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Labour unions in fantasyland over minimum wage

By Dele Sobowale

wage
Comrade Issa Aremu

No governor will dare say he will not pay. It is illegal and criminal for any governor not to pay and there is sanction in the Minimum Wage Act. If you do not pay, there are fines and if you do not pay the fine, you can be jailed – any employer, including the state governors —Issa Aremu, General Secretary, National Union of Textile, Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria. PUNCH, November 26, 2019. Back page.

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ISSA Aremu is one of the most erudite of Nigeria’s labour leaders. I had known him since my days as staff of Vanguard when he was a participant at several of our Conference Hall discussions. I might be wrong; but it appears as if he had been the General Secretary of his union long before the first third term was mooted, and now he is still there during Buhari’s second term. Don’t tailors hold elections? And is there no limit to how many terms an officer can serve?

The latest report about Issa told us that he is now at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, NIPSS. It was not made clear whether he is at NIPSS as a facilitator or a participant. But, either way, he and his colleagues in the Labour movement – including Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU – can improve on their success rate by attending a course on Political Street Wisdom. It is a course taught outside Nigeria’s universities and established training institutes. It is freely available at UniJankara. It would have saved the unions and their members a lot of disappointment and despair. Issa’s statement reproduced above is symptomatic of all that is wrong with the Labour.

The first sentence could only have been uttered by someone just landing in Nigeria from another planet. Contrary to Issa’s declaration, some governors have already said they might not be able to pay. And, the sky has not fallen. Furthermore, if Lagos State, the richest of all the states, is offering only N35,000 a month, it is a safe bet that many poorer states cannot pay N30,000 and survive. States were not created for public servants alone. Those of us who are not civil servants and who don’t benefit from union dues paid to union leaders have a right to demand that all the states’ revenue should not be handed over to government workers. We want good roads, health services, education and safe environments and security. State governments must balance our needs.

All animals are equal; some are more equal than others —George Orwell, 1903-1950, in ANIMAL FARM

Issa’s statement that “it is illegal and criminal not to pay” is not only laughable, but, it reminded me of the Issa of the Conference Hall days. Then and now, he is soundly logical when the subject matter is not labour. But, like an interested party, he becomes demagogic when the issue concerns labour. I understand that he must earn his pay. But, he and other union leaders should also understand that while they can threaten the Federal Government and the National Assembly, NASS, to pass a law, the legislation can be challenged in court.

As it is, the Minimum Wage Act appears to be ordering all employers of labour – Federal, State, Local Governments and private – to pay N30,000 to the least paid employee. Apart from the well-established fact that nobody, not even a court of law, can force an employer to pay money he does not have, the Minimum Wage Act is inherently discriminatory. It covers only those employed in the public and large private sectors – those who constitute the tiniest minority of workers. It has excluded the vast majority of those employed in Small and Micro enterprises where employees are frequently less than ten.

Obviously, in Issa’s Nigeria, it is equitable to pass a law which recognises the need for enhanced pay for less than two per cent of workers and to ignore the needs of the 98 per cent who are unfortunate to work for mini-enterprises. Perhaps, Aremu will tell fellow Nigerians why it is illegal not to pay two per cent of workers the new wage and not illegal not to pay the remaining 98 per cent. Do the two classes of workers shop in different markets, live in separate houses and use different means of transport? Selfishness has never been more boldly advertised as advocacy for justice for the “masses”.

To know that which before us lies in daily life is the prime wisdom. What is more is fume —John Milton, 1608-1674, VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, VBQ, p 275.

The threat – “if you do not pay, there are fines and if you do not pay the fine, you can be jailed” – must be regarded as a joke when it is applied to Presidents and Governors in Nigeria. One would have expected Issa to be the first to recognise that as an empty warning. The eighth NASS passed the Minimum Wage Act before closing shop. The President signed it into law in May this year. After that Buhari “ordered” that the law should take “immediate effect. Expectedly, gullible labour leaders received the news with great joy. The Federal and State Governments were told by labour to start paying by end of June; otherwise there will be hell. That was stupidity of the highest rank. Has anybody been jailed since May?

In a series of articles, published on these pages, labour leaders were told in clear terms why the wage increases would not materialise any time soon. The three cardinal reasons are summarised below.

  • First, President Buhari, forgetting that he is now a civilian and not a military Head of State, was wrong to order immediate implementation. Even Federal Government civil servants would not act on the TV announcement because the civil service does not work that way. But, labour leaders, acting on Buhari’s ignorance, started pestering governors. It was an exercise in futility; a mere temper tantrum.
  • Second, the President of Nigeria employs only Federal Government employees. The governors are responsible for the states’ workers. Buhari cannot order any state governor or Local Government Council Chairman to start paying workers N30,000 immediately. Governors can (and should) ignore the President. And, there is nothing Buhari and labour can do about it.
  • Third, in passing a Minimum Wage Bill 2019 the Nigerian government was not inventing something new. It had been done before at home and abroad. The minimum amount prescribed invariably calls for several consequential adjustments up the levels.

Deciding these require time and more instructions from the Presidency. In the end, the government will be confronted with the financial implications of the adjustment proposed. The reality check calls for the government to determine if the new payroll is affordable and how can it be financed. All these take time. But, labour, including our brightest and best in the universities, were in a haste to lay their paws on the new take-home pay.

They have no use for commonsense – which obviously is not common. Without Buhari’s consent, the Fderal Government and states’ civil service have quietly and methodically undertaken the hard work of determining for each state what is affordable to pay – given the obligations of all governments to every sector of society.

Civil servants must be told that they cannot collect 100 per cent of government revenue just because there is a Minimum Wage Act which had not been challenged in court for various infractions of the Nigerian constitution.

Finally, one would have expected Issa Aremu to know that Presidents and Governors are covered with immunity under the Nigerian constitution. They cannot be prosecuted or jailed – even if they were blatant lawbreakers. It is doubtful if any court will jail a Governor or private employer who can prove inability to pay. I pity labour. They are going to get trashed on this one.

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