Organised labour has a duty to protect the interests of workers, be they members of the various labour and trade unions or not. We are all bound together in a capitalist economy in which employers would rather pay slave wages than living wages. Successive labour leaders, from our acknowledged number one labour leader, the late Chief Michael Imoudu, to the present crop of redoubtable labour leaders, were and are committed to making life better for the workers. They waged, and still wage, the great battle for a better deal for workers in the public as well as the private sector. Their formula was, and remains, a minimum wage, an amount of money deemed by them each time to be fair enough for workers to live on from month to month with less tears.
No one knows for sure how many times labour leaders have fought the federal and state governments over the minimum wage. They always called out their members on strike as part of the pressure on the governments. The strike is the most lethal weapon in the calloused hands of labour leaders. Quite often, by the time the negotiations snaked their way to an agreement with the government, the minimum wage had been overtaken by market forces and the new minimum wage translated into so much in the pockets of the workers but so little in the market place where the cost of living and the fate of the workers are determined.
A new circle of agitations then begins in the circular movement. The victory of labour leaders over their arch enemies, the federal and state governments in this delicate matter of more money in the pockets of workers has always been largely pyrrhic. But it would be uncharitable not to admit that but for them, the lot of us workers would be nastier and more brutish than it is even now.
But the time has come for the labour leaders to change tactics, abandon the useless and outdated minimum wage battle and wage a realistic battle against the background of (a) a national economy that has always misled our national planners and paled our nation on the spike of the distressing irony of a rich but poor nation and (b) the continued stifling of centralised federalism in which all the states are forced to agree to a minimum wage not many of them can pay and thus leave the workers in the lurch and the unfeeling mercy of market forces, the forces we all have to contend with to survive from one day to another. The current N30, 000 minimum wage has been in the books for more than two years now, yet not many of the states are able to afford it. I would imagine that this is a huge disappointment to the workers in those states who are reduced to salivating over it. Surely, there must be, and there are, options for creating a socio-economic system that is less in conflict with itself. This cannot be achieved without the workers, of course.
One attractive and realistic option is to begin the gradual but necessary process of dismantling our centralised federalism and allow the states, as employers of labour, each to be guided in their labour and employment policies by what they can and cannot do. Forcing the states to commit to a minimum wage they cannot pay has been, and remains, counter-productive. It is naïve for the labour leaders to persist in servicing a system that has not helped the workers that much.
Honourable Garba Mohammed (APC, Kano) has introduced a bill in the national assembly to help get us out of the rut in which we are stuck and weighed down with the sentiments of doing well by the workers and yet crushing them. The bill seeks to allow the federal and state governments each to freely negotiate the minimum wage “with their workers in line with our federalism.” The bill, if passed into law, would thus remove the minimum wage negotiation from the exclusive to the concurrent legislative list. I have not read the bill but from what I have seen of it in the news media, it smells sweetly. It chips at the granite of centralised federalism and, perhaps, more importantly, it would remove from the states the burden of being made to pay salaries and wages not many of them could afford.
I did not expect Mohammed to be deafened by the applause of the workers. And he was not. Instead, the labour leaders have unsheathed their swords ready to do battle with the national assembly over the bill, describing it, in the robust language of labour leaders, “as a ruinous path” and “an attempt to undermine Nigeria’s working class.” It is nothing like that. The labour leaders mobilised for a nation-wide protest on March 10. They aim to kill the bill by frightening off the national assembly. They are clearly unrealistic, deafened, perhaps by the sound of their sabre rattling.
As labour leaders, their right to seek the best for their members is a given. No one can deny them that right – and I can think of none of our leaders in khaki or baban riga, who tried to do so. But as labour leaders, their responsibility towards the workers should go beyond the frequent and unproductive minimum wage negotiations that have in truth ill-served the workers. That responsibility should more importantly include vastly improved productivity and a sound management of the national economy consistent with the size of our cloth. The reality of where we stand among progressive third world countries determined to make the leap to the second world, hit us between the eyes long ago when we were handed the trophy as the poverty capital of the world. The current challenge for labour and everyone else is for our country to give the trophy to another struggling third world nation. We need not continue to live in denial and behave as if the steady of stream of the petro-dollar of yesteryears, has not since been halted by concrete dams of inconsistent policies and policy summersaults.
The states are in a sorry state. In many of them, governance has ceased to have any meaning for the people. There is no serious development going on because there is little money in pursuit of foolish projects of doubtful value to the people. They are unable to pay their civil servants as and when due. Their pensioners are dying in penury in large numbers because they are not paid their monthly pittance for years. Labour leaders do have the responsibility to make the states fully discharge their basic responsibilities to their civil servants by paying them regularly and ensure too that those who gave of their best to the state in their youth, are not abandoned to live and die in penury.
When President Muhammadu Buhari assumed office some six years ago, he was appalled by the wretched state of the state governments. At that time, the minimum wage was N18, 000. Fewer than half of the states could pay it. He was moved to lend them a helping hand to help them clear the arrears of salaries of their civil servants and those of their pensioners. Today, the situation in the states is much worse. The backlog, in some of the states are mountains. Never mind the expensive traditional dresses paraded by the state governments.
The bill sponsored by Mohammed is an amendment to the constitution whose time has come. It would make the states take responsibilities for themselves, it would deny them the feeding bottle and they would be forced to enact their individual wages and salaries laws they can afford to pay. It would be nice for the labour leaders to think again and stop protests over the bill and instead support. It is not anti-labour; it is not anti-people. It is consistent with the restructuring to give each tier of government the space to be a tier in name and in fact.
Killing the bill would ensure that we remain stuck in the current rut that has not improved the lot of the workers in both the public and the private sectors. It is time for the labour leaders to abandon the minimum wage battle and instead fight for the institution of a welfare system and an economic management system, with, to borrow from former President Obasanjo, a human face and the milk of human kindness.
I salute honourable Garba Mohammed.
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