‘TAKEAWAYS’ FROM MINIMUM WAGE FUSS

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With the steep surge in inflation sequel to the sudden and imprudent removal of fuel subsidy and the floating of the naira at the onset of the current administration, it was discernible, even to the blind, that the current National Minimum Wage (NMW) of N30,000 was no longer tenable.

Inflation rate, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) report, had in response to the twin-missteps, risen to 28.9 per cent in December, 2023, the highest since August, 2005, up from 27.3 per cent in the previous month. Food inflation also rose steeply to 31.52 per cent in October, 2023, an increase from 30.64 per cent in September, 2023.

Currently, according to the latest NBS report, inflation rate had climbed to 33.69 per cent by April, 2024, its highest since March, 1996, up from 33.2 per cent in the previous month. Food inflation had also risen sharply to 40.5 per cent in the same period (April, 2024), as opposed to the 40 per cent record in March.

Expectedly, the Organised Labour, made up of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC), which had vehemently opposed the fuel subsidy withdrawal and threatened strike over it, began agitation for the upward review of the current NMW law. The Federal Government, in response, set up a tripartite committee, comprising representatives from the federal and state governments, labour unions and the Organised Private Sector (OPS) to negotiate and work out a new, acceptable NMW.

The review is not only necessitated by the spiralling costs of living and the depreciation of the naira value, the constitution also provides that the NMW benchmark be reviewed at least every five years. The constitutional review has been due since March, this year, because the current N30,000 NMW was signed into law in March,2019 by former President Muhammadu Buhari.

Public hearings have since been held on the NMW. The NLC had initially proposed N794,000 per month and TUC N447,000, attributing the figures to the current inflationary realities. Both figures were later harmonized to N615,000 and much later to N497,000. The Federal Government initially offered N57,000, basing its own figure on their limited financial muscle to pay. But it later upped the figure by N3,000, making it N60,000, while Labour reciprocated by removing N3,000 from its own figure, making it N494,000.

However, negotiations have hit brick walls several times. The seeming rigmarole incensed the labour leaders, who thereafter set May, 31, 2024, as the deadline for government to work out an acceptable NMW or risk industrial action. They eventually declared a nationwide indefinite strike, beginning from last Monday.

The NLC President, Joe Ajaero, explained that the strike followed failed negotiations between the government and organised labour and the former’s refusal to reverse the removal of power sector subsidies, which led to the hike in electricity tariffs. The labour leaders became implacable at this stage as the last ditch effort of the National Assembly leadership to stymie the strike failed.

The minimum wage issue had been a ding dong affair between the government and Labour. The first NMW was baked in 1981 in the crucible of industrial action, spearheaded by the late labour veteran, Alhaji Hassan Sumonu. The agitation paid off in September, 1981 when then President Shehu Shagari signed the first NMW bill into law.

The law, which fixed the minimum wage at N125 per month, covered all full-time workers, except seasonal workers and those who worked in enterprises whose employees were fewer than 50. The NMW was increased to N3,000 in 1998, N5,500 in year 2000 and N7,500 in 2001.

The NMW got a quantum leap in 2011 when then President Goodluck Jonathan signed a new NMW into law, increasing the figure from N7,500 to N18,000. The NMW leapt to the current N30,000 when former President Muhammadu Buhari signed a new NMW bill into law in March, 2019.

The major drawback to NMW has always been the state governors, who view paying it as a bugger. As of October, last year, BudgIT reported that at least, 15 states were not paying the current N30,000 NMW fixed in 2019 by the Buhari administration.

Already, in the current dispensation, the Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF) has said its members would not be able to pay the N60,000, proposed by the Federal Government and which Labour had already rejected. The governors said their entire monthly allocations would go into paying only salaries if they have to pay the N60,000, while some of them would need to be borrowing every month to cope.

But a few states like Lagos and Edo are already paying about N70,000 as minimum wage. After the strike, which eventually took place last Monday, was ‘relaxed’ by the labour leaders to allow room for more negotiations, the Federal Government increased its proposed figure to N62,000, while Labour responded by causing a diminution in its own figure, scaling down to N250,000. The ding dong continued as at press time.

However, the last Monday strike threw up salient issues that are mind-boggling. First, the strike was botched up by the labour leaders. They conducted the whole exercise with a somewhat fiendish rage and militant gust.

Not only did they tamper with essential services, they overstepped their bounds, committing criminal breaches. They went as far as shutting down the national grid, plunging the entire nation into a mindless blackout against the grain of the law! The invidious conduct of the labour leaders is highly despicable.

Were they so oblivious of the rules that guide the game and set boundaries for them or were they just being incautiously fervid, like some swanky overlords carried away by the allure of power? Shutting down the national grid breaches the Miscellaneous Offences Act, which prescribes life imprisonment on conviction! Section 9 of the Act states: “Any person who unlawfully disconnects, removes, damages, tampers, meddles with or in any way whatsoever interferes with any plant, works, cables, wires or assembly of wires designed or used for transforming or converting electricity shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to imprisonment for life.”

Section 10 also provides: “Any person who unlawfully disconnects, removes, damages, tampers, meddles with or in any way whatsoever interferes with any electric fittings, metres or other appliances used for generating, transforming, converting, conveyancing, supplying or selling electricity shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 21 years.”

Then, the International Labour Organization(ILO), to which Nigeria is a signatory, categorises certain services as ‘essential’ that ought not to be tampered with during any industrial action. Even though, these rules are not justiceable (They are not enforceable in court), they are a moral suasion aimed at saving lives or ensuring that segments of society do not suffer hardships during any strike.

These are services whose interruption are likely to endanger the life, health and security of the people. They are also to keep society running during strikes. Some of them are provision of water, electricity, health care, public communication (media), law enforcement, fire fighting, food services, Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), among others.

However, the labour leaders so recklessly mucked up the strike by grounding the entire nation, including essential services that ought to have run, and tampering with the national grid, thus hurting the already tottering economy and endangering lives. A lot of people sustained injuries because they were brutalized by those who meddled with the national grid. And the OPS was said to have lost a whooping N3.5trillion to the one day strike.

The malfeasance is a joke carried too far. And it stirred public outrage and angst. The Senate President, Godswill Akpabio, described it as an economic sabotage. The Deputy Speaker, House of Representatives, Benjamin Kalu, chided the labour leaders for it, calling attention to the Trade Union Act, which restricts labour unions from shutting down certain sectors of the economy during an industrial action.

Labour Veterans said shutting down the national grid was uncalled for, describing the action as “treasonable felony”. A strongly worded statement issued by their chairman, Comrade Isa Tijjani, a one-time Vice-President of the NLC, said the labour leaders’ unwarranted action hampered businesses.

“Once again,” he said, “we write to express our anger and grave dissatisfaction with the way the recent strike was conducted by the NLC.”

He added: “In particular, we are miffed by the apparent treasonable felony committed by the striking labour leaders in bringing down the national grid, stopping citizens from going about their legitimate businesses, forceful eviction of law-abiding citizens from their offices and employment of force and arm-twisting tactics on people to abide by the strike.

“All these should be investigated and appropriate action taken. It is against ILO convention which is aimed at protecting essential services sector in any given economy from such disruptions.”

We cannot agree more. Ajaero and his co-travellers should be reminded that industrial action is not a war against the state nor is it a punishing measure against the society. It is simply a civil procedure to call the attention of the authorities to certain issues or press home some demands.

It is high time our labour leaders did away with jejune, worn out weapons of bellicosity and militancy in prosecuting strikes. They are ill-winds that blow no good.

Second, let them (labour leaders) also retreat to the drawing board and work out new and better strategies for pressing home their demands from the government. Strike is supposed to be the last resort in the scale of trade dispute with the government. But our labour leaders have a proclivity for employing the last resort as the first option.

The chairman of the Labour Veterans, Comrade Tijjani, has a word of advice for them on this score. “The penchant to opt for strike as the first option in setting labour disputes,” he posits, “is inimical to the interest of workers in whose name the strike was embarked upon in the first place.”

He added: “This demonstrates lack of seriousness and deep reflection on the side of congress leadership for always swinging into action before they think. Such actions are inimical to well known norms and practices of the labour movement and should be stopped forthwith.”

Third, subjecting the minimum wage agitation to publicity blitz is a serious blight because it is counter-productive. Often, as the negotiations for a new minimum wage progress and labour leaders shout on the rooftops, inflation will always wait in the wings, stoop and pounce on whatever figure is arrived at and mess it up!

So now, with all the fuss that is trailing the ongoing negotiations and in the absence of a price control board, landlords, market women, transporters, among others, are waiting with bated breath for a new wage to berth for them to hike their prices to get their own slice of the ‘national cake’!

The elders say when your yam farm yields a bountiful harvest, you have to maintain quietude to enjoy it. Otherwise, you will be inviting a crowd if you show off. Let our labour leaders learn to be less fussy in their agitation for the minimum wage in future so they could enjoy the fruit.