May Day: Labour leaders disagree on minimum wage

Complains about paucity of funds, lack of political will and the bickering amongst labour leaders on an agreeable amount may frustrate the implementation of a national minimum wage, TOPE SUNDAY reports

From Kogi to Katsina states, down to Imo and Ekiti states, including Borno and Edo states, Nigerian workers spoke with one voice last Tuesday. The workers, across sectoral divides, had variously demanded for payment of salary backlogs, improved working conditions and an increase of minimum wage. However, their leaders differed on the latter, especially the amount that should be paid as national minimum wage at the World Workers’ Day which was celebrated this week.

In Kogi state, workers failed to turn up en mass to mark the May Day celebration. In Lokoja, the state capital, the celebration was low key as workers are protesting non payment of several months salaries. Last Tuesday, only few of them went to the Lokoja Confluence Stadium and the celebration was devoid of the usual rituals of match past and solidarity songs. However, the state chapter of the Nigeria Labour Congress(NLC) decried the non payment of salaries. Comrade Onu Edoka, the state NLC chairman, called for a comprehensive probe on how all funds accruing to the state in the last two years were spent. According to him, it is rather strange that in spite of the colossal bailout funds, Paris Club refund and ecological funds that the state got, many workers are still being owed salary arrears, ranging from five to 24 months. The NLC chairman pointed out that pensioners are not left out of the selective payment of emoluments.

In Benue state, NLC Chairman Godwin Anya said that the union is doing “everything possible” to ensure that all genuine workers are included on the payroll as soon as possible. According to reports, workers in the state are being randomly removed from the payroll, without being issued with sack letters, not minding the number of years they have served in government. Similarly, the state chairman of Nigerian Union of Teachers(NUT), Mr Micheal Yisah, decried the non-payment of teachers. He warned that if nothing is done to assuage their sufferings, teachers would embark on industrial action. According to Yisah, teachers in the state received their last salary in January, 2017. The unionist said that the number of workers omitted from the payroll were more than those currently on government’s payroll. In addition, President of Nigerian Union of Local Government Employees(NULGE), Mr Terungwa Igbe, had warned that the union is running out of patience with government over the continuous delay in the completion of workers’ screening .

Conversely, Governor Aminu Bello Masari of Katsina state gave a general advice to Nigerian workers. According to him, they should demand for an improved standard of living from the government instead of calling for a new minimum wage. Masari argued that an increase in minimum wage without improvement in standard of living will make no impact. The governor advised labour to ‘’ look at the fundamental issues that make salary meaningful which is minimum standard of living that will make an average man live in peace. Talk about education, water supply, access roads, health, shelter and security. No development without peace because the moment salary is increased, everything will be increased.’’

Dissenting labour leaders
Significantly, much as workers were united on pay raise and payment of salary arrears, there is not unanimity as to what should constitute the new national minimum wage by the two labour centres. Initially, both the NLC and Trade Union Congress(TUC) had settled for N56, 000 minimum monthly salary for the least paid Nigerian worker. However, they jerked it up to N66, 500 monthly last Tuesday. On the other hand, the United Labour Congress of Nigeria (ULC) is insisting on N96, 000 minimum wage. Significantly, ULC had broke out of both NLC and TUC over a year ago and it has been seeking registration as a labour centre. Last Workers’ Day, the division came to the fore over the issue of minimum wage.

Speaking in Lagos recently, President of ULC, Comrade Joe Ajaero, said that the cost of living in the country prompted the demand for new minimum wage. Ajaero, who was represented by Secretary General of Nigerian Union of Railway (NUR), Mr. Segun Esan, lamented that eight years after the last minimum wage was implemented, the prices of goods have skyrocketed. According to him, “what N18,000 would have bought in 2010, you will need a minimum of N72,000 to buy it this year. To therefore maintain the same standard of living that an average Nigerian worker enjoyed in 2010 this year, he needs to be paid at least four times his 2010 wages. ‘’ Mr Esan further argued that ‘’after factoring ability to pay, we reached the understanding that instead of demanding N113,000 as the national Minimum wage, which we believe will guarantee a Living wage for Nigerian workers, we demanded for N96,000 as national minimum wage. ‘’

In contrast, NLC and TUC are agitating for N66,500 as minimum wage for the least paid worker in Nigeria. Agnes Sessi, the Chairman of the Political Committee of Lagos chapter of NLC, had demanded ‘’ for a new monthly national minimum wage of N66,500, which is approximately the average of the implied minimum wages derived under three approaches.” He made this submission in a memorandum on behalf of both NLC and TUC.

Last Tuesday, NLC President Ayuba Wabba, maintained the position of both NLC and TUC, arguing that N66, 500 is a fair and implementable minimum wage. According to him, government can afford to pay it if it is serious about welfare of workers. The NLC president vowed that the Nigerian workers would not accept anything less. Expatiating on the issue, Wabba pointed out that ‘’ minimum wage means the minimum below which no employer of Labour should pay.”

A recurring agitation
According to the available records, the agitation for minimum wage in Nigeria dates back to the colonial era with the setting up of the Hunts Commission in 1934. However, the first National Minimum Wage Act, which was enacted in 1981, prescribed a minimum wage of N125 per month and it was contained in the Official Gazette A53-57. Ten years later, the minimum wage was increased from N125 per month to N250 in 1991. In 2000, it was jerked up to N5, 500 per month and at the last review which was done in 2011, the minimum wage was raised to N18, 000.

In addition, the Justice Alfa Belgore Committee presented a National Minimum Wage Amendment Bill to the National Assembly on July 1, recommending N18, 000 as the national minimum wage for all public establishments and companies in the private sector which employ 50 workers and above. Also, the committee had recommended a fine not exceeding N100, 000, or imprisonment for a term not more than six months or both, for defaulting firms or agencies. The Bill was passed into law on March 15, 2011 by both chambers of the National Assembly with minor adjustments, especially over penalties. According to the National Minimum Wage Act 2011, the penalty for failing to pay minimum wage is N20, 000 while the penalty for every additional day the default continues is N1, 000.”

However, six years after its passage, NLC and TUC are again agitating for a new national minimum wage regime of N56, 000 in the country. Last December, NLC had threatened to embark on nationwide industrial action if federal government fails to commence the implementation by May 2018. At that time, Wabba had decried the non-inclusion of the new wage increase in theN7.298 trillion for the 2017 fiscal year. According to him, ‘’ the purchasing power of ordinary Nigerian workers has been reduced to virtually nothing because of the inflation in the system, the free fall of the naira and to compound it with high cost of goods and services. More so, most workers now cannot meet up with their daily needs, they can’t pay their rents, they can’t send their children to school.’’

The tripartite committee
After repeated threats, the federal government had inaugurated a 30-member Tripartite Committee for the negotiation of new minimum wage of N56,000 last November. Specifically, the committee is made up of persons from the public sector, (federal and state governments) and the private sector, comprising the largest private employer groups, the Nigeria Employers Consultative Association (NECA), Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce Industry Mines and Agriculture (NACCIMA) and Nigerian Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (NASME). Mrs Ama Pepple, former Head of Service and ex Minister of Housing, is the chairman, while the current Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, is deputizing for her.

In addition, the Chairman of National Salaries, Income and Wages Commission, Richard Egbule is the secretary. Similarly, other members of the committee are Udoma Udoma, Minister of Budget and Planning; Mrs Kemi Adeosun, Minister of Finance and Mrs Winifred Oyo-Ita, Head of the Civil Service of the Federation as well as Roy Ugo, the Permanent Secretary, General Services, Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation amongst others.

While inaugurating the committee, President Muhammadu Buhari agreed that the current minimum wage has already expired. He promised that after its assignment, an executive bill would be sent to the National Assembly “to undergo scrutiny before being passed into law”. Similarly, the Minister of Labour and Productivity, who is also the deputy chairman of the 30-man new wage negotiation committee, also rekindled the hope of the Nigerian workers with the assurance that the new minimum wage regime will commence in September, 2018.

Last March, the federal government had assured workers that it would come up with a national minimum wage that would serve as a living wage and address issue of social imbalance, inequality and the wide gap of poverty in the country. The Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr Boss Mustapha, who gave the assurance when speaking at a gala/award night organized to round off the 40th Anniversary celebration of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), in Abuja, promised that the minimum wage would meet the economic realities of the working people when its implementation starts in September this year. According to him, the tripartite committee ‘’ is determined to complete its assignment before the end of this year and I am confident that the outcome of their assignment would address the issue of social imbalance, inequality and the wide gap of poverty in the country.’’

Is a new salary regime in sight?
However, before the committee will complete its assignment, organized labour has sent a strong message last Workers’ Day. NLC President Wabba had warned the tripartite committee against overshooting the September deadline. In his strongly-worded address, the NLC president vowed that the NLC will continue to fight until the new wage is implemented. According to him, “the benefits of new minimum wage cannot be over-emphasised. An increase in the minimum wage will pull many workers out of poverty’’.

Significantly, Vice president Yemi Osinbajo who was attended the May Day celebrations, agreed substantially with Wabba. According to him, the argument for a new national minimum wage cannot be protested “because it is the minimum amount of compensation that an employee must receive for putting in his or her labour. Osinbajo promised that ‘’this administration has no intention of ignoring the demands of labour. It is my hope that the tripartite committee will work to enable the federal government to send an executive bill on a new national minimum wage to the National Assembly for passage into law as soon as possible.”

However, the echoes from the Workers’ Day celebration across the states, cast doubts on the seriousness of the some of the state governors to implement the new minimum wage regime. Moreso, when some of them have not paid workers for close to seven months in some states. Aside Governor Ibrahim Dankwambo of Gombe state, who had earlier announced his readiness to pay N28,000 as minimum wage, even before the tripartite committee submits its report, no other governor has made any firm commitment. The complain about paucity of funds, lack of political will and the bickering amongst labour leaders on an agreeable amount may frustrate the implementation of a national minimum wage.

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