Mr. Victor Eburajolo is a renown industrial relations expert and Group Deputy Managing Director, Kewalram Chanrai Group. In a chat with journalists, the labour expert speaks on the agitation for a new minimum wage and how its non-implementation is affecting the manufacturing sector, among others. MOSES JOHN reports.
Business environment in a recession
We are just beginning to crawl out of recession and for the last one year or thereabout, it has been very terrible for manufacturers generally. This is because the country is heavily import- dependent. Everything we produce has a lot of foreign input. During this period, it is quite difficult couple with the depreciation of the Naira. If you have to adjust your prices, there is a limit to which you can adjust. So, most of us, for now, have been contended with breaking even and hope for better days in the future. Most companies are unable to pay dividend and some, out of tradition, are bending backwards just to satisfy their shareholders by paying some interim dividends.
The reason why some of us are doing that is to put some money in the hands of the public so that they too can purchase goods and services, because the ordinary man in the street does not have much purchasing power . As a manufacturer, if you produce, you don’t sell, you have done nothing. But if you sell and you are unable to collect your money, it is even more difficult. So it’s been a very tough time for us in the manufacturing sector. I don’t think it is easy for those who are selling as well, because it is the same thing. It’s been a very bad time as the value of the Naira has crashed, prices of oil have equally crashed and sometimes, the prices just fluctuate. So planning becomes very difficult.
Measures to boost employees’ productivity
For this group, we have been giving out 10kg of rice for almost one year now. The way we have seen it, that goes a long way to boost productivity. We have not reduced salary. So, it will be better for us to make the sacrifice. We are managing to cope but we just hope that we climb out of this recession very soon.
Reduction of staff strength
That was done about two years ago. Not really cutting of staff strength. What we did was what I will describe in Industrial Relations as delaying. Those who are due to retire were asked to go and all their benefits paid, and then some of them who were still considered strong, after retirement, were brought back on contract for service which is renewable every year..
Demand for new minimum wage
I have always said that respect is the basis for any civilised relationship either between workers and employees, or between government and ordinary man in the street. One of the basic requirements of respect is by promising and fulfilling. We agreed that minimum wage will be reviewed every five years, that is the understanding. For goodness sake, at least, let us have a minimum wage committee that will try to explain or make some adjustments so that the workforce will believe that they are not been taken for granted. But for us to just keep quiet about it and not doing anything, I think it is immoral and very, very unfair to the working class of this country. What even bothers me is not that the minimum wage has not been adjusted, but the recklessness of the state governors and those running government. We have workers that have not been paid, you expect loyalty from them, and expect them to come to work.
Sometimes, I even wonder if the Minister for Labour was told that the banking industry and companies in private sector had not paid salaries for one or two months, what would be his reaction? He is not a Minister for government, but a Minister of this country. He has the Ministry of Labour and I have seen the Minister making any comment about what state governments are not doing. Instead, he is summoning banks and private sector employers and asking them why they are retrenching. I do not know the role the ministry of labour and te minister himself are supposed to be playing in this country.
Minister power and non payment of salaries
If he has no control, he has some moral responsibilities to call his colleagues to order. He is quiet about those government who are doing all these things; state government’s parastatals and so on. And he is bringing his hammer down on the private sector. He forgets that in the private sector, if you don’t pay me, you don’t expect me to come to work or expect loyalty from me, and you don’t even expect me to help myself from the job that I am doing. For instance, you have a cook or a house help and you have not paid him or her and you expect the cook to eat ones a day. How do you think he or she will eat? The cook will give you the remnant. He would have finished eating in the kitchen before he passed the remnant to you to eat. Let us be practical about this.
Employers and new minimum wage
What is capitalism all about? It is the exploitation of the working class and employers all over the world except few that are magnanimous and have blood flowing through their veins, behave as a typical capitalist . They will look for all reasons, reasonable and unreasonable not to adjust salary. Take for example, what we are doing here, giving out bags of rice, is subsidy. If we are to add the cost of rice to the salary of the workers, everybody will say that we are doing well. But you know what, when we were about to introduce it, we did a survey. Do you know what some of the workers said? They said don’t adjust our salaries, if you adjust our salaries , our wives at home may not know, the children may not know but the rice will get home.
If there is a minimum wage today, all the employers will find a way to implement it. It is an adjustment and we will implement it. They don’t want to close down business. Like I always say to employers, when things are good, most of us just go on and enjoy. For me, that is bad business. Just the way you are watching your finances and other means of production, watch your Labour. Have the right number of employees you want on ground, pay them well and you will get the best from them. But when you flood the whole place with workers, you encourage indolence and laziness. I don’t think we should go on like this and say the economy is bad, we can’t do this or that.
Those of us who are into manufacturing are the one suffering because the purchasing power of the ordinary man in the street has been eroded. So if we produce, who is going to buy? If the purchasing power of the ordinary man is enhanced, he will buy and we will produce more. If he does not buy, we will will suffer and the whole country will suffer. Why is President Trump crying about employment and the number of people that are being employed? If you have more people employed, more people paying salaries, business environment is enhanced, you can do business and it immediately reflects in the gross domestic product of the country. If you do the right things and consumption goes up, you say the economy is recovery.
Efforts of organised labour on new wage
If you ask me, I will say honestly they are not doing enough. It is not just featuring in the press and shouting here or there. No! We mange Labour, If they keep barking and barking, and they don’t bite, do you know what I will do? I will use something to block my ears to stop the noise from disturbing me. But when I know they are going to bite, I will sit up. I remember once when I was negotiating with Comrade Adams Oshiomhole when he was still the General Secretary of Textile Union, he said, he kept threatening that they were going to strike. One day, I said “Adams, where you come from, every morning you will see the hunter cleaning his gun, you never heard him shoot the gun one day. After sometime, you will begin to wonder whether his gun is real or not.’ I said why don’t you shoot it one day for us to know that it is working.
Beside the issue of salary increase, one other thing that can help the workers in this country is credit facility. You know whatever the worker needs to buy, he has to look for cash to pay. The workers in this country don’t have any credit facility. The only thing that is guaranteed in the Labour law is salary advance of one month that you pay back in three months. But go to other countries even in Africa, they have credit facilities.
Loan facilities for workers
But if there were facilities in the bank for hire purchase and so on, that would give funds to workers at a concessionary interest rate, you will find that it will boost the economy of the country. Those of us who are selling vehicles, if there was a backing from government and arrangement with the banks, you will find out that workers will buy cars. It would help car manufacturers, it will boost the economy. Go to South Africa, the graduate picks up his first job along with letter of employment, it is the facility for buying car with the bank where all the arrangement is made. The worker gets his salary at the end of the month and from source, the employer deducts the amount agreed with the bank and pays to the bank. So, nobody buys fairly used cars in South Africa?