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Any prudent state government will pay minimum wage with ease

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Mrs. Beatrice Otubo, Rivers State Chairman, Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), told Kelvin Ebiri that the new wage increment might not translate to an improvement in the standard of living of workers in the Niger Delta, due to rising cost of living. She canvassed for increased allowance and argued that all prudent states should have no difficulty implementing the new wage policy.

Has Rivers State commenced payment of the new minimum wage?
No, they are still working out the modalities. The Salary and Wages Commission has not released its circular, which will come from them. It is not just about the N30, 000, there are other areas along the line that will be upgraded accordingly. Once there is a minimum wage, there must be increment across board. 

Our governor has said it time and again that he would pay. Indeed, he said he would be one of the first to pay. Rivers State will pay. One of the issues we have been taking the government on is that of pension. And they have repealed that law.

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Presently, they are trying to get people to do biometrics, which is on- going. As soon as they finish, they will start paying. So, what is remaining is for them to pay, and I want to believe any moment from now, they will start paying those that have been captured.

The issue that is even bothering us is that of gratuity. We are still trying to see how we can engage government to release money for gratuity payment. We believe that this government will pay.

Did the approval of the new minimum wage surprise you?
We had been working on the new minimum wage. We even protested in this state, when the national directive came. Of course, we were expecting the N30, 000, as it was overdue. We knew it would come one day, so it didn’t take anybody by surprise. We are even saying it is not enough. You know Labour was actually canvassing for N55, 000.

But in the spirit of give and take we had to settle for that. When you go for negotiation, it is a give and take affair. When organised private sector said it would also pay the new minimum wage, we wanted something everybody can afford. So, based on that, Labour had to succumb and accept the N30, 000 minimum wage as a starting point. Somebody that was earning N18, 000 and now earns N30, 000 will see a little difference. We still believe that someday, something better will come. This is a starting point.

Should states pay according to their capacity?
Everywhere in the world, there is a national minimum wage. I believe every state; even the poorest like Ekiti and Ebonyi can pay. The problem politicians have is that they want to amass money they can spend on frivolous expenditures. That is why they are always complaining. If they are prudent, every state should be able to pay the new wage and still execute infrastructural projects. The minimum is not the maximum. The minimum is what nobody should go below.Even as an individual who employs people in your organisation, you should not go below that. And that is the whole essence of the national minimum wage. So, every state with the political will can pay.

Considering the staff strength of Rivers State civil service, won’t the new minimum be a burden on government?
Previously, aside teachers, the mainstream civil service had about 32, 000 to 33, 000 workers. But people retire everyday. So, currently, we are even less, which is why we have been complaining and telling government to employ. If you go to the state secretariat, the place is empty. Offices that were occupied by 10 to 15 persons don’t have up to three people now. I am happy that the Governor announced on May Day that he lifted embargo on employment, and in no distant time, we are expecting government to place employment advertisement.

How can N30, 000 improve workers’ wellbeing?
When you talk of wellbeing, it depends on who and their priorities.When they were paying N18, 000 people lived, and some people still succeeded in accomplishing their goals. And now, if it has been increased to N30, 000, it is expected that living condition will also improve. But government must make it up to those earning more than the minimum wage.

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I believe workers can live far better now than when they were earning N18, 000. Presently, if you look at Nigeria’s economy, even N100, 000 as minimum may not be meaningful for you. But it depends on planning and how you prioritise. It depends on how you manage your resources. So, when you manage resources properly, you will be able to live a little better. Mind you, not that you are living very large, but you will live like civil servants we used to know when we were young.

Rivers’ economy is vibrant. Will Labour ask for something higher?
We have always had some edge. Presently, there are some allowances we usually agitate for. When I went to defend the minimum wage at the zonal hearing, I said Rivers, Bayelsa and other oil producing states have certain peculiarities, and that special allowances should be given to us, because we and the oil workers go to the same market. The traders don’t want to know that you are a civil servant or you work in an oil company. All they want is to make money because the economy is vibrant.

Although economic activities in Rivers are vibrant, the workers are often relegated to the background. We are working on it to see how we can pressure government to give allowances that will give us an edge. Look at housing, what you pay here for a room in a year is what some other states pay for three or four years.

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What are these allowances you are be asking for?
We are talking of hazard allowance. All of us know we are living in a place ravaged by soot, due to oil activities and gas flaring. And so, if they can give us medical allowance and increase it to a reasonable level, it will increase the salary to a reasonable level. These are issues we are trying to bring to the fore.

Won’t minimum wage affect infrastructural development?
Any government that has political will and the people’s interest at heart will be able to pay and also do projects. There is enough money. Look at politicians, has their lifestyle changed? No. They are living very large, with many advisers, personal assistants on this and that. Even people that are irrelevant still hang around them. They don’t want to pay because money meant for workers cannot be diverted.

Most times, they want to pay money they can easily divert. Any sincere government will pay. If personal assistants and special advisers are reduced, the money realised from that will go a long way in providing funds for infrastructural development.

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