Challenges of a new minimum wage
For being alive to its responsibility by making the demands for a new minimum wage based on “The National Minimum Wage Act”, which former President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law in April 2011, that has a five-year reopener clause for new negotiations to review the minimum wage, one sincerely and wholeheartedly congratulates labour for charting a new path of responsibility and responsiveness which is a radical departure from its previous docility to issues of agreements to the detriment of the welfare of the Nigerian workers.
However, while not losing sight of the fact that labour’s demand for a new and increased minimum wage is a legitimate one in view of the prevailing circumstances, a lot of issues need to be examined holistically if we are to be rational, logical and objective for the good of society.
Here, one needs to ask some salient questions such as:
1. Who is a worker?
2. Are there other functions of the labour unions apart from agitating for salary increase?
According to Merriam Webster dictionary, a worker is a person who does a particular job to earn money, or to express it in simpler terms, one who is engaged in a work or trade for productive ventures for which he or she earns salaries or wages.
What this means is that our labour force comprised persons engaged in the formal sector who are earning salaries as well as those in the informal sector who are earning negotiated, daily or weekly wages such as traders, artisans, craftsmen, hawkers, transporters, food sellers, etc who constitute the bulk of our workforce and are perhaps the biggest contributor to our Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
We also need to ask that if the working population comprised both the formal and informal sectors and the labour unions have focused their attention on the increase in salary of those in the formal sector alone, what happens to the interest of the informal sector, which one is aware is also affiliated to the central labour union? Or can we assume that since these categories of persons don’t earn a minimum wage, their income and working conditions are not deserving of the attention of the central labour union?
However, it is a well known fact that the economy is at present under strains as a result of the decline in revenue, occasioned by the fall in the price of the mainstay of the economy, which is crude oil at the world market and this has culminated in about 26 state governments including the Federal Government encountering difficulties in paying workers’ salaries as at when due.
In fact, while the Federal Government has had to borrow to pay salaries and emoluments as confessed to by the former Finance Minister and coordinating Minister of the Economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala during the days of the previous administration and which have been carried over to the present administration due principally to paucity of funds, the state governments, save for some very few, owed workers, salaries which range from between two to five months and above. The states are still requesting for help from the Federal Government to fulfill their primary obligation of paying workers’ salaries promptly.
A major contributor to this pitiable economic state of affairs which is reflected in the worsening conditions of living of the Nigerian worker and people is predicated on a number of factors which include the mismanagement of the economy by successive governments and the most fundamental of which is the lopsided and faulty political arrangement which permits the Federal Government which is so far removed from the people to have control of 52% of federal allocation at the expense of the two other tiers of government, vest the powers of states creation in the federal authorities which carries it out on the basis of political expediency rather than on economic viability and other indices and the operation of a centralised unitary system but deceitfully called federalism, which the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu aptly once described as feeding bottle federalism.
In a true federal system, the uniformity of workers’ salaries is not a straight jacket affair as states exercise this responsibility according to their ability to pay based on resources generated rather than idling away cap in hand like beggars for federal allocation which these days is insufficient to service that function, let alone other areas requiring government attention.
The absurdity of the skewed federal system can be explained by the fact that whereas when federal allocation is low, elected and appointed public officers across the states continue to receive uniform and humongous salaries and emoluments, but it is the peasant workers, who bear the brunt as states complaint of inability to pay and thus owe workers salaries and pensions of retirees for months and even years. This is nothing but irresponsibility of the state to the welfare of the people who generate the wealth of the nation.
Notwithstanding, an indisputable resolution lies in the restructuring of the country along the lines of true federalism in which states endowed with natural resources should take control of them and only make contributions towards the running of a thin and responsive Federal Government and not the other way round for the smooth functioning of the system.
We need to restructure the country now, to allow for states to take control of their God-given resources to develop at their own pace and engender healthy competition and development, because doing otherwise will amount to postponing the doomsday as this recurring issue of non-payment of salaries at all levels of government is a fall out of our faulty federation which is here to stay and a breeding ground for other problems in the nearest future.
We must awaken the consciousness of the central labour body to the fact that the whole essence of labour is to create wealth and so it would amount to gross dereliction of responsibility for them to focus their attention all the time on increased salaries for the formal sector workers while neglecting other sectors of the economy. Even if the salaries are increased geometrically without commensurate social policies to engender the creation of jobs for our teeming unemployed youths, provision of basic social infrastructure, security, reduction in crime, quality and affordable education and health systems, social security schemes, etc, such increment would hardly make any impact on the living standard of the worker and his family.
Labour needs to be innovative and focused in creating jobs and wealth by engaging in productive ventures in areas such as in oil and gas, agriculture, solid minerals, transportation, etc like they did with the defunct Labour Mass Transit which should be resuscitated.
The labour unions should be encouraged to realise that their responsibility should not be focused on increment in salaries of workers in the formal sector alone but to the welfare of society as a whole, since the worker is a member of a family, a community and the society at large. Thus, it is incumbent on them to engage the government in areas of governance which have direct effect on the lives of the people by being involved in research, debates, discussions, dialogues, etc on societal issues with a view to coming up with alternative ideas on how to get the country moving for the good of all.
The labour union because of their spread of membership and expertise in all segments of the society also has a responsibility to ensure good governance by monitoring the budgets and making sure that projects therein are implemented according to what is proposed and approved.
We need to remind labour leaders that in as much as we recognise the need for them to make this legitimate demand for a new minimum wage in view of an existing Act, they must be conscious of the reality of the times which makes its implementation not feasible for now based on paucity of funds as a result of the fall in global oil prices and our faulty political structure which needs to be reworked.
•Ekujumi, a civil society activist, lives in Lagos.
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