New Minimum Wage: Who will blink first?

All parties in the dispute cannot agree on a new minimum wage. While the NLC proposed N30,000, the Federal Government countered with N24,000.

Levi Obijiofor

The demand by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) for a new minimum wage of N30,000 has hit an obstacle. The existing minimum wage is N18,000. The Federal Government has proposed N24,000 and has taken the position that the latest figure put forward by the NLC is irrational and unaffordable in light of the country’s current economic hardships. The NLC is not shifting ground. And the government is unwilling to agree to any amount higher than N24,000. In the current standoff over a new minimum wage, the troubling question remains: Who will blink first?

Following the inability of the parties to advance negotiations, the NLC has flagged its intention to start a nationwide strike on Tuesday, November 6, 2018, if the government fails to accede to the labour movement’s demand. The purpose of the NLC strike, it seems, is to make it difficult, if not impossible, for all systems of government to operate fully and efficiently. In essence, the NLC wants to ground to a halt all economic activities in the public and private sectors. If it goes ahead, the strike could bring a wobbly economy to a point of total collapse.

Current negotiations over a new minimum wage are not restricted to the government and the NLC leadership. Other parties include state governments and the organised private sector. All parties in the dispute cannot agree on a new minimum wage. While the NLC proposed N30,000, the Federal Government countered with N24,000. The state governments offered N20,000, and the organised private sector put forward N25,000. Strategically, the differences are not much.

While it must be recognised that some state governments have not been able to pay the existing minimum wage of N18,000 to workers on a regular basis, that failure by the states to meet their obligations to workers must not be taken as a genuine reason to deny workers an increase in wages that recognises the realities of the 21st century economic privation suffered by ordinary workers.

The idea that state governments cannot sustain the proposed minimum wage is odd and far-fetched. If the situation is bad for state governments, consider the impoverished socio-economic conditions of workers. If the economy is experiencing instability, if Nigeria’s finances are on an unsteady ground, if governors cannot find efficient and cost-effective ways to manage their economies, we must not view a reasonable increase in wages as the driver of the poor economic situation across the country.

Governors are crying they cannot pay the proposed minimum wage but that is simply because they have misplaced their priorities and redirected limited funds to phoney projects that do not add value to their economy or enhance the socio-economic conditions of citizens.

State governments should not insult workers’ intelligence by proposing a new minimum wage of N20,000 which is just N2,000 higher than the existing wage of N18,000. The minimum wage proposed by state governors is miserable and grossly inadequate. That amount will not allow lowest paid workers to take care of their financial commitments.

In 2011, during negotiations for the minimum wage of N18,000, Governor Isa Yuguda of Bauchi State admitted candidly that the monthly wage of N18,000 would not take care of the needs of a family of four. He told journalists in Abuja on July 19, 2011: “In fact, N18,000 is too small for an average Nigerian worker, but the problem is that of availability of funds.”

It is paradoxical that state governors who have no difficulty finding money to fund bogus projects are also arguing they cannot find money to pay workers the minimum wage proposed by the NLC.

It is against this background of duplicity by state governments that the NLC leadership has hardened its position concerning the proposed minimum wage. The leadership of the labour movement has served the Federal Government a formal notice of its intention to commence a nationwide strike.

A statement jointly signed by the NLC president, Ayuba Wabba, and the general secretary, Peter Ozo-Eson, said: “This communique serves as formal notice to government that the NLC will commence an indefinite nationwide strike and industrial action from November 6, 2018; except government accepts and commences the process of perfecting the payment of N30,000 as the new national minimum wage on or before that date.”

The language is terse, hard-nosed, militant, and uncompromising. It is also confrontational. Perhaps the NLC adopted the tough language because it feels the Labour Minister and other government officials have been too unyielding to propose a compromise minimum wage that could be agreeable to all parties.

Government must be concerned about the consequences of a strike that would keep workers away from work for an indefinite period of time. General workers’ strike is not a scenario any government would like to deal with essentially because it will damage the image of the government. It will destroy the national economy, including those policies aimed to revive an economy that has since passed out.

While the NLC might view with delight the forthcoming nationwide strike as an opportunity to confront government officials it deems to be pig-headed during negotiations, the labour leadership must be careful how it handles the situation. A general strike, particularly one that drags on endlessly, can be a double-edged sword. It can affect the way the public perceives labour leaders and, at the same time, it can alienate workers from the NLC leaders.

Labour leaders and ordinary workers will be affected negatively during a general strike. No one would be protected or privileged. After all, the leadership of the NLC and workers buy from the same market that would have been shut down by the general strike.

A major challenge that confronts labour leaders is how to navigate the strike so it does not harm the welfare, wellbeing, safety, and security of the people they are trying to uplift. A general strike is intended to boost people’s welfare but at the same time a prolonged strike that exposes workers to hardships can turn the public mood against the labour leaders.

This is why skilled labour leaders do not use general strikes as a last resort. They negotiate, and negotiate, and negotiate until they reach a positive outcome with government officials. Compromise during negotiations is not a mark of weakness.

Government officials and labour leaders who are obsessed with their self-worth or ego should never be allowed to participate in negotiations. A negotiation is not a platform for narcissistic officials with exaggerated sense of self-importance to engage in shadow chasing. Industrial relations disputes require talented negotiators who will deal with the intricacies of minimum wage considerations. Those negotiators must be competent and they must possess a high degree of people-to-people skill.

The government must not treat with contempt the concerns expressed by labour representatives. On matters affecting workers’ welfare, federal and state governments cannot play the three monkeys because a monkey that hears nothing, sees nothing, and perceives nothing in the face of workers’ grievances, cannot be an intelligent and judicious monkey.

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