How FG’s inaction led to minimum wage strike – Tony Akowe who has been on the trail of the organised labour unions in the wake of the warning strike embarked upon by the workers’ union to press home their demand for an improved minimum wage captures the behind-the-scene moves.
When President Muhammadu Buhari promised workers after the increase of pump price of petroleum product in 2016 that his government was committed to reviewing their salaries, it brought some level of joy to them. Palliatives were also to be worked out for Nigerians within a short time with a committee put in place to achieve that. But it was not until November 2017 that the government finally constituted the tripartite committee to discuss and recommend a new national minimum wage to the government. As a prelude to what government should expect from them, workers had disrupted the May Day celebration in 2017 when it was the time of the Minister of Labour, Chris Ngige to address them. It took the Committee several months to settle down and commence negotiation and consultations across board. State governors who have not been part of negotiations in the past were brought on board with one governor representing each of the geopolitical zones. It was expected that this would fast-track the process because the governors would have arrived at a figure and given their representatives a mandate to speak for them.
Promises upon promises
Expectedly, at the 40th anniversary celebration of the Nigeria Labour Congress, the Labour Minister further raised the hope of workers when he told them that the Committee will round its work before the end of the third quarter.
After its public hearing across the six geopolitical zones, workers settled down, expecting to hear that the Committee has arrived at a particular figure as the national minimum wage. But the Minister of Labour once again told the world that the expectations of workers may not be met because of the processes involved in the implementation of whatever would have been agreed upon. Although labour leaders castigated the Minister for his comment, it was obvious that the Minister was speaking truth to the fact on ground. He had said that even after arriving at a particular figure, the report will still have to go to the Federal Executive Council for approval before going to the National Economic Council and the National Assembly for legislation.
Labour crisis foretold
The Nation had predicted a looming minimum wage crisis after the controversy.
The Minister of Labour was to stoke another minimum wage controversy during the last salaries break when he told the nation that state governors were frustrating the process of arriving at a new minimum wage for the country.
Zamfara State Governor and Chairman of the Nigeria Governors Forum, Abdulaziz Yari indeed supported the Minister’s claim when he said the governors were not elected to pay salaries.
Insensitivity to workers plight
NLC President Comrade Ayuba Wabba dismissed such claims saying 21, out of the 36 state governors made presentations to the tripartite committee during its public sitting, with majority of them quoting figures of what they can pay. While saying the Minister should not act as a spokesman for the governors, he said governors who cannot implement the new minimum wage should gather their workers and tell them to their face that they will not implement it, adding that the issue of non payment of salaries has nothing to do with lack of money, but the mismanagement of what is available.
However, the adjournment of the meeting of the tripartite committee indefinitely angered organised labour who insisted that government must be responsible and responsive enough to fulfill its promises to the Nigerian people.
The proverbial kennel that broke the camels back
As to be expected, Labour insisted that the Minister of Labour had no right to adjourn the meeting indefinitely when they were supposed to be submitting a report to government. While giving a prelude to the fact that organised labour were spoiling for a showdown with government, Wabba had said the workers representatives were not satisfied with the decision to adjourn the meeting instead of completing its work. He said at the last meeting, we were able to complete the entire report. But just before we conclude, the Minister of Labour spoke at that occasion as representative of the federal government, saying they needed to go and consult before arriving at a figure. The federal government came and said they have not finished their consultations and that they need time to consult. But it was all of us that took the decision to have a work plan. We felt that since this committee was inaugurated in November, we thought that everybody was aware that all stakeholders needed to tidy up whatever consultations they needed to do and make sure that we are able to work within that time line.
“Clearly speaking, they were not prepared to produce a figure by that date. But our report has been completed. What is left is just to agree on a particular figure. All the parameters to be used to arrive at a figure are there. I can say clearly that states have sent in memorandum. Infact, 21 states sent in memorandum, with about 12 quoting figures, NECA has submitted a figure, organised labour has submitted a figure. What we thought was that we should be able to complete that assignment by the 5th of September. With the new development and they saying that they want to consult, we could say that it is not a fair process if somebody is saying at this point that he has not consulted.
“We are committed to respecting the timeline and that is why we left everything we are doing to do the needful to be able to do a good job. All the parameters you can think of have been considered and the report is ready. But the only thing missing is the issue of figure and we know that at this point in time, Nigerian workers will like such news. Individual states quoted figures and every state was given the opportunity to make presentation. A letter was written to every state by the secretariat to send in their memo, making their inputs and 21 of them actually made inputs.
“You are aware of the figures quoted by organised labour. We have enough data to do justice to the work and we have actually done justice to the work. I am telling you that this is what has happened. But a particular figure which should be agreed upon is not, but we have actually started agreeing on that.
“There were proposals and counter proposals before this information came directly from the Minister of Labour that there is a committee of the federal government led by the Minister of Budget and National Planning who were supposed to have sent in their input, but did not. There was enough time for everybody to make input. Now that the report should have been consummated, some people are saying they need time for consultation. We thought that should not have been the situation because of the importance of the issue to Nigerian workers and the workers can also not continue to be patient. We are already about two years behind schedule. The 2011 minimum wage collective agreement by all parties agreed that a review will be due after five years and we all know when that period is due. Started behind schedule and I must say that the committee did a lot of work to reach where we are presently. All parties have been very committed and despite all distractions, we have been to drive the process.
“They are at liberty to quote figures and we are at liberty to also quote what we think is right. It is a process of dialogue and consultation and at the end of the day, we have to agree on something. We are satisfied that they came up with something they want us to consider. What is important is that they are committed to reviewing the minimum wage. That is why they came up with the options. Every state should answer their own name and the workers of that state will engage them. I don’t want us to hide under the omnibus name. Every governor must first answer their names. What we have agreed is that if a governor is not willing to comply, let him go back to his own state, call the workers and tell them he will not pay the minimum wage and we will take it from there. Let the minister not speak form the governors. He should speak on behalf of the federal government. Even the last one we had, the Governors Forum never made any submission. It was individual states that sent in memo because what is recognised by law is individual states. If we do the needful and prioritise our needs, states will be able to pay. As we speak there are states that are doing extremely well in the payment of the N18,000 minimum wage. The issue is not about resources, but management of those resources.”
Reacting to the ultimatum for a strike issued by organised labour who were coming together for the first time in over three years, Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige said organised labour were crying wolf on the issue of minimum wage where there is none, saying the National Minimum Wage Committee set up by the Federal Government was still working within its time frame. Rather than taking steps to avert the strike, Ngige said the ultimatum issued by the labour leaders was unnecessary, pointing that, “The the ultimatum was a subtle threat which is against the various conventions of the International Labour Organisation that has to do be minimum wage and other forms of negotiations does not allow partners to issue threats as the other partner will be regarded as negotiating under duress.”
The Minister had insisted that the work of the Committee, including a draft bill to be sent to the President and subsequently to the National Assembly and all other work of the Committee were ready except the issue of a particular figure to be agreed upon.
He accused organised labour of trying to overheat the polity, insisting that the Buhari government was a worker- friendly government.
He said while organised labour first made a presentation of N56,000 as its demand and withdrew its, only to withdraw it and made another presentation of N65,000, the organised private sector made a presentation of N42,000 and later withdraw it for lower presentation of N25,000.
Ngige said that with all the presentations, the government needed to look at everything that has been presented before arriving at a figure which can be paid by all, saying “if we arrive at a figure that is not implementable, what then is the essence of negotiation.”
Too little too late
At the point he requested for more time to enable the government consult widely saying “At the last meeting of the Committee, I requested for two weeks to consult with members of the Economic Management team, most of whom were out of the country with the President,” adding that the Committee was inaugurated by the President because of his personal interest on the matter. “We don’t want people to renege on the agreement when we finally come up with something. That is why the President insisted that the governors must be part of the process. They had complained that they were not part of the last process.The Governors’ Forum had also asked for more time to consult among themselves and dismissed insinuations that the governors said they were not elected to pay salaries.”
The Nation gathered that at a meeting of government representatives on the tripartite committee with the Vice President, a four-man Committee was set up to work out the financial implications of the new minimum wage.
Many had thought that the meeting with the Vice President will avert the strike but the organised labour were said to have been left out. However, few hours to the strike, the leadership of the organised labour were invited to a meeting meant to avert the strike.
Igwe Achese, Deputy President of the United Labour Congress said even though they believed that nothing would come out of the meeting, they still went ahead to attend it.
“Interestingly, the Minister is aware that organised labour needs the permission of their various organs, especially the National Executive Council to pronounce a strike and also need the same body to suspend or call off the action. This explain why some labour leaders believed that the government was not actually interested in averting the strike,” he recalled.
Although the tripartite committee is scheduled to reconvene on Thursday, October 4, it was not clear as at the time of filing this report whether the organised labour will continue their action or suspend it to pave the way for further negotiation.