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Echoes of struggle for better welfare as workers mark May Day

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From Lagos to Sokoto, from Bayelsa to insurgency-ravaged Maiduguri and Damaturu, workers may lament their deteriorating conditions today as they mark the 2019 edition of May Day.The celebration of the 2019 edition of Workers Day popularly called May Day in Nigeria has always been used by the labour movement to highlight the issues that are threatening the industrial peace of the country.The most germane issue this year is no doubt the implementation of the new N30,000 minimum wage bill signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari.

The struggle for the implementation of the minimum wage notwithstanding, the two labour centres in the country – Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) – are expected to catalogue the woes of the Nigerian working class in the last one year and score government based on the misery index or otherwise of their members.

Apart from the minimum wage, the unwillingness of some oil companies to respect collective agreements with unions, unpreparedness of oil firms to allow unionisation will feature prominently in labour’s lamentation today.Labour would, as expected, touch on the casualisation of workers in the banks, oil industry and in government agencies such as the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN). Though both NLC and TUC have not been vocal against the casualisation of Nigerian workers, NUPENG and PENGASSAN have been at the forefront of the struggle. Both unions have continued to insist that casualisation is a second slavery of Nigerians in their land centuries after slave trade officially ended.

Also, NLC will comment on the non-inauguration of Frank Kokori as the board chairman of Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF). It is not unexpected that the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige might want to stay away from the annual ritual. But he may not have his way since he is likely to represent President Buhari before the workers. If Ngige attends the rally at the majestic Eagles Square today, he can be sure to receive cold shoulder from labour leaders especially after labelling them ‘thugs’ who prevented the inauguration of a new board.

While the signing of the law is important for the Nigerian workers, it is the implementation that means much more. Before the signing of the law, the presidency indeed demonstrated unwillingness to pursue a national minimum wage that would be beneficial to the workers. First, the negotiation took many turns by Ngige, who continued to insist that no agreement had been reached on N30,000. To further demonstrate the fact that the minister was speaking the mind of the Federal Government, it went ahead to send dual minimum wage figures of N30,000 for the federal workers and N27,000 for other categories of workers. This was seen as a deft move to persuade the state governors that the Federal Government was sympathetic to their complaints of inability to implement an increment to the existing N18,000 national wage floor.

While the state governors speak against a new minimum wage collectively through the Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF), they seperately pledged to implement the new law once it is passed by the National Assembly.No single governor came out to say he would not implement the new wage, but the chair of the forum and governor of Zamfara State, Abdulaziz Yari continued to oppose an increment in the N18,000 national wage. He argued that most states could not pay the N18,000 and would be a near impossibility for a state that was struggling to pay N18,000 to be saddled with the responsibility of paying N30,000 without an increment in their revenue base or downsizing of their workforces.

He further argued that without a bailout from the Federal Government, most states of the federation were on their way to insolvency. So, it was in reference to the ‘plight’ of the state governments that the Federal Government decided to split the minimum wage bill in two – one with N27,000 and another with N30,000.

But the labour movement spearheaded by the President of Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Ayuba Wabba and his Trade Union Congress (TUC), Bobboi Kaigama insisted that the inability of state governments to pay N18,000 was not for lack of resources but profligacy and flamboyancy of the state governors. They pointed at governors flying private jets to Abuja and embarking on white elephant projects.

Minimum wage has a chequered history in Nigeria. Before the coming of Hassan Sunmonu as the first President of the Nigeria Labour Congress in 1978, there was no history of a structured minimum wage for workers. It must be said that the Udoji pay package of 1975 was not regarded as a structured minimum wage for workers because it was not negotiated by the representatives of the working people.

Indeed, the then president of NLC was encouraged to begin an agitation for a minimum wage when there was a pay rise for political leaders at the time. He started agitation for N300 per month as the minimum wage in 1981.This agitation for N300 led to a major strike, which eventually culminated in the President Shehu Shagari and Hassan Sunmonu-led executive agreeing to N125 per month pay package.

Those who led the negotiation on behalf of the Federal Government included the then Vice-President, Dr. Alex Ekwueme, the then Senate President, Dr. Joseph Wayas, and the Speaker, Edwin Ume-Ezeoke. At the end of the negotiation, N125 was agreed upon.
Another negotiation did not come until 1989/90 when the late Pascal Bafyau was President of the NLC. Adam Oshiomhole led the negotiation as the deputy to Bafyau. The negotiation achieved a 100 per cent as the workers got N250 per month as minimum wage.

An opportunity for another round of negotiation came again nine years, in 1989/90, under General Abdulsalami Abubakar when workers joined the ‘thousand’ club. The minimum wage was moved to N3,000. This particular committee had a unique characteristic because it was not done under an organized labour centre. Indeed, it was negotiated by a committee of industrial unions led by Sylvester Ejiofor under the public service negotiating council.

Again, it took another 10 years for another negotiation to come alive. This took place under Adam Oshiomhole as President of the NLC between 2000 and 2001 when N5,500 for states and N7,500 for federal and oil-producing states were agreed upon. There were unique features as there were provisions that the following year (2002), there would be 15 per cent increment across board and 25 per cent in 2003. These provisions were not fulfilled.

The present N18,000 minimum wage, which has been due since 2015 (three years ago) was negotiated under Abdulwahed Omar as NLC president. The process of the 2011minimum wage began in December 2008. It took more than two years for negotiations and final implementation of the agreement to begin.

Though the bill has becomes law, the General Secretary of NLC, Dr Peter Ozo-Eson said it was not yet hurray for the Nigerian workers until sectoral negotiations were concluded.He explained that it was such negotiations that would determine the level of impact the new national wage floor would have on other categories of workers besides the level 01 who are directly impacted.

The NLC scribe hinted that the signing of the law by President Buhari was the beginning of another process to ensure that the Nigerian workers feel the impact of the upward adjustment in the national wage structure. He said the labour movement would lead the process of ensuring each sector negotiates with the unions to ensure the credibility of the process across all levels of the workforce in the country.

For workers that think labour should lead another round of negotiations this year considering another
wage should commence in 2021 because the circle of N18,000 that commenced in 2011 was to end in 2016, Ozo-Eson delivered a different view. “Yes the last minimum wage ought to have started in 2016 but that did not happen. The negotiation took more than two years but that does not mean this takeoff date will be 2016. No. The day a bill is signed into law is the day such law takes off. Therefore, this one has a provision of a five years review and it will lapse in 2023,” he said.

Ozo-Eson recognised the struggles that lay ahead in getting state governments commit to obeying the minimum wage law. He added: “However, we would use this opportunity to call for immediate implementation of the law, given the fact that this process has dragged on for nearly two years.

“In furtherance of this, we urge employers, particularly federal and state governments, to commence immediate negotiations with the appropriate unions on the impact of the new law on the wage structure with a view to timely and judicious implementation.”
On his part, Kaigama observed the expected gains of the wage review might have been eroded by inflation, explaining that prices of commodities have gone up even when employers have not commenced payment.

Kaigama said: “The N30, 000 monthly national minimum wage that we are even asking for to a family of six actually amounts to less than N50 per meal per person. It is exclusive of utility bills, school fees, etc.“Given our extended family system as Africans we are also expected to once in a while extend hands of fellowship to parents, in-laws, relations, friends who have lost their jobs, brothers and people of the same faith.

“We recall that some lawmakers promised to give the wage bill supersonic attention whenever it was brought before them and they have kept to their word. To us it means we still have men and women with milk of kindness left in them.”

He, therefore, called on the ninth House of Assembly and well-meaning Nigerians to prevail on governors to pay workers their salaries and pensions to pensioners as and when due to avoid a crisis in the industrial sector. The General Secretary of the Non-Academic Staff Union of Universities and Associated Institutions (NASU), Peters Adeyemi, said government must not be under the illusion that the new minimum wage law could be used as an alibi for increment in the pump price of fuel or upward adjustment in value added tax.

His words: “Government must know that it cannot give us a minimum wage with one hand and take it with another hand through petrol price increment. The labour movement will resist such a move with all the blood in our veins.We are also saying absolute no to increase in the Value Added Tax (VAT). Labour is very vigilant and will resist any increment in whatever form.

“While we appreciate this new wage, government must know that in terms of purchasing power, this N30, 000 is less than N18, 000 of 2011. Going by our exchange rate, the naira to the dollar shows that Nigerian workers have not got any increment in the real sense of it. In 2011, N18, 000 could buy three bags of rice, but now can N30, 000 buy three bags of rice? So, I don’t think there is too much to celebrate.”

Adeyemi, who is also the President, Public Service International (PSI), Africa Region, said labour was ready to tackle recalcitrant employers, especially state governments, that would be unwilling to implement the law.

“We must not overlook the fact that assenting to the bill is the first step. While labour may not likely have any problem with the Federal Government paying N30, 000, it is always a battle getting the state governors to do the needful even after the president’s assent. We should not forget that the last minimum wage that was assented to by former President Jonathan never saw the light of day in some states especially the state of the Chairman of the Governors Forum, Zamfara State. So, this for me is a major step. But it is the beginning of battle between labour and the state government. I am also very sure that labour has the capacity and what it takes to engage those state governments that would be unwilling to implement the law,” he said.


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