By Tonnie Iredia
Last Wednesday, state capitals across Nigeria witnessed protests by members of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) against the plan to remove the country’s minimum wage from her Exclusive Legislative List. Expectedly, several elite voices have since condemned Labour on the subject. While some, such as governors elected on the platform of the ruling All Progressives Congress APC, faulted the approach of the workers, others have described the protests as an attempt to stop the legislature from doing its work.
No one appears to remember that the National Assembly from where the bill was initiated is expected to consist of the people’s representatives whose primary obligation is to be on the side of the people. If so, which people in Nigeria requested their representatives to help them remove the minimum wage item from the exclusive legislative list or who are the legislators helping?
Opposition against the bill can hardly be surmounted. Already, many state legislators who addressed the workers’ protest last week expressed support for Labour making the reasoning of those in support of the removal to be unclear to everyone. It is argued that because some poor states may not be able to pay what others can afford, each state should have power to negotiate directly with its workers.
The argument is comical because a national minimum wage is supposed to be a figure that every state can pay; leaving more viable states with the option to pay far more than the barest minimum. In which case, is it not rational to leave the determination of such a benchmark to a central, neutral level? Against this backdrop, one is persuaded to agree with Labour that perhaps those against our apex workers’ union are yet to understand the ordinary meaning of ‘minimum’ as a term.
Why can’t Nigeria determine the least pay for her citizen in every part of the country? After all, the United States that our people constantly cite probably because our constitution is modelled after theirs has a national minimum wage. At the last count, no less than 29 American states have set their own minimum wages above the federal figure.
With respect to the reasonableness of the decision of Labour to organize protests against the bill which seeks to reorder the status of the minimum wage, one is tempted to conclude that our leaders are probably unable to appreciate that protests are legitimate and that they are covered by law in our country and elsewhere. A peep at sections 38, 39, 40 and 41 of the Nigerian Constitution would reveal a combined effect of a fundamental human right of the people to assembly with like minds to voice out their displeasures, disappointments and indeed their support for a policy.
It is therefore unfair to echo the rather old-fashioned perspective in many parts of the country that persons who engage in protests are either unpatriotic or anti-establishment. It is hoped that this unprogressive stance will wear out soon, so that our nation is not dispossessed of what it takes to move side by side with other enlightened societies.
There is also nothing new or strange about the decision of Labour to protest. Perhaps some people would have preferred the option of dialogue, which at this point makes little sense in view of the long-drawn out dialogue which preceded the determination of the subsisting minimum wage of N30, 000 that was done by Labour, Government at Federal and State Levels and the Private Sector. Six governors, one per geopolitical zone represented the states. The figure was negotiated over and over again and agreed upon before it was made into law.
Labour imagines that it is states who have since breached the law that are now seeking a new path through a bill that removes the subject from the Exclusive Legislative list. One would have thought that having reached a consensus earlier within the tenure of our current President, the determined minimum wage should have been allowed to work instead of looking for ways to thwart an agreement. Besides, we need to give peace medals to the current labour leaders who have not towed the path of their aggressive predecessors that harassed previous administrations on the same issues that are still begging for solution today.
We honestly cannot blame Labour now because many of the issues they have raised are not being tackled. For instance, Labour says minimum wage is a global phenomenon about which Nigeria should not seek to be an island on its own. They contend that the issue of a national minimum wage in the Exclusive Legislative List was settled as far back as June 16, 1961 when Nigeria joined other Sovereign nations to ratify the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 26 which prioritized the subject.
Another important point that has remained ignored is the issue of what happens to the informal sector when the minimum wage is put in disarray. Who will fix the minimum wage for the private sector and our numerous unskilled workers? In addition, if it is unfair for workers to earn same wages in different states that are not equally endowed, is it fair for governors of poor states to be equally remunerated with governors of more viable states? Would it not have been more palatable if the need to readjust wages began with our leaders who should lead by example?
The take-home pay of our national legislators has remained a disgusting issue. Each time it is raised, legislators team up as a union to place a smokescreen on the allegation. Those who publicly speak on the subject reveal only their basic salary, what about the outrageous allowances that even the body established to fix their remuneration has always disowned. Some even tell us of the ratio of funds available to the three arms of government to justify what the legislature gets.
Is it only funds that should be shared by ratio, what about workforce? Those who speak privately for fear of suspension confirm millions of naira at the disposal of federal legislators in Nigeria every month – a posture that is not amusing to the ordinary citizen. This probably explains the general belief that it is only the working class in our country particularly the lowly paid that are required to make sacrifices to stabilize Nigeria during this precarious financial situation.
History tells us how our leaders many years back without prompting, cut their expenses during periods of national financial difficulty. During the Murtala/Obasanjo military regime for example, austerity measures introduced to revitalize the nation began from the top when the most expensive official vehicle for top office holders was reduced to a Nigerian-assembled Peugeot car.
Today, the more the financial crisis, the more imported vehicles are procured for legislators and executives as if they belong to a group beyond the people they claim to represent. What this suggests is that if states are over-empowered at this point in time to determine wages, some of them will not only strangulate workers, they may procure private jets for retrieval of their own special allowances which being so high, might be in the sky. It is therefore hard to not agree that in the current agitation for workers’ survival, Labour has a strong point.