BY Johnbosco Agbakwuru, Abuja
Senator Chris Ngige, the Minister of Labour and Employment, in this interview, speaks on the misunderstanding he had with the leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC). He also promises that Nigerian workers will smile soon on the national minimum wage.
What do we expect on your re-appointment as Labour Minister?
I wish to consolidate on what we achieved under the ‘Change’ era but, this time, pay more attention on job creation. So far, we have achieved stable and peaceful industrial milieu suitable for national productivity.
We have also engaged dialogue as a major tool for tripartite conflict resolution, we have tackled and still tackling unfair labour practices such as casualization, unilateral declaration of redundancy and non-commensurate remunerations among others. Here in the Ministry, we have strengthened our core directorates of Inspectorate, Occupational Safety, Skills and Cooperative, to effectively play their statutorily roles.
We have also buoyed our international labour diplomacy, winning back positions which Nigeria lost about 10 years ago in the Governing Board of the ILO. On government side, we are now a titular member, and also elected as chair of the government side of the Governing Board of the 187-member countries.
For the first time in decades, two other legs of the Nigerian tripartite – Labour and NECA (organized private sector) – are on the Governing Board too with our support, with the NLC President being a titular member on the employee side.
So, while consolidating on these, there will be renewed emphasis on job creation. Remember that our mandate is not necessarily to collective CVs and fill up vacancies; it is also to protect existing jobs, making sure they are within decent job conditions and, besides, promote conducive environment for job creation.
So, in the next few years, we see us stretching the ambit of job creation. It is a responsibility that the tripartite community would all participate in. If you recall, when the NLC leadership paid a courtesy visit, I charged them to move beyond the traditional role of unionism – strikes and picketing – to liaising with the organized private sector towards creation of employment.
The abundant opportunities in the blue collar world are yet to be exploited up to 10% in Nigeria. I will therefore liaise more with other Ministries and agencies of government to bolster job creation in terms of skill acquisition, so as to unleash the creativity and the ingenuity of our people.
There is a move by the Ministry to seek for special fund from government, in order to bring into a common basket all skills centres scattered all over the federation so that the National Directorate of Employment (NDE) will manage these. A lot of them were done from the constituency project fund in the last eight years without equipment and management or instructors.
So we need to synchronize the activities of even state owned skills centre to get our youths out of the streets into blue collar jobs training. I envisage comparative models that worked in neighboring West African countries where skill acquisition forms the base of secondary education. We shall also look at India and China to see how their models are revolutionizing job creation and copy the ones relevant to our environment. Remember also the cardinal promise of President Muhammadu Buhari to lift 100million Nigerians from poverty in ten years.
So, beyond the traditional skills like carpentry, tiling, paint making, furniture making, POP production and laying, paint production and painting, mechanics and mechatronics, plumbing and others, we will take advantage of the opportunities in modern information and technology. The world is now about ideas. The world of work is changing and we must be fully prepared.
There is somewhat an abstract creativity through the use of internet that is creating wealth in the developed economies. So, we shall teach our youth modern skills in web and computer technology as well as in business and allied informatics. We shall also broaden participation and greater opportunities in agriculture. But it requires a lot inter-agency synergy.
Why the delay in the consequential adjustment of the new minimum wage?
The payment of the new minimum wage has started with the FG leading with GL1-6. The national minimum wage for Grade Levels 7 -17, I am very hopeful, will be done as soon as possible, just as we settled levels 1-6. It is unfortunate that negotiations were deadlocked as a result of disagreements on the percentage of consequential increment but the good thing is that we are back to tackle it head on.
We are going to discuss and negotiate in the spirit of Collective Bargaining Arrangement (CBA) because that is what consequential adjustment means. However, let’s be mindful of the fact that if we talk strictly about minimum wage, one is safe to assert that it is already being implemented because the minimum wage is for the person on the lowest rung of the ladder, i.e. GL-1 in the public service and the private sector.
Recall that the immediate past Head of Service, who was leading the government side, is no more on her seat; so it is logical that we reconstitute our own representation to bring in the relevant Ministers, receive adequate briefing as to what the former committee did and where they stopped since we left office on May 29 and just came back.
Luckily, the President has also put in place a new committee, called the Presidential Committee on Salaries (PCS) and which is now the apex committee on issues of salaries and allowances in the public service; it is co-chaired by the Hon. Minister of Finance and I.
The former Head of Service reported to us on progress. But, more importantly, we advised that if we keep piling on debts, the Federal Government might go into problem of payment and the situation worse for the state governments which have always not been regular with salary payments. My friend and brother in Kaduna (Gov El-Rufai) harkened to this warning and has taken the lead, using our 1-6 template and is even doing better than the consequential adjustment for GL 7-17.
I have also advised for it to be sent down to the states while we show the example by paying. The state governments, as of today, are duty bound, as they now have a template to pay levels 1-6 for a start and then CBA for 7-17. When we reconstitute our committee, therefore, I do not see us not agreeing. We can disagree initially but we will eventually agree. So, we will soon sort things out. I am one of those who believe that a workman is due his wages.
If you work in a vineyard, you will eat from that vineyard. So it is unfortunate that the consequential adjustment negotiation was deadlocked over the issue of what percentage to pay the higher cadre, but the important thing, as I said earlier, is that we will reconvene and negotiate and come to an agreement. But I can tell you, there must be a consequential movement and government is not averse to doing that. However, what we are saying is that all parties should understand that the economy has some challenges and, therefore, we have to cut our coat according to our cloth. We are trying to balance issues so that we don’t run afoul of the Fiscal Responsibility Law. So many things are involved as far as the consequential increment is concerned; for example taking loan and diverting it to recurrent expenditures is against the law.
Does that mean there is going to be a new Minimum Wage Committee?
- Not at all. What we are talking about now is the committee handling consequential adjustment. You know that the former Head of Service who was leading the government side on the negotiation and then-Minister of Budget and National Planning are out of office. And you also recall that the Minister of Finance and I just returned after about three months that the former Federal Executive Council was dissolved, hence the need to re-constitute the committee.
You had issues with the leadership of the NLC shortly before the end of the last tenure. What do we expect this time?
I have said in several fora that what happened towards the end of the last administration was a misunderstanding which could have easily been resolved if the NLC had shown understanding for the decision I took on the appointment of the Chairman of the Board of the NSITF. Unfortunately it tried to overreach its powers, tried to usurp, through agitations and picketing, the power inherent in my office as the Minister of Labour and Employment as well as that of the President. I stood for the rule of law and due process in the entire matter and I am happy that, at the end of the day, they realized I was guided by the law.
I defended the Constitution because I am a Minister of government created by Sections 146, 147, 148 of the Constitution and the NSITF Act 2004 gave me the power to recommend to Mr. President who should be appointed to be the Chairman, a function I discharged appropriately. We have put all that behind us and are united as one family.
I have been very vigorous in fighting the cause of the Labour both as a governor and senator before I became a Minister. You are aware that when the NLC leadership came on courtesy call to me, they conferred the honorary fellowship of the NLC on me which signifies friendship and desire to work together as one.
So, expect smooth relationship. Dialogue is the answer. I shall insist, as I have always done in the spirit of tripartite arrangement, to ventilate all issues and smoothen all grey areas in our relationship as a labour community. The National Labour Advisory Council, which has not sat for over five years due to budgetary constraint, will be convened before the end of the year as we have been able to push it through in the 2019 budget.
So everything being equal this important forum for tripartite dialogue will soon meet. I expect greater synergy, more so as I have stated that all the tripartite members must work together to assist Mr. President realize his promise to lift 100 million Nigerians from poverty in the next ten years. The effort starts now.
There are complaints about your refusal to register new unions.
It is within the constitutional powers of the Ministry and part of its statutory function to register unions or regroup over bloated unions. Once an intending union meets the requirement of the law, we shall register it. This is democracy.
We are not oblivious of that fact that the laws of the land permit this ministry to exercise some elastic powers over this function because nothing is static in life. You can’t prevent new unions from coming up. They must come.
It means there is going to be new unionization in some places, especially those who didn’t want to unionize before. So once those people unionize and they are not in a trade or cadre that are already unionized, we register them. It is our function to do so, it is within our powers. It is also within our powers to regroup if a union is amorphous or even de-register unions if they don’t comply with extant labour laws.
The labour Act in Section 7, Sub (1) (a) – (d) gives the Registrar of Trade Union powers to withdraw certificate of registration especially as stated in Section 37 if annual returns and audited account reports are not complied with and there is evidence of the use of check-off dues for unlawful purposes.
We have not as a Ministry exercised the powers but the workers check-off dues should be accounted for in the spirit of accountability and transparency as part of our ‘Next Level’ and ‘Change’ agenda. Before I left in May, we wrote those in default, especially the federations.
As of today, we have not registered the United Labour Congress that applied since 2016 mainly because of the provisions of Section 35 Subsection (1) (b) which provides: “A federation of trade unions may be registered by the Registrar if it is made up of 12 or more trade unions NONE of which SHALL have been a member of another already registered federation of trade unions.”
That is the law and, as you know the law, is an ass. So my hands are tied on this matter because whereas they have five brand new unions, the law stipulates 12.