Nigeria’s Minister of Labour and Productivity, Dr Chris Ngige, has said that the N30,000 new Minimum Wage is “a reality”, asserting that the Federal Government has commenced payment of the new wage to workers at the lower cadres of the public service.
He argued that the current quagmire between the Federal Government and organised labour arose from adjusting the wages of government workers from grade level 7 to 14, with the two parties yet to agree on final figures. Collective bargaining, the Minister said, was the only way to end the tussle, and that once agreed other grade levels would start earning their new wages.
In an interview with Daily Sun‘s KENNETH UDEH in Abuja, Minister Ngige spoke on topical national issues, including Nigeria’s 59th Independence anniversary, social investment programmes and the impact of Nigeria’s border closure on domestic industries.
Nigeria recently turned 59. How would you assess the Nigerian labour force from the year we attained independence till date?
The year 59 is not a small age. You are an adult if you are 59 years old, so Nigeria is an adult since independence. We have the temptation to say that Nigeria has not done well, but we have done well. We have done well when we talk about the circumstances that has befallen Nigeria. Seven years after Independence, we went into the Civil War in 1967, which claimed millions of lives and divided the nation, and the war ended in 1970. A nation that also came under the control of military regimes from 1966 to 1979. It is not a good story one can cheer about. However, with all those deficiencies and hindrances, Nigeria has tried to trudge on as a nation. We got into Democracy in 1979, but got scattered again by the military in 1983. Nigeria started its Democracy fully in 1999, which sums up the total years of the military regime to 20 years. Comparatively, we should have gotten there, but what is required of us is to unite as a nation, work hard, make some sacrifices, carry out the right decisions. With the help of God, we shall surely get there.
We need to diversify our economy, because our population is growing massively, while our economy is growing poorly, so we need to do something, in order to balance the growth of the economy comparatively with the country’s population. We should go back to agriculture, because it is one of the economic resources that has been ignored by the people. In Nigeria today, we can boast of 90% self-sufficiency in the production of rice. We need to produce more of rice, so that we can be able to export to other countries. We need to export more of agro products, because we base our export on crude-oil and cash crops only.
On the side of labor, labour is okay. Nigeria joined the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1959 and since then there has been growth in that sector. We have the first ILO office in Africa, and Nigeria today is back to the governing board of ILO. In Nigeria, we have the office of the ILO that serves the West African countries. We are also doing well in good labour relations and decent job agenda, and make sure that the people employed are well catered for. We also need to create jobs. My ministry is working with other ministries in order to create jobs, because the unemployment figure is frightening, and we can’t tackle the menace alone, as a single body.
The Buhari led Federal Government launched the N-Power programme in its first tenure, which has successfully accommodated a substantial amount of youths. How does the Federal Government plan on expanding the programme so that more youths can benefit?
The N-Power, N-Teach Agro programme is an ad-hoc arrangement. It is a stop gap arrangement, which is used to tackle the high degree of unemployment among [higher education] graduates. The N-Build programme is for those who have not gotten a university degree or diplomas, in order to make them good artisans so that they can earn a living or become entrepreneurs… It’s a two year program that is like a conveyor belt. After two successful years of enrolling, you drop off from the programme in order to pave way for other people. The first beneficiaries’ tenure expired in January, but they are yet to be offloaded because we don’t know how to offload them back into the unemployment market and sway the army of unemployed. We have the second batch who are gaining from the programme,… their tenure will expire by next year. We need to do some re-planning in the programme so that we do not regret it in the future. We both know about the existence of a new ministry, the Ministry of Humanitarian Services; there is also the social welfare and investment programme. Government is looking at everything so that we can know how to make some necessary adjustments in the Social Investment Programmes and get back to the necessary departments for further implementations.
The borders have remained closed under the directive of the Federal Government due to smuggling of goods into the country, among others. How do you think that local manufacturers, farmers and local entrepreneurs can take advantage of this closure?
They need to expand their production. For example, some rice producers are complaining that the pressure is much on them, that they need to increase their production inputs. I will urge them to put extra effort in their production, because this is an opportunity for them to test whether Nigerians can absorb their products 100 percent or not, and once they can do that, and Nigerians get used to their products, they will continue to use them. With the situation around us now, Nigerians are getting used to home grown rice. So, if they can utilise that opportunity, it will definitely bring about positive growth to the economy. Some people said that some youths had become unemployed because they make a living from the illegal smuggling of goods. I will advise them to go and get better, legal jobs to do.
What is the Federal Government’s stance on the N30,000 new Minimum Wage?
I understand that the N30,000 Minimum Wage is a reality, that is why we have started the implementation. The N30,000 Minimum Wage is for the man at the lowest position in the job ladder, so we are already paying that. The public servants of those offices are already earning the new Minimum Wage. With the consequential adjustment, we have a problem with adjusting the wages of level 7 to level 14 workers. The problem is with negotiations, because the two parties [government and labour] are yet to agree on the figures. It is expected to happen because it is a negotiation. And anything that concerns wages and negotiations, you should be ready for hard negotiations, especially when the economy is not too good. The good thing happening now is collective bargaining, because it is a consequential adjustment. So, I do not see it as a problem that cannot be solved. We have to solve it. And once we solve it, other grade levels will start earning their new scales of wages.
As President Buhari gets ready to present the federal budget, what is your message to Nigerians?
Nigerians have to exercise some level of patience, because it is not easy. We are going through a very rough road and everybody has been making sacrifices one way or the other. We had a time in 1970 when our leaders said money was not a problem, but how to spend it. But today, getting the money is the problem. That means people have to improvise and capitalise on any economic opportunity that comes their way, legally. So, Nigerians have to be patient and grateful to God, and to bring some elements of love in order for the economy to make progress.