By Afe Babalola
“Issue of wages should be moved from exclusive legislative list to concurrent list”
AS Nigerians mark the beginning of a new year, it is certain that the controversy surrounding the adoption and implementation of a new minimum wage of N30,000 (Thirty thousand Naira) which started in 2018 will again snowball into 2019. This is despite the decision of the Federal Government to begin the implementation of the new wage at the Federal Level. However, as many state governments are yet to indicate their commitment to the new wage structure, organised labour has again threatened to continue the agitation for a nationwide implementation.
This much was made clear in a communique issued by the NLC after a one-day stakeholders’ meeting on the implementation of the new national minimum wage at the state level, which was held in Abuja. Labour stated that 19 state governments had yet to begin negotiations with labour representatives in their states. The communiqué, which was signed by the President of the NLC, Ayuba Wabba; the union Secretary-General, Emmanuel Ugboaja; and the National Chairman, Joint National Public Service Negotiating Council (Trade Union side), Abdulrafiu Adeniji, stated that only four states (Kaduna, Kebbi, Lagos, and Adamawa) had begun payment of the new wage structure.
It directed states which were yet to take steps to implement the new minimum wage to constitute negotiating committees and conclude discussions on salary adjustment on or before December 31. Without a doubt, the adoption and implementation of N30, 000 new minimum wage approved by the Federal Government has brought with it a serious controversy regarding not only the ability of states to pay the amount, but also the propriety of the Federal Government imposing a minimum wage on states despite the difference in revenue amongst the states.
Speaking out on the issue, the governor of Ebonyi State declared emphatically that 95 per cent of the states would be unable to pay the proposed minimum wage. He was reported to have stated that: “The Federal Government collects 52 per cent of the revenue from the federation account and when I tried to put the N30,000 figure to local government areas, LGAs, it means they will borrow N1billion to add to their allocation, in paying salaries. I will definitely not be a governor to govern such a state and will never preside over a state that will allocate 100 per cent of its earnings to pay salaries…
“There is no governor or political office holder that signs cheques but civil servants as the country’s leaders and labour are just putting water inside a basket and praying God to hold it with this minimum wage issue…We should determine how much should be allocated to education, health, infrastructure among others if 100 per cent of earnings are used to pay workers salaries…Many states are experiencing various problems and cannot pay salaries but the people condemn their governments over their inability to provide good roads and other amenities.”
Without a doubt, many states have since the drop in oil revenue accruing to the federation which in turn led to a drop in the allocation to the states from the Federation account, struggled to pay salaries. Such was the extent of the problem that a bill was introduced on the floor of the House of Representatives last year titled: A Bill for an Act to Prohibit Late Payment, Non-Payment and Under-payment of Workers’ Wages, Pensions and other Emoluments in Nigeria and Prescribe Penalties for Violations and other Related Matters.
It was in my estimation, one of the most well intentioned bills conceived in modern times in Nigeria. According to its sponsor, Femi Gbajabiamila of Lagos State, the bill was designed to ensure that every employer of labour whether private or public pays the wages, salaries, pensions and all benefits of its workers workers promptly without any delay weekly, fortnightly, monthly, quarterly as may be agreed by parties in the contract of employment of the individual employee. That Bill unfortunately was withdrawn by the sponsor to allow for further consultation.
However, with the current situation, there is an imminent face off between labour labour and the state governments that continue to contend they cannot pay the sum of N30,000 as minimum wage. This development, therefore, necessitates that all parties involved take the time to study the issues revolving round what should be the minimum wage in Nigeria and in my estimation, one of those issues is whether it is really practicable to have the minimum wage determined or set only at the national level as obtains in Nigeria.
In other words, questions must be asked as to why the national minimum wage is set by the federation when in reality economic realities differ across the states which are required to implement the said minimum wage. Would it not be better if each state is allowed, taking into consideration factors peculiar to it, in determining what it can or should pay as minimum wage?
In stating this I am not unaware of the fact that what The National Minimum Wage Act prescribes is a minimum below which no employer can pay and that, therefore, states can and in some instances, do pay above the prescribed minimum.
For the avoidance of doubt, item 34 of the Exclusive Legislative List contained in the Second Schedule to the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (As Amended) reads as follows: “Labour, including trade unions, industrial relation; conditions, safety and welfare of labour; industrial disputes; prescribing a national minimum wage for the federation or any part thereof; and industrial arbitrations.”
However what I propose is a system in which the issue of wages is moved from its current spot on the exclusive legislative list to the concurrent list enabling state legislatures to also pass laws on wages.
The immediate advantage of this, as I will show next week with examples from other countries, is that labour will be able to discuss directly with state governments thereby bringing about a situation in which wages payable in a locality will reflect the peculiarities of that locality.