By Tonnie Iredia
With the coming of this year’s workers’ day, the media have been replete with reports on discussions between government and workers concerning the nation’s transparently poor working conditions. It has indeed become an annual routine of protests and demands from workers and promises by government on how the problems would be redressed soonest. This year, different labour leaders across the nation on or about May Day as usual organized rallies to sensitize government and the nation on their plight.
In Edo State, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) drew attention to the failure of former Governor Adams Oshiomhole to honour his promise to pay a minimum wage of N25, 000. On its part, the leadership of the Abuja chapter of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) warned that workers were running out of patience with government over the delay in the negotiation of a new minimum wage while Bayelsa State, teachers issued a strike threat in Yenogoa over their 10 months’ salary arrears. In Borno State, the NLC asked the state government to have a human face by channeling its bailout and Paris club refund loan to offset workers’ outstanding salaries, and allowances
Of course, although the suggestion would have been taken as given in a democracy where it is the people that should matter, Nigerian workers have from colonialism till date been the object rather than the subject of democracy. A cursory look at the situation would show that successive governments have been dealing with our workers the same way. During President Olusegun Obasanjo’s tenure when an increase in fuel price made nonsense of the minimum wage, the government promised to introduce certain palliative measures to cushion the effects of the price increase.
Specifically, the federal government was to give N100 million to every state, to which each state would add N200million and give to reputable transporters as loans to buy many buses to bring down the cost of public transportation. In the end, we saw no transporters or buses. The late former President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua inaugurated a tripartite Presidential Committee to review the national minimum wage.
All the stakeholders, including the Governors’ Forum, were involved in the negotiation before the committee finally recommended N18, 000 that was passed into law. But in spite of having followed these processes and procedures, the minimum wage became a white elephant as many of the governors who were part of the negotiations eventually reneged.
President Goodluck Jonathan later worsened the bad situation with an ill-conceived subsidy removal which led to the setting up of another committee, headed by former Chief Justice Alfa Belgore, to meet with organized labour and other stakeholders to resolve issues. Perhaps government forgot that Justice Belgore was a member of the previous tripartite committee whose decisions were not adhered to.
Anyway, there were stories that Nigerians should expect palliatives such as some 1600 diesel engine buses that were ‘about’ to arrive to cushion the effects of the controversy. Another joke which died on arrival was a declaration by government that workers were to be paid their salaries as early as the 20th of the month! The case of the diesel buses was shrouded in controversy as the Trade Union Congress (TUC) claimed it was the one that ordered the buses.
The point that has been made is that none of our previous governments can be said to have done well for workers. One can only hope that the Buhari government can make a difference. But the latest story that committees upon committees are being set up on a subject such as minimum wage which is so notoriously poor that it requires no proof is disheartening. We hear that a committee was set up by government on the subject and that the committee in turn set up a technical committee of 16 members on the same subject.
When the technical committee completed action, it sent its report to the main committee which took it before the Federal Executive Council that is now planning to set up another 29 member committee to review the subject. Interestingly, the relay race does not tally with the views of many people in government. For instance a recent motion in the House of Representatives by the Chairman, Committee on Labour, Employment and Productivity, Ezenwa Onyewuchi extolled the resilience of the workers and urged lawmakers to appreciate their contributions to national development adding that our workers had demonstrated sufficient commitment despite the economic challenges that have made survival difficult.
Government also needs to listen to individual senators. Speaking on the occasion of this year’s May Day, their Deputy President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu made the following comments: “The truth is that, the take-home pay can no longer take the workers home. Where it does, it cannot keep their homes happy, because they can hardly afford a bag of rice, let alone pay school fees, and foot other basic bills.
The nation could afford N50, 000 minimum wage through proper management of the economy and prudent expenditure by all levels of government.” Anyone who sees this as an opposition talk needs to listen to Senator Shehu Sani who reportedly told workers on May Day in Kaduna that a minimum wage of N18, 000 or N20, 000 is an insult to Nigerian workers because it cannot sustain even a dog or security man in the house of a politician. In a sharp comparison, the Senator revealed that unlike the average worker, “all the politicians are well paid even though the system has made it difficult for them to display their genuine pay slip.”
Against this backdrop, someone in government needs to hear that what is needed now is not committees that are set up which further set up others. Instead, government has to be more proactive on this matter of minimum wage, to avoid being forced by workers’ to follow the example of President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela who woke up one day and under pressure increased minimum wage by 60%. The past approach of setting up committees has since become known as escapist as poor pay is inexplicable in the face of the revelation by Finance Minister Kemi Adeosun that 90% of our budget goes for recurrent expenditure.