stay in his house for free; plus the fact that the Ekudo worker can make a small cassava farm to augment his income – which facility is not available to the Abuja worker.

When are we going to start pushing the localities to work to earn their pay by harnessing the abundant natural resources that abound everywhere? That’s the only escape route from the Greek gift of the so-called bail-out tradition. Indeed, the bail-out tradition is akin to borrowing to finance fraud. Productivity must be totally diminished in any worker who claims to be owed 10 months salary arrears. Truly, such is merely hanging on to collect the wind-fall. His spirit man has since departed from that job.

In all, there is no basis for a nation wage structure!

 


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