By Tonnie Iredia
When Labour submitted a proposal of N65,000 minimum wage the year before, some of us who are familiar with how our government operates, knew that the so-called dialogue with Labour on a new minimum wage would take a pyrrhic posture.
We imagined that before one naira would be added to the meagre and irregular N18,000, minimum pay, workers will have to organize no less than 5 strikes and warnings etc. We predicted rather accurately that by November 6, 2018, Nigeria will once again grind to a halt as a result of a nation-wide strike planned by Labour to take off on that day. Reason: a typical Nigerian government at whatever level is notorious for reneging on any and every type of wage bill agreement.
The totality of the experiences of the Academic Staff Union of Universities ASUU, aptly illuminates the unchanging modus operandi of government on the subject. Very soon, some elders that are categorized as well-meaning, will be used a day or two after the beginning of the forthcoming workers’ strike, to appeal to striking unions to be patriotic enough not to dismember the nation. In the past, such emotional appeals were made to ASUU supposedly in the interest of students as if ASUU members have no children who are students. The old cliché that government is a continuum will change as protagonists will begin to remind everyone of where we are coming from and how the problem did not start from the tenure of the current administration.
For this latest disagreement, what we hear is that a panel of stake holders including representatives of governors after exhaustive negotiations agreed on N30,000 as the new minimum wage. At the end of the negotiations, the governors started their usual practice of negotiations without end with the argument that they cannot afford to pay the agreed amount. What this suggests is that the governors had a hidden agenda ab initio which they planned to disclose only at the end of the negotiations to frustrate Labour; otherwise why did their bonafide representative not know what their principals would accept before agreeing on a figure? We are unable to support the posture because comments by a few governors suggest that the rejection of N30,000 minimum wage was not unanimous. Consequently, our supposed well-meaning elders should not be quiet at this point, watching our governors approbating and reprobating on such a volatile subject. This is when to intervene and avoid the impending doom
For many reasons, the coming strike would be hard to deal with. First the main Labour organ the Nigerian Labour Congress NLC is tired of the insincere game and has resolved to withdraw from the negotiations. Second, its present leadership appear different from their predecessors who in the past were easily compromised materially even though they often put up a no-nonsense countenance. In other words, so much destructive tendencies particularly loss of man hours would likely combine to deal devastating blows on our fragile economy. Are the governors sincere or is labour over demanding and uncooperative; these are the two main issues upon which right-thinking citizens should anchor their analysis and suggestions.
The governing elite does not appear to have done enough to reduce inequality in our system in which the elite class is relentlessly seeking to maintain the statusquo by feeding fat on the country to the detriment of the masses. It is only when the issue of minimum wage arises that we hear of how our government cannot afford figures which they afford over and above when it concerns the elite. A few years back, when Osun Governor Rauf Aregbesola kept delivering academic lectures on unpaid salary arrears, our commonsense Senator, offered to give up his allowances to help Osun workers. Rather than accept the offer in good faith the governor and his supporters berated the Senator. In reality however, the people would have been better off with the help of the Senate whose members we hear, earn newspaper or wardrobe allowances that each surpasses the annual salary of a Director in the Public Service. Why are we able to afford that?
Former Presidents are reportedly earning stupendous pension and several perquisites of their former office, so are former governors who are paid fabulous sums after working for a maximum of 8 years compared to workers who are in office for 35 years. In Edo state in 2016, an inglorious House of Assembly approved a pension benefit for a residential building worth N200million and N100 million for the immediate past governor of the state and his deputy respectively. The House also amended the Pension Rights Law of 2007 to enable the former governor enjoy pension for life at a rate equivalent to 100 percent of his last annual salary as well as the power to pick any officer not above grade level 12 as Special assistant and a personal secretary not below grade level 10 from the public service of the state. Why is the poor economy of a state which is allegedly not able to afford minimum wage being coerced to afford this luxury?
Some governors are always quick at drawing attention to the fact all our states are not equally endowed and as such ought not to run the same salary structure. Painfully, the argument is self-serving because it lacks leadership by example as no governor canvasses same argument for all governors not to earn same salaries. The more annoying argument is the one which talks about retrenching staff if the minimum wage increases. It is a jaundiced argument about huge workforce that is always further bloated by hundreds of unqualified special advisers and assistants that are foisted on the service after every election. It is not only that the political jobbers have no work schedule, they are heavily rewarded. Thus, the Egalitarian Mission Africa- a human rights group once argued that Governors who pay numerous attendees such as Special Advisers, Senior Special Assistants, Special Assistants and Personal Assistants not less than N200, 000 per month for doing absolutely nothing should be able to pay the meagre minimum wage to workers.
Again, there are many sub-heads that can justifiably be diverted to the payment of minimum wage. For instance, people no longer see the expedience of security vote because history has shown that the bigger the vote, the more insecurity around us. Our citizens have therefore come to terms with the definition by Rabiu Kwankwaso who as governor of Kano state observed that “security vote was nothing more than a device for stealing.” Such a scheme can be reorganized with sincerity to give workers better wage bill for the benefit of national development.