Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige has given an insight into the causes of the spate of strikes in the country and how the government navigated through the labour sector crisis despite being in dire straits financially.
The minister who spoke with journalists to mark the May Day celebration, also spoke on the refusal of state governments to implement the N30,000 minimum wage, saying that the law is binding on every employer in the country. Excerpts:
Why do we have this spate of industrial unrest in recent times by ASUU, NASU, resident doctors and the rest of them?
The overriding denominator in all these demands and agitations is for more money or pay. It is economic. The times are hard. Yes. Prices of goods have gone up. Yes. So, all these are factors that make for the wellbeing of the average worker. So, they now remembered that in 2009, they signed an agreement with the Jonathan government, saying that they will pay XYZ and the government that signed it, didn’t pay it then. And today, because the purchasing power has not been very adequate, they remembered that some people are owing them and major, is the government. But it is not all that bad because I normally tell the workers that we all agree that government is a continuum. But these allowances were owed you from 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, when the Buhari administration was born. And when this administration came, by some coincidence, the prices of oil in the world market pummeled and went down from $100 per barrel, to $30, $35, $40 and even in the more recent times during the COVID-19 pandemic, it came down to $15 per barrel. At one time there were no buyers at all. So, this period also witnessed militancy in the Niger Delta, burst of pipelines and the rest of them occurred. The exportable production for Nigeria pummeled again. The production nose-dived from 2.5 million barrels to one million barrels and even at a point it was 700,000. So, these are factors that have played out. There was low revenue receipt for government because of our mono-economy, which is dependent on oil. And so, government went to work, engaging in diversification, prioritizing agriculture, so we can produce what we eat. We engaged in lowering of imports and the rest of them and that is how government has remained afloat until 2016 recession and luckily, we came out quickly in 2017. And as we are talking about full recovery and full growth, COVID-19 pandemic struck. Within this time from 2015 down to now that we are talking, our revenue receipt is nothing to write home about. That is why government had to borrow to do capital works like railways, repair our roads and even finance agriculture so that our people can get what they can eat. We borrowed to renovate our airports. The things we use in renovating our airports and some other capital projects are procured in dollars. You get them in foreign currency. So, this is where we are. So, President Buhari and his government have done what Napoleon could not do. I am saying this, not because I am part of this government. I am really amazed that we are able to weather the storm and still fulfill many obligations. But payment of owed salaries and allowances to the members of these unions has been substantially met.
You began your conversation around the agreements Jonathan government signed with workers, which were not implemented. Are you blaming that government for what we are experiencing?
Of course, I am. They entered into an agreement in 2009. They extended it to 2013, especially in the education sector with ASUU, NASU and other unions in the sector. The university lecturers said apart from paying them salaries, they should also pay them Earned Academic Allowance, because they are carrying more load than they ought to. They agreed. They even employed more workers. They also made an agreement to pay them N220 billion every year for five years for revitalization of the university system. It was only paid once in that 2013 and even that one paid, the sum of N200 billion was taken from TETFUND. So, when we came, they held us to that agreement and said we should be paying them N220 billion every year for the next five years. And we looked at the agreement and said, there is no way we can pay you this because we don’t even have the resources to pay it.
Did the Jonathan government have money to pay it?
To be frank with you, yes. The government earned enough money. In fact, they earned plenty of money. They earned $100 per barrel times 2.5 million barrels a day times 30 days, times 12 months.
What is happening now?
It is $30 per barrel times one million barrels a day, times 30 days, times 12 months. We are earning one third of what that government of Jonathan earned. It is not even up to one third.
The Federal Government under the Buhari administration about three years ago promised to provide 100 million jobs in 10 years. We are two years into that timeline. If you do the mathematics, it is 10 million jobs yearly. It means that in four years, the government ought to create 40 million jobs. Minister, how many of those jobs have been provided in the last two years?
It will be a tall order to go and give you a number that will not be very correct. But what I can tell you is that I am not too sure that Mr. President said he will give 100 million jobs. May be you are mixing it up with lifting 100 million persons out of poverty in 10 years.
Yes, that was the promise?
We are working on that. Part of that reduction of poverty is job creation and providing jobs, providing enterprenuership, lifting the low of the low, the vulnerable out of poverty. We are lifting them out of poverty by direct cash transfer, which we call conditional cash transfer. We are doing that. The Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs is trying. The problem was that when we started, the records we had in Nigeria was a World Bank assisted record. It was very difficult because a lot of matching needed to be done. We moved into BVN. We moved into National identity Numbers. With that, you will be able to get a figure that will be accurate…I am very happy that the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management is taking the bull by the horn.
Minister, there is still a major problem here. While you are mentioning all these efforts made by the Federal Government, the figures seem to be trending in the opposite direction. The figures released by NBS for the fourth quarter says that the unemployment has risen from 27.1 to 33 per cent, making Nigeria stand out badly in world ranking of where you have unemployed youth in the world. Are you worried that you are making all these efforts and the figures are not complimenting it?
No, you are mixing the two things. Unemployment is a different kettle of fish. I agree with you that unemployment and poverty are interwoven. We have not offered everybody employment because government alone cannot do it. Private sector component is supposed to be there. What government is supposed to do is to create the enabling environment for employment. So, government has decided now to go and attack poverty through the back door and by extension, you are attacking unemployment. We have already 30 million persons captured in the register, 7.6 million households, and 4.8 million urban poor households in the urban register. If you combined the two, you are talking about 60 million people. We are going to start payment any moment from now. No matter how small the money is, N5000 or N10, 000, whatever it is, you give it to them. You have alleviated some problems for their families. This is irrespective of whatever government is also doing with regards to 774,000 jobs. That is 1000 persons per local government for three months in the first instance. All the youths captured there will get N20, 000 each. It is something again. There is also the conditional support programme being done by the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment. There are so many programmes for the youths targeting about 30 million youths. In the Ministry of Youths and Sports, there is also N75 billion funds for youths, N25 billion each for three years.
Most states of the Federation are yet to implement the N30, 000 minimum wage. The Minimum Wage Law allows for sanctions against erring employers. Are you thinking towards that?
Why not? The applicability of the law is that all parts of the federation must comply. Section 2 says that N30, 000 shall be paid. The operating word is shall. Shall does not give you room for picking and choosing. It is a must. The state governments that are not paying are breaching the law of the land.
The Minimum Wage Law gives you the power to sanction as the Honourable Minister of Labour and Employment. But some states are saying that we cannot afford to pay. So, what are you going to do in that regard?
You see, they are mixing apple and oranges. This minimum wage is different from a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). This is a national law that says what you pay to the lowest paid employee or worker in your establishment. State governments are employers. Private sector people, UAC, banks and the rest of them, are private employers. All of them are in this basket. They are caught in the web of this law until repealed. For today, any state government that goes to negotiate minimum wage, like some of them are doing with their unions, are running foul of the law. Section 3(3) of the law says that anything you are doing in that direction is null and void. Any agreement that they reach there is null and void.
So, what action are you going to take now?
I am negotiating with the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF). The law permits me to take any employer to court. If governors have immunity, I can decide to start with the Secretary to Government, Head of Service for states and go down to other members of the state executive councils. I will take all of them to court.
It is not only state governments that are flouting the law. Some private companies are also doing so. What will you do about that?
Let them bring their complaints. I will activate the law within 30 days. That is what the law says.