By Olakunle Olafioye
The Eagle Square, Abuja went from celebratory mood to violence on Monday, May 1, 2017. Nigerian workers, who had converged on the venue with high expectation of getting the official pronouncement of the much anticipated new national minimum wage, returned home disappointed. Signs that such the hearty news they had anticipated was not in the offing had hovered palpably around the venue.
President Muhammadu Buhari was predictably absent at the event, which was organized to mark the International Workers’ Day in the country. But if the President’s absence was understandable, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s non-appearance was more of an ominous sign in the reckoning of the workers.
Tempers, however began to flare when the acting Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Labour, Mrs. Abola Bawa rose to address the workers on behalf of Minister of Labour, Dr. Chris Ngige who was equally at the event. The acting Permanent Secretary, it was gathered, was to deliver the minister’s address while the minister was to present the address of the president, whom he represented.
But the angry workers would however not have any of such, having read the handwriting clearly on the wall that the government was not prepared to make any definite statement on their demand for upward review of the national minimum wage which currently stands at N18, 000.
Justification for upward review
The agitation for upward review of the N18, 000 minimum wage gained currency last year in the aftermath of the hard-biting economic recession, which Nigerian workers claimed significantly reduced their purchasing power.
The agitation was further buoyed by the fact that a fresh review of the minimum wage was due in 2016. The administration of President Goodluck Jonathan approved the 18,000 minimum wage in 2011, which is due for review after five years.
The Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, had last year proposed a new national minimum wage of N56,000 to the Federal Government. NLC President, Ayuba Wabba during a meeting in Abuja shortly after the proposal had insisted that the new minimum wage was sacrosanct, maintaining that the leadership of the workers unions in the country would not be able to guarantee industrial peace in the country should the government fail to take the necessary steps before this year’s May Day celebration.
“The issue of minimum wage remains sacrosanct because of the fact that by law and practice, the review is due and overdue. I have said clearly that we cannot guarantee any industrial peace any longer if necessary steps are not taken by government to try to resolve this issue before the next May Day,” the NLC President had said.
Expert cautions against minimum wage
A labour economist, Dr Tayo Bello has said increase in the minimum wage would not translate to improved economic condition of Nigerian workers.
Bello, a labour economist and lecturer in the Department of Private and Property Law, Babcock University, said increasing the minimum wage was never a parameter for changing the fortune of workers, adding that such moves does not translate to a change in workers’ propensity to consume.
According to him, it doesn’t change their disposable income either. “It only creates an aggregate increase in their income level which at time does not reflect in people’s welfare and their yearnings,”
He lamented the inability of most states to pay the current minimum wage of N18,000 and pointed out that an attempt to further raise the minimum wage would worsen the problems of the affected states.
“What we should try to achieve is to reduce our inflationary trend and create value for our currency. If you look back to about two to three years, a bag of rice was N6,500.
When a bag of rice was N6,500, you were earning N18,000 but now a bag of rice is about N20,000 and you still earn the same amount. The fact is that if the minimum wage is increased by act of omission or commission to either N56,000 or N100,000, I can assure you that a bag of rice will go up to N70,000.
So, what then are we talking about? You will discover that people will be laid off,” he opined.
Bello also condemned the idea of uniform minimum wage across the country, saying it is alien to global labour practice. “If you work in Abuja do you incur the same expenses with a person working in Ogun State? This is a question we need to ask ourselves.
“My opinion is very simple. Worldwide they (governments) don’t dabble unnecessarily into the issue of minimum wage. That explains why there is no uniform wage rate in the private sector. Those who work in GTB don’t earn the same salaries as those who work in Wema Bank.
“So, let’s leave the wage rate as it is. Rather, let us increase our productivity. If there is a way infrastructure development can be improved, that will be more helpful because people will be able to do their businesses.
“Internationally, government does not improve workers’ welfare. That is why you don’t see people fighting over minimum wage in other countries. What they fight for is minimum comfort. If you have productivity bonus and other bonuses, those are even better than getting the minimum wage increased.
“Productivity bonus is reward for being able to meet given target; that is even better than having your minimum wage increased. I strongly feel Nigerian workers should be more concerned about productivity bonus than minimum wage,” he said.
National President of Trade Union Congress (TUC), Bobboi Bala Kaigama has expressed optimism that the new minimum wage would be realised. Kaigama who made this known in an interview with Sunday Sun however expressed concern over the failure of some state governors to pay arrears of salaries being owed workers in some states.
“We are still pushing for it (new minimum wage) and very optimistic about its reality. We have a meeting on Tuesday over the minimum wage. A tripartite committee has to be put in place and it would make the recommendations to the government.
“However, some Nigerian workers have problems with salary arrears and the governors have a lot of backlogs. That is another major issue we are more bothered about,” he said.