By Emmanuel Nzomiwu
The contentious minimum wage bill in the House of Representatives is causing uproar in the country. Sponsored by Hon. Garba Muhammad Datti from Kaduna State, the bill has passed second reading in the House. It seeks to amend item 34 of the Exclusive Legislative List, which places the subject of prescribing the national minimum wage within the exclusive legislative competence of the National Assembly by virtue of Section 4 (2) and (3) of the 1999 constitution (as amended).
Should this bill succeed, the Federal Government will not have exclusive jurisdiction to determine the National Minimum Wage anymore, leaving the states with the powers to determine their own minimum wage.
But, the organised labour is mounting pressure on the House to kill the bill, describing it as “anti-people.” Recently, members of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) staged a nationwide protest against the bill. Labour has vowed to continue with the protest until the house backs down on the bill. They consider the move by the House as “an attempt by some states to reduce the N30, 000 minimum wage signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari, in April 2019.”
The law makes it mandatory for employers of labour in both public and private organisations to pay N30, 000 as the minimum wage. It was a product of painstaking negotiations between the national and sub-national governments as well as other critical stakeholders in the labour sector, including the NLC, TUC, and Nigeria Employers Consultative Association (NECA).
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines the minimum wage “as the minimum amount of remuneration that an employer is required to pay wage earners for the work performed during a given period, which cannot be reduced by collective agreement or an individual contract.” Ninety per cent of the ILO member states operate the minimum wage policy, which aims “to protect workers against unduly low pay.”
Like many other countries, Nigeria derived its minimum wage policy from the ILO Minimum Wage Fixing Machinery Convention, 1928 (No.26). This convention encouraged countries to implement minimum wages where “no arrangements exist for the effective regulation of wages by collective agreement or otherwise and wages are exceptionally low.”
Later, the Minimum Wage Fixing Convention 1970 (No131) called for coverage of all groups of wage earners whose terms of employment are such that coverage would be appropriate. The principle of full consultations with social partners lies at the heart of this convention.
The ratification of the 1928 convention in 1961 was given a statutory effect by the signing into law of the National Minimum Wage Act of 1981, signaling the adoption of a global standard in wage policy which has remained on the Exclusive List of the nation’s constitution until this latest attempts by the House to move it to the concurrent list.
Recall that at the inaugural meeting of the President with the 36 state governors in 2015, the governors complained that they were unable to pay the former N18, 000 minimum wage, claiming that their predecessors left empty treasuries for them. They insisted that if the Federal Government wants them to pay, it should give bailout funds to them. Although our dear labour friendly President granted the request of the governors, the majority of them still refused to pay the minimum wage to workers in the states.
Speculations are rife that Hon. Datti may be acting out a script of the Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF), but the lawmaker has denied it, insisting that his bill is part of the restructuring of Nigeria that some people, especially the southerners have been clamouring for. He spoke in an interview with Daily Trust newspaper on Monday March 15, 2021.
He explained that the members of the House were not against paying the N30, 000 minimum wage, but only contending that the cost of living is not the same in states.
“We feel that it is an abnormality in the first instance to place it in the exclusive list. At the same time the labour is citing that Nigeria signed the International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention of 1928 that was domesticated in 1961. As of 1961 in the First Republic, the issue of labour wage was on the concurrent list and not the exclusive. All over the world, that is the best practice. What we are saying is that the labour can, as a central body, now sit with the state governments and negotiate for each state based on the capacity of that state.”
Whilst it has not been proved that Datti has sponsors, his bill has thrown up many questions, which even the Director General of Progressive Governors Forum, Salihu moh Lukman, tried to answer, albeit unsuccessfully, in his piece, published on page 26 of the Wednesday, March 17, 2021 edition of The Nation newspaper, titled, “Distortions in the minimum wage bill.”
Although I have no issue with Lukman’s observation that minimum wage fixing varies across the world, he ought to have also appreciated that the circumstances of workers in Nigeria vary from that of their counterparts in the United States and other countries of the world. If you look at the practical realities of the country at the moment, Nigerian workers are suffering from “wage poverty,” meaning that they earn below what can offer them a decent living.
Therefore, if the states in Nigeria want to do like their counterparts in the United States that are paying above the national minimum wage, they must not amend the existing minimum wage law in the country to do so. Thank God that even Lukman himself suggested that the minimum wage for an average productive Nigerian worker should not be anywhere less than N100, 000.
But, whose opinion is more authoritative on this matter than the Honourable Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige? Ngige shared his thoughts on the controversial bill as a guest in the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) programme “Good Morning Nigeria” last Monday. Even President Muhammadu Buhari has conceded that Ngige remains the most competent authority to speak on labour matters in his government.
Let us remember that the former Anambra State governor co-chaired the tripartite committee that conceived the N30, 000 minimum wage, alongside former Head of Service of the Federation, Ama Pepple who was also Minister of Housing, Land and Urban Development. From his vantage point as a former governor, ex-Senator and two-time Minister of Labour and Employment, Ngige predicted that the bill will not go far.
He said: “The bill is not well thought out and abnormal, being a private member’s bill. For an issue in the Exclusive List to be touched, the bill should be an Executive bill and not a private member’s bill. Labour issues all over the world are usually on the exclusive list, just like issues of defence, foreign affairs, insurance and currency.
“I support labour 110 per cent on this matter because they are not being selfish this time. We are 187 countries that make up the ILO and Nigeria is a member and we have accepted ILO’s wage fixing machinery, number 26 of 1928. Nigeria domesticated it in 1961. There is also convention 131 of 1970 as a follow up to make to up for decent living. Everybody has domesticated it, including Nigeria.
“Nigeria has a labour standing in the world. We are on top in ILO labour diplomacy. We are the only country in ILO, where you have the government body, the labour group and the employers in the governing board. And that shows you the regard that the ILO has for Nigeria. I will not like us to blow hot and cold. We have adopted all these conventions and the recommendations following them.
“So, I don’t know how far that bill will go. I was a legislator. By the practice of the Senate and the posture and components – the people who make up the Senate – they are matured men. If you go to the Senate, you see former governors, former MDs and former ministers. They have played in the field and they know what is involved. I know what is involved. I support labour 110 per cent on this matter because they are not being selfish this time.”
According to Ngige, “what the bill is trying to amend is the foundation of the existence of Nigeria, which is the economy of the country. Whether you like it or not, it is from labour, employment that other things flow.”
Having heard from the horse’s mouth, I wish to advise the proponents of the bill to have a rethink. Using the clamour for restructuring as an alibi cannot also fly. While devolution of powers from the Exclusive List to Concurrent List is desirable to many Nigerians, the issue of minimum wage has never been an issue until now.
If you leave minimum wage negotiation to the governors, many of them will tell you that they cannot pay in a country where if you benchmark N30, 000 against economic realities, such as the inflationary trends, you will discover even without magnifying lens that the purchasing power of the minimum wage has drastically gone down.
Should the house proceed with the minimum wage, the organised labour has threatened to withdraw their members’ services to the nation if the political leadership continues to keep mute. A national labour strike is definitely not in the interest of Nigeria or Nigerians, now that the country is savouring her dramatic exit from recession amid the second wave of the COVID-19. This is why I believe that the House should tread cautiously on this matter.
• Nzomiwu, journalist and public affairs analyst, writes from Abuja