Nigeria is facing an imminent industrial relations confrontation between government and organised labour. If the dispute is not resolved by the close of work on Wednesday, October 16, 2019, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) have vowed to disrupt work across the country. At the centre of the dispute is the percentage of increases in the wages of workers on salary levels 07 and above.
There are significant differences in the percentage of salary increases proposed by both the government and labour. For example, the government offered to pay increases of 11 per cent for workers on levels 07 to 14 and 6.5 per cent for workers on levels 15 to 17. On its part, labour shifted from its original proposed 66.6 per cent to agree to a reduced 29 per cent increase for workers on levels 07 to 14 and 24 per cent for workers on levels 15 to 17.
On the basis of labour’s compromises, the Joint National Public Service Negotiating Council (JNPSNC) said: “Organised labour has out of its patriotic disposition demonstrated a great deal of restraint, consideration and patience with government. In the course of negotiations for consequential salary adjustment, organized labour had to moderate its initial position of having 66.6% upward salary adjustment for workers on salary grade level 07-17 by accepting an upward adjustment of 29% for officers on salary level 07-14 and 24% adjustment for officers on salary grade level 15-17. Despite this patriotic gesture, government has kept insisting that it can only pay 11% for officers on grade level 07-14 and 6.5% consequential wage increase to public workers for officers on level 15-17.”
The government’s response, articulated by Minister of Labour and Employment Chris Ngige, was that the increases demanded by labour would lead to retrenchments in the public service in order for the government to raise the wage bill of N580 billion. Ngige said this amount represented what the government would require in order to pay the consequential salary adjustments demanded by labour.
While many state governors regard the payment of the minimum wage as an unnecessary burden on their state’s resources, workers believe the refusal or delay by state governors to pay workers’ monthly salaries should be seen as uncharitable, high-handed, intolerable, undeserving and an unwarranted source of pain. Both the government and labour have dug themselves into uncompromising positions from which they might find it difficult to free themselves.
To be clear, the NLC and TUC are justified to threaten nationwide strike owing to the demonstrable lack of faith and commitment by federal and state officials to implement labour’s demands. This is the point everyone must understand, even if the minimum wage has fragmented the nation.
A government that regards itself as the product of a democratic practice should not adopt detestable practices to settle industrial disagreement. A government that signs a pact with labour unions must respect the letters and spirit of that deal. A minimum wage is a minimum wage. It must be honoured and implemented without new conditions being slipped in through the back door.
In 2016, President Muhammadu Buhari admitted publicly that the failure of state governments to pay workers’ salaries was a national scandal and a persisting habit that has attracted international criticism to the country. Buhari expressed his frustration over the way some state governments delayed payment of workers’ salaries. He conveyed his views during a meeting he had with State House staff on Wednesday, June 22, 2016. Buhari, who expressed righteous indignation over the delay in payment of workers’ salary, said: “This is a disgrace to Nigeria. It is a disgrace that, up till now, most of the states cannot pay salaries. What happened to all we have gotten over the years? Whoever takes anything that does not belong to him or that he is not entitled to, will be documented and taken to court.”
One key question Buhari should put to governors is: What do you do with the money you receive from the federal allocation?
In 2016, Buhari said the failure of 27 of 36 states to pay workers’ salaries regularly should be condemned. Buhari must go beyond condemnation of state governors. He must find ways to compel governors to pay workers’ wages. Every government has a moral and social obligation to pay workers. Of course, I realise that in our society moral principles mean nothing anymore. Political leaders are clearly uncaring, insensitive, and indifferent. They are self-centred because their personal interests take priority over the wellbeing of other citizens.
It is deeply odd that state governors who are fast to take their monthly salaries are also hasty to deny workers their salaries. Governors who argue they cannot afford to pay the minimum wage must be those who have misplaced their priorities and channelled limited funds to phoney projects that do not contribute to improvements in the socioeconomic conditions of citizens.
In their distorted way of thinking, state governors see themselves as too important, too distinguished, and too prominent to serve ordinary citizens. Workers’ salaries, workers’ welfare, and workers’ happiness are the least concerns of governors.
Sometimes, you have to wonder whether life in Nigeria is better under a democratic system of government or whether people are healthier under some form of dictatorship. In a repressive state, everyone knows they are not entitled to anything other than what falls off the dining tables of despots. Comparatively, a democracy offers better life to citizens, including basic human rights that are protected in the constitution, even if those rights are sometimes violated with impunity by leaders.
Following his election victory in 2015, Buhari declared that anti-corruption crusade would be the moral strength of his government. The jury is still out on that declaration. Whether Buhari’s anti-corruption campaign is fetching good results is still up in the air. In our political system, officials who live and breathe corruption strip workers the oxygen bag of their existence. Depriving workers their salary is equivalent to dispossessing workers the all-important air of survival.
Buhari, as the acknowledged anti-corruption placard-waving President, should go beyond rhetorical expressions of regret over the failure of states to pay workers’ wages. As President, Buhari has the political, economic, legal, technological, and moral force to go after states that default in paying workers’ salaries. While state governors are protected by the immunity clause in the Constitution, there are alternative vehicles through which a President who preaches accountability and transparency in government can get state governors to do the right thing and to fulfil their obligations to workers in their states.
Someone once described Nigeria as “a tragedy.” That description might appear a bit harsh but when you unpack the endless problems confronting the country, such as leadership challenges and poor governance that have held back the country’s socioeconomic progress, you will see why the description is apt. That portrayal fittingly captures the confusion, chaos, and mess that underpin the way the country is being governed. It is awful that Nigeria should be described in such an unappealing way. However, when you consider the way the country is being governed, you cannot but wonder how long it would be before the country descended into the bottom of the valley. The situation is indeed grave.