Nigerian workers joined the rest of the world last Sunday to celebrate Workers Day. The occasion offered the nation another opportunity to consider the condition of its workers and proffer solutions to their problems.
In spite of the fact that the celebration came at a time of little cheer for our workers, with as many as 22 out of the nation’s 36 states owing staff salaries of between two and seven months, the occasion was well celebrated with the traditional May Day rally in Abuja and a message from President Muhammadu Buhari, who was represented by the Minister of Labour and Productivity, Chris Ngige.
The president called for the cooperation and understanding of workers as his government strives to attend to the dire economic situation in the country. He charged them to avoid industrial actions and move from adversarial trade unionism to developmental unionism. He was, nevertheless, silent on the agitation by labour for an increase in the minimum wage from N18,000 to N56,000.
The May Day rallies also held in some states, but the Edo State governor, Adams Oshiomhole, made the occasion special for his workers as he announced that the minimum wage in the state will now be N25,000. Coming at a time when most of the states in the country cannot even pay their workers’ salaries and meet their other financial obligations, the initiative of the Edo governor is worthy of commendation. The President of the Nigerian Labour Congress, (NLC) president, Ayuba Wabba, lamented the employment crisis in the country, adding that there is hardly any family in the country that does not have at least two unemployed graduates.
Several other leaders at the national and state levels made different speeches as has been the practice over the years, but the question remains: what hope is there for better times for workers?
For several years now, Nigerian workers have been going through the worst of times. Unemployment has become a monster raging against the soul of workers. Workers in many states are not paid their salaries and how they are surviving this difficult situation is much better imagined than experienced. Even for those who receive their salaries as due, it has become very difficult to demand improvement in their working conditions as the states and many other employers in the private sector are just managing to get by. So, many workers stay on the same salary levels for many years.
But, inflation is not in any way limited by these difficult times. Instead, the difficulties of the moment have become manure that is aiding it to flourish in the midst of workers’ diminishing purchasing power. Workers can no longer get the same value that they got for their salaries a few years, and even months, ago, because the prices of many goods have skyrocketed. The price of a bag of good rice, for instance, has moved from about N10,000 just this last December to about N14,000 today, yet, the salaries of many workers have not increased by a single kobo. The purchasing power of the people has so diminished that they can get only little goods and services for the salaries that they receive.
Yet, their chance of getting the minimum wage increased to N56,000 is slim, slimmer than that of a camel passing through the eye of the needle. Already, many states are relying on bailouts from the Federal Government and the sharing of money from the Federation Account to meet their obligations. Even the Federal Government is said to be relying on domestic and foreign borrowings to pay the salaries of its workers.
Many families are going through difficult times because of unemployment. There are families that have the parents retired and all the graduate children unemployed. Because of the hard times, many employers have resorted to paying their workers pittance, and they are getting away with it as the workers have few options other than to continue collecting the meager pay and grumbling underneath their breath.
Where, then, is the hope for better times for the workers? One way out of this predicament is to boost the productivity in the country to reduce the reliance on oil receipts and handouts from the Federal Government. The states need to be strengthened to stand on their own while there should be greater productivity so that workers can get more goods and services for the little amounts that they earn.
The government needs to support the agricultural and industrial sectors to increase their capacity to absorb more workers. Poor electricity supply, which has been the bane of productivity in the country, should be addressed. Rural roads should be opened up. The problem of casualisation has been an age long one in the country. It should be addressed. Workers at all levels should be enrolled in the National Health Insurance Scheme to ease their access to good healthcare, while all the states should key into the National Pension Scheme, to guarantee the welfare of their workers when they retire.
The problems militating against the scheme should be addressed, and the decision to invest pension funds in development of infrastructure should not be taken lightly, as the pensions trillions are not free funds but are monies belonging to individuals. Every care must be taken to ensure that the scheme does not end up with gnashing of teeth, as obtained for some workers who retired under the old scheme. This is time for the government to put on its thinking cap and design strategies to improve the lives of workers in all parts of the country.
This is the time to lay the foundation for a happier Workers’ Day celebration in 2017.
Politics in Nigeria is so dirty that what played out in Rivers State during the rerun is the norm. Imagine the headline – “Gov., Minister in shouting match”
With the body of the article stating that it took the presence of security men to prevent an exchange of blows between them. What does one make of the caliber of political party leaders in Nigeria with such acts and their consequences which informed the low turnout of voters during the rerun exercise? Without courageous columnists of your ilk who knock the nail right on the head and offer suggestions on ways out of political problems in Nigeria, the polity would have been worse off.
Lai Ashadele, Lagos