They thought it was a nice idea to show the government its teeth by putting the country on hold through its warning strike. Within two days, the impact was evident. Nigeria was in a chaotic disorder
The suffering imposed on the people by the sudden imposition of a warning strike by the Labour Union has temporarily come to a halt. For the people, this may seem like some kind of pyrrhic victory but it is no victory at all. This is the end of a battle hastily begun but not that of a war that is yet to begin.
READ ALSO: Minimum wage: Labour suspends warning strike
On November 26 last year, President Muhammadu Buhari had inaugurated a 30-person tripartite committee to peep into the issue of a new minimum wage for the country. The composition covered a broad range of interests: federal and state governments, labour unions of various hues and employers of labour. That was the easy part.
The hard part was yet to come: how to marry these interests, their financial strengths and their visions to produce a minimum benchmark wage that would be satisfactory to all concerned. The government had chosen for the tough task of chairing the group an experienced, retired public servant, Ms Ama Pepple, who had also been a Minister of Lands and Housing. The Minister of Labour and Productivity, Dr. Chris Ngige, a former Governor of Anambra State, was to be the deputy chairman of the group. Six state governors were also thrown into the tray. With such an abundance of experience, it was easy, on first blush, to think that the job may be less difficult than it appeared. The problem was not about the availability of experience or otherwise but about the enormity of the task itself.
Nigeria’s minimum wage was pegged at N18,000.00 since 2011 and this was to be reviewed every five years.
The period of this benchmark was 2015. Between then and now the pump price of petrol has been increased astronomically. Following on these, the prices of goods and services have also jumped exponentially. This made the naira to begin to shrink in people’s pockets and the quantity and quality of people’s food to deteriorate. The workers came to the conclusion, as they often do at moments like this, that their take-home pay cannot take them home.
This is an exaggeration but it delivers the message that things have really gone downhill for the average worker. The inauguration of the committee by Buhari brought a rising impulse of hope among workers.
They started entertaining the fantasy of earning stratospheric salaries like our politicians. Many months later, they have found to their chagrin that hope is shrinking almost to a disappearing point. The issue is not even whether what is on offer is low or not but that, as of today, there is no figure on offer. Worse, the meeting of the group had been suspended indefinitely. The workers had a right to think that the pussy-footing was a plan to shortchange them for some more months, and possibly use what money could have come to them for elections next year. In an election season, rumours run very fast. Whether this is true or not, the workers and their leaders believed it. They thought it was a nice idea to show the government its keyboard of teeth by putting the country on hold through its warning strike. Within two days, the impact was evident. Nigeria was in a chaotic disorder and to many observers the apparent effeminacy of the labour unions was savagely reversed.
The Minister of Labour and Productivity, Dr. Ngige, who has been having a running battle with the chairman of his party APC, Mr. Adams Oshiomhole, was jolted into a new theatre of combat, the real McCoy. He had to rise to the occasion with marine-corps sensitivity but not with hard-headed clarity of thought. He was sounding like a muffled drum. He claimed that the 14-day ultimatum issued by labour to the Federal Government did not get to him “otherwise we would have addressed it scientifically.” Language guardians may be wondering what this medical doctor meant by dealing with the issue “scientifically,” or did he mean “satisfactorily”? This exercise in circumlocution or obfuscation thoroughly bereft of meaning is a conventional delphic utterance adopted by officialdom in moments of trouble. But the problem isn’t going to go away simply because Dr. Ngige is dancing kokoma dance.
READ ALSO: Why Ngige can’t be intimidated
During the negotiations, the labour fellows threw a figure of N65,000 at the committee. This was obviously a negotiating and negotiable figure because, in all negotiations, everyone hopes to get the most by putting forward the mostest. The other party starts from the least in order to get the figure that is not too far above the least. Each group will then work their way up until an acceptable mean is reached. Then a deal is sealed. But it didn’t appear that the committee had reached that point before it adjourned proceedings indefinitely.
The issues in the determination of a minimum wage are several and not entirely accurately definable. Such issues include hours of work, productivity, real value of the naira, cost of living and living standard, ability of the employer to pay and the state of the economy. Many of these factors are not very measurable so a lot of the work that can lead to the determination of a fair minimum wage falls into the realm of speculative science. Some of the combatants from the labour side think that the salaries of workers should be considered side by side with the salaries of politicians. That is pure political gyration because the workers and politicians are two different sets of species. The workers belong to a regular workforce while the politicians belong to the ad hoc chop-and-quench workforce whose salaries and allowances are largely decided illegally by them. If the workers and the people lack the muscle to make politicians earn only what they are statutorily entitled to, that is their business.
Many people are unwilling to blame the labour unions for reaching out for the strike option. It seemed to appear to the union that the parties to the wage issue were ready to let the matter die a natural death if they could dilly-dally for as long as possible. But there was no likelihood that the matter could be swept under the carpet of forgotten issues by the onslaught of political campaigns. The greatest weapon of trade unions has always been the tyranny of strikes. Strikes are the instruments of mass punishment. They paralyse people’s lives and each person then has to survive by whatever strength he can muster. Strikes affect both the guilty and not- so-guilty because it is an instrument that performs without restriction or discrimination when it is in full throttle. This strike was not targeted only at the federal and state governments who are the principal dramatis personae in this matter but it did affect private sector companies, most of whom are already paying more than the current minimum wage. The labour fellows even tried to disrupt banking and airline activities and these companies are not involved in the decision-making process of this matter. It may be a perfect way to make the strike most impactful but it is an unfair way to treat those who have no decision-making role in the matter.
As the labour fellows were swinging their unforgiving axe across several sectors of the economy, the economy swooned in agony; the people swooned in miserly and businesses suffered from non-patronage. We can’t accurately count the losses now because the jury is still out. The meeting has been reconvened for October 4 so that all those involved can get back to the negotiating table and find a way out of this ticklish issue. The challenge the meeting will face is how to arrive at a figure that is acceptable to the federal and state governments, the private sector and especially labour. In arriving at a fair figure some thought must be given to the fact that most of the state governments are still owing a backlog of salaries to their workers. If the additional burden from a new minimum wage becomes too heavy for the employers, they will either owe workers some more money or think of downsizing the workforce. Neither option will serve any useful purpose. So, my unsolicited advice to the combatants is for labour to be reasonable in its demand and for the employers to be fair in their position. In other words, what we need at this point is hard-headed pragmatism.