NEWSPAPER headlines have blazoned threats from the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress to shut down Nigeria today with a warning strike over a new national minimum wage.

The shock from those headlines is the thinking in labour circles that they are the ones shutting down the country.

It is government that would shut down the country, if it allows the strike to go ahead.
What is at stake is simpler than the government is willing to accept. It is a new law amending the old one that created the national minimum wage of N5,500 in 2000.

The ceiling has since moved to N7,500 and according to President Goodluck Jonathan, the least paid federal worker already earns about N17,000 monthly.

However, the Federal Government is unwilling to pay the minimum of N18,000 that a tripartite, committee it set up more than a year ago, fixed.

The present dispute, as it were is over government’s claim that it cannot pay N18,000, a difference of N1,000. At the May Day rally, the President was applauded when he said government would pay the new minimum wage, it was a pronouncement, it now seems, was meant to pre-empt a warning strike labour had slated for last May 3.

In real terms, Nigerian workers, when they got a minimum wage of N125 (about $250) in 1981 under President Shehu Umaru Aliyu Shagari, were better off than they would be with even N18,000 (about $120), no thanks to inflation and poor policies that have eroded the purchasing power of the Naira.

Workers have every reason to be angry about the attitude of the government. The committee concluded its work more than a year ago.

On 14 July 2009, late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua inaugurated a tripartite Presidential Committee on national minimum wage. A retired Chief Justice of the Federation, Hon. Justice S. M. A. Belgore headed it.

The membership drawn from representatives of the federal and state governments, organised private sector, small and medium enterprises and trade unions after one year arrived at the minimum wage of N18,000.

The committee considered the inputs from  the Ministry of Finance, Nigeria Institute for Social and Economic Research, the Central Bank of Nigeria, relevant laws and conventions of the International Labour Organisation to arrive at its decision though the NLC had proposed N52,000 as minimum wage.

When the report was presented to government last July 1, the committee went a step further in exhibiting its commitment to the assignment. It included in its report a draft new National Minimum Wage Bill of 2010 that government could send to the National Assembly.

What was the point? The committee wanted to fast-track the passage of the bill so that workers can earn the new minimum wage with a reasonable time from the conclusion of the committee’s work.

All that work is about to be lost. Government has been passing all types of bills through the National Assembly since last July, but the one to give legal backing to the entitlement of workers cannot get to the National Assembly.

Why was the bill not sent to the National Assembly? What is so difficult in passing this bill, except that government is unwilling to pay a new wage?

How much is this proposed minimum wage in relation to the value of the Naira? The rigmarole that is attending the fixing of a national minimum wage is unnecessary, especially as the Federal Government knows that this is a first step in the long battle to get the states to implement the law.

Must we get to this point before we act? Does it take the threat of a strike for government to know their obligations to labour have to be met? Speculations that state governments may be behind the stalemate may be true. Some states claim they would not be able to pay.

“I have the confidence that government and labour will be able to sort it out amicably and then think it will not result into any serious industrial action.

I believe that labour will agree that within this period that I’ve been in office that we have demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that it is a very labour friendly government and if two friends are discussing on friendly things they have no reason to exchange blows, it is when you are not discussing on friendly things that people exchange blows,” the President said in Lagos on Saturday.

“It must go to the National Assembly because the law must be made and the minimum wage does not affect only government employees and that is what Nigerians should know,” he said of the process that would give effect to the minimum wage.

What he did not say was that constitutional provisions that make labour matters a federal province draw serious opposition from state governments.

Part I of the Exclusive Legislative List of the 1999 Constitution, Item 34 states: “Labour, including trade unions, industrial relations; conditions, safety and welfare of labour; industrial disputes; prescribing a national minimum wage for the Federation or any part thereof; and industrial arbitration,” under the authority of the Federal Government.

Governors in the South-East, in their dispute with their university teachers have ignored this provision, arguing this was a part of the Constitution they could not obey. They swore to obey the Constitution.

Item 34 is one of 68 items on the Exclusive Legislative List — only the Federal Government can make laws on them. Why would governors accept authority of the Federal Government on the other 67 items but not on labour relations?

While it is one of the provisions that the National Assembly should amend to give states some powers to manage their financial resources meaningfully, until the amendment, states have to pay legally fixed wages. It is the law — they do not have to like it.

Our appeal to government and labour is not to shut down Nigeria over N1,000 — government can pay, if the will is available.

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