A nation’s sigh of relief
The nation was only a few hours away from a lockdown with all the frightening implications.
The Labour Congress was determined to bare its fangs to press home the agitation for a new minimum wage regime. The unions had asked their members to be on standby for last-minute instructions.
The air was thick with a foreboding of chaos and confusion and the nation knew fear. The unions that had mobilized their members were the Nigeria Labour Congress, TUC, ULC and the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (NMUN).
Their unassailable argument was that in the circumstances of the cost of living today, the existing minimum wage of N18, 000 is no longer realistic. That figure was arrived at in 2011 after negotiations with the Jonathan Administration.
Predictably negotiations, as are in the nature of new wage demand, have been protracted, sometimes laced with acrimony, hot exchanges and threats.
Labour has been mounting this pressure for an upward review for a while. Even now we do not appear to be out of the hook. The announcement of the suspension of the strike was ringed with a dark tone.
Labour Congress General Secretary Dr. Ozo-Eson said to presidents and secretaries of affiliate unions: “Comrades, please, note that there are still several bridges to cross before the new minimum wage becomes law.
It is our collective commitment and dedication that has made the progress so far possible.
We all need to stand ready in a state of full mobilization in case future action becomes necessary to push for the timely enactment and implementation of the new minimum wage.”
The standby directive arose because the Tripartite Committee on the issue agreed on two figures of N24, 000 and N30, 000 according to briefing on the figures by the Labour and Employment Minister, Chris Ngige.
Labour was insisting on N30, 000. The two figures were what Committee chair, Amal Pepple presented to the President Buhari last week Tuesday, 06 November.
The inference from the lips of Labour seems to be the government countenanced N30, 000 because it put gun to its head.
What it is comfortable with is N25, 000 and the Governors, N24, 000. Various unions had been warming up for a show down with the government.
Dockworkers had resolved to close the ports and by implication shutting out vessels numbering 34 approaching the ports.
Among these vessels were those carrying premium motor spirits more known as petrol as well as automated gas oil, alias Mr. Diesel Oil, without which what remains of our dwindling manufacturing industries would close shop.
Electricity workers, medical and health, aviation, NUT were all battle ready. Indeed postal workers had rehearsed their own action. They were just returning to work from a strike when the Labour Congress issued its directive to all unions to get ready.
Already in the background which was to signal to the government that Labour meant business, university lecturers under their umbrella association, ASUU, began their own strike, purportedly different from that of the amalgamated Labour unions.
Although the timing was a coincidence, the content of their grouse is different.
In addition to minimum wage, Niger State NUT chairman, Ibrahim Umar said the teachers union was also pressing for elongation of the retirement age of its members to 65 years or from after 35 years to 40 years of service, whichever may apply.
The unions asked the citizens to store up food and other necessities because the strike was going to be total and indefinite.
President Buhari appealed passionately to the Labour unions to show greater understanding especially in the light of gargantuan problems his Administration inherited and which it is sorting out.
He made special reference to infrastructural development the Administration has embarked upon with very lean resources. He spoke of missed opportunities between 1999 and 2015 when, as he is wont to say, the nation had huge resources at its disposal.
He said, “There is no part of the country I haven’t been to, having attempted to be President four times. I know the conditions of our roads.
The rails were literally killed; there was no power …”despite the humongous amount said to have been spent in the sector.
Speaking for him during negotiations to avert the strike, Boss Mustapha, secretary to the Federal Government, told the unions, “The concern is not only for the welfare of the workers but also every other thing should be taken on board.. So, it is a balance of the welfare of the workforce with the effect of the new minimum wage and the economy.
We yearn to go above basic social protection for Nigerian worker but also tie it to the ability to pay, because many states are even having difficulty meeting the basic minimum wage.” He said 27 states are at the moment encountering difficulties in paying the current minimum wage of N18, 000.
In my view, this is where the problem lies. There are compelling arguments on both sides. How far can N18, 000 carry anybody in the economic circumstances of today and cost of living? On the other hand a government which owes arrears in the payment of the current one will see paying anything higher as a pipe dream.
Unfortunately, government functionaries are not setting the right example and the right tone. There is a display of opulence everywhere.
Our governors and even the President live at practically at no cost to them. They are fed by the state; their vehicles are maintained and fueled by the state. Their lifestyle is obscene.
In other lands, hardly can one tell a senior government functionary, a minister or ranking public servants from the ordinary citizens.
Sometimes, you have the feeling they are emaciating. Whether it is Obama or George Bush, they looked battered in office than when they went in. Indeed, Obama became an old man in no time with grey hair mushrooming all over his head.
In what way has Theresa May or Donald Trump changed since they got into office whether in the manner of dressing or in their physical appearance? But no sooner do Nigerians get into office than they begin to bloat with their complexion glowing and all the potholes on their cheeks filled up. They overdress you would think it is their wedding day.
As Peter Obi was to reveal to us, when he assumed office, he found that a cow was being killed every day for real, imagined or anticipated visitors of about 50 persons to government house.
Enterprising newspapers should dig out photographs of our public functionaries before they were elected or appointed four years ago and how they look today.
According to reports, Obama organized his own kitchen except when it was a state function would officialdom take over.
The President has been lily-livered to confront the National Assembly men who are scandalously the highest paid legislators in the world. Professor Itse Sagay said it to the whole world that each of our Senators earns N29million a month.
The figure is not confirmed by the Senate, nor have they been outraged that they had been lied against and scandalized. The only voice on it came from Senator Shehu Sani who put it at N15million, exclusive of some allowances.
In the United States, a Senator is paid $174,000 a year followed by Canada $154,000 annually and Germany, $119,500. Britain pays an MP $105,400 a year.
Outgoing US House Speaker Paul Ryan sleeps in his office because he cannot afford rent to keep two homes. His family lives outside Washington.
With the opulence and indulgences of our public officials, executive or legislative, how can anyone persuade workers that Nigeria cannot afford N30, 000 minimum as wages? It will be interesting to see how the debate will go in the National Assembly when an executive bill is prepared and taken there after the Federal Executive Council and the Council of State must have sanctioned what the new minimum wage should be.
Having said that, I hasten to state that the timing of a minimum wage in Nigeria today requires deep reflection. There are fears of inflation rippling through the land should there be a raise in the minimum wage.
The unions have no control over that. There will be rejigging and restructuring in companies to accommodate the new level of human capital costs. It will in the end lead to price increases and job erasure and bourgeoning Labour market which will have implications for security.
To curb insecurity, special incentives will have to be worked out for the security agents which may necessitate contemplation of higher taxes! In the end it becomes a vicious circle—going round and round but getting to nowhere in particular.
It is praise-worthy that the Labour Congress and the affiliate unions allowed common sense to prevail by calling off the strike. The day of reckoning was being awaited with baited breath.
How much of food storing was any family going to arrange? The same pauperized citizens were being called out to fork out money to store up food and other essentials of life. Those who do their shopping weekly or fortnightly, where will the light come from to power their freezers or run water whether from the public mains or from boreholes? The country would have been plunged into a mess.
Strikes have come to be the veritable weapon workers use in all parts of the free world to press home their points, and indeed achieve better conditions of service for themselves.
In 1978, British unions drove affable Sunny Jim (Prime Minister James Callaghan) away from office after he plunged the country into what the British Press called a winter of discontent.
Lady Margaret Thatcher, the iron Lady, not wanting to go the way of Mr. Callaghan faced Mr. Scarghill the union strongman head-on.
The encounter lasted one year as Mrs. Thatcher was not going to buckle under and Scarghill was not going to wink. US President Reagan in his own case did not have any stomach for trade unionism. He broke the ranks of the American pilots.
The history of trade unionism is well known to merit recounting.
From bitter struggle, which in some instances led to the murder of the aggrieved, workers won remarkable victories in terms of pay and dignity.
Hitherto they were not regarded as any better than the beasts of burden by employers who, lacking in knowledge of the purpose of their endowments and the immutable correlations of life had permitted all humanity in them to dry up. That strikes have inexorably become veritable features of our lives today, in this age, is evidence that in spite of everything we human beings may not have changed significantly in content, in inner worth. We have not moved away from the Ricardian world.
In the world of David Ricardo, the worker is paid only what he needs to sustain him to work the next day. Nothing to meet personal responsibilities and leisure.
The concern of the employer is work and more work. The Nigerian worker of today can only have a faint idea of the sacrifices of legendary Michael Imoudu, Adebola, Wahab Goodluck; Dr. Tunji Otegbeye, and the successor generation of Hassan Sunmonu, Kokori, and Adams Aliyu Oshiomhole and some more, to arrive at where workers are today.
To strike a balance between what the worker offered and what the employer paid, trade unionism arose to strengthen the bargaining power of the rank and file. It was reckoned, and still is, that the weak will thereby be protected.
However, as I have stated in the foregoing, from the inconveniences and confusion people go through and consequences from such collective action, it is, arguably, clear that the gains are all illusions.
At the end of each struggle, the worker comes out worse. And he goes again in search of elusive victories by declaring yet another strike.
Sometimes the job disappears from his hand because, to pay the new scale and continue in business, the employer prunes down the workforce and raises the price of his product which incidentally the worker needs! The social dislocation often brought about by strikes, picketing etc., is so incalculable, leading to paralysis in the nation’s life, or aspects of it. What then is to be done?
Both the employer and employees at any level must first avail themselves of the knowledge of the correlations of life and existence.
In the higher knowledge of life’s principles spreading today through all lands, we can see that every wrong, no matter how inconsequential it may look or sound, is a choice. And every choice has consequences in the automatic outworking of the self-acting Creation Laws which ensure that every wrong must be atoned for.
The law stipulates that every such wrong, evil, man’s inhumanity to man or lack of consideration for others, is an overdraft from the bank of life which must be repaid.
The same law ensures that goodness attracts compound interest and flourish, joy and inexplicable happiness.
The purpose of the Creation Law also known as Divine Law is orderliness. A deviation from it is lawlessness which is the same as disorderliness whether in interpersonal relationships or Labour relations.
It is such that it may so happen that an employer in whom the milk of human kindness has dried up will in another incarnation sit by the gutter with foul water running and will struggle to lean by the limousine of his once-upon-a – time employee asking for alms. With the bandage on the eyes of both parties none recognizes the other.
Something would just tickle the beggar to target the car coming! He may go before the house of another of the former employees begging for alms and food as well. It is the way Nature enforces balance!
The way out for all of us whether as an employer or an employee is to ask ourselves: Where is the humanity in me? Where is the humanity in you?
Next week: Collectivism and higher principles.