Unending rumbles over national minimum wage
The usual turf for beating the drums of industrial disharmony over national minimum wage in Nigeria is often at the dialogue and implementation stages. The dramatic personae are historically the Federal Government, state governments and two central labour unions – Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC).
But this time, the turf has shifted to the National Assembly as both the Senate and House of Representatives have thrown their hats in the ring. Surprisingly, the Federal Government seems disinterested in the unfolding bandying of words between Organised Labour and the National Assembly.
At the centre of the current discord is a legislation titled ‘A Bill for an Act to Alter the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) to, Among Others, Transfer the Subject Matter of Minimum Wage Prescription from the Exclusive Legislative List Set Out Under Part I of the Second Schedule to the Concurrent Legislative List Set Out Under Part II of the Second Schedule to the Constitution; and for Related Matters’.
Leading the debate when the bill was presented on Tuesday, February 24, its sponsor, Mr. Garba Datti Muhammad, said respective state governments should be allowed by law to determine wages based on resources available to them. Muhammad criticised the imposition of a national minimum wage, arguing that the resources available to the Federal Government differ from those available to the states or each state.
He said: “The resources available to the states also differ and while some states may be able to afford the national minimum wage, others may not. Within the states, the resources available to the local government councils also vary but they are also subjected to the national minimum wage.
“The Governor of Ebonyi State (Dave Umahi) alleged that the local councils would need to borrow N1 billion to service salaries while some states allege that they would spend 100 per cent of their earnings to pay salaries.
“Under the Independence and 1963 Constitutions, prescription of minimum wage was a concurrent matter to be legislated upon by both the federal parliament and the states.
“This decentralisation of the prescription of the minimum wage does not shut the door on labour from negotiating. What it means is that labour will have to negotiate with each state to ensure that the minimum wage in each state is reasonable in the circumstances of that state.”
Weighing in on the debate during the recent protests by the Organised Labour against the bill, Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El-Rufai, also contended that minimum wage should be determined by each state according to the level of their income.
El-Rufai said: “I agree completely that in a federation there should be taxes that are national while others are sub-national. But if you look at our history, you will see that we come from civilian-military regimes and many of these personal income taxes Acts were done by the military. For instance, I do not agree that the national minimum wage should be under the federation. I think minimum wage should be done by each state according to the level of income. If you look at the 1963 Constitution, the minimum wage was not on the Exclusive List; it was added during military rule.”
However, the labour movement, which sees the attempt to move the prescription of minimum wage from the Exclusive Legislative List to the Concurrent List as the handiwork of some state governors, has faulted the bill. Labour believes that amending the Constitution to decentralise minimum wage matter would make state governors to become overlords on wage matters.
Records show that the national minimum wage started in Nigeria in 1981 during the tenure of Hassan Sunmonu as the first President of the NLC.
According to the current President of the NLC, Ayuba Wabba, the practice of fixing a national minimum wage has existed in the country for the past 40 years.
Wabba added that the national minimum wage was a collective dividend of the commitment of both the government and employers in the private sector, stressing that the bill seeking to make it a concurrent matter was putting it under fresh threat.
The NLC helmsman argued that having the national minimum wage on the Exclusive List was a global standard, noting that it was not within the ambit of nations, especially those who have signed up to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Minimum Wage-Fixing Machinery Convention 1928 also known as C26, to decentralise it. Indeed, Nigeria ratified this convention on June 16, 1961.
Wabba submitted that any step aimed at taking the minimum wage from the Exclusive List to any legislative list would be deemed anti-workers, saying: “We consider it as an act of great irresponsibility for a state governor to impugn on this long-standing instrument of the law for narrow and self-conceited objectives.
“As we all know, the national minimum wage is implemented in more than 90 per cent of ILO member states. Many of the countries that implement it judiciously, 26 in number, including the U.S. and the Federal Republic of Germany (the biggest economy in Europe) practice federalism, some for more than 200 years. We cannot claim to be more catholic than Pope.
“In the U.S., the social partners adopted an hourly national minimum wage of $7.25 preserved in its federal laws. The different federating states can pay higher than the national minimum of $7.25 but no state pays lower. Germany also sets her national minimum wage on an hourly rate, which currently stands at 9.35 Euro. The regional governments ensure that wages in their domains do not fall lower than the national minimum wage benchmark. The Federal Republic of Germany increased its national minimum wage from 8.84 Euros (2017 rate) to the current 9.35 Euros in 2020 despite the coronavirus pandemic outbreak.”
He stressed that transferring minimum wage prescription from the Exclusive Legislative List to the Concurrent Legislative List would be viewed by labour as an attempt to visit collective genocide on the working people of Nigeria.
Wabba argued that the current N30, 000 minimum wage was not a product of wishful thinking of government officials, but a figure reached after years of painstaking negotiation based on empirical data during which the state governors actively participated.
He explained: “The national minimum wage, apart from being the outcome of collective negotiation and agreement among the social partners using empirical economic variables, is also a wedge between absolute poverty and survival. Many countries of the world have moved beyond discussion on national minimum wage to conversations on guaranteeing living wages for their workers. We cannot allow Nigeria to be made a laughing stock in the comity of nations because of the narrow interest of the few among us.”
Wabba further stated that under the current system, states were at liberty to determine what figure they could pay subject to negotiation with state councils. He expressed fear that state governments would treat workers’ wages with levity if they were no longer guided by a national wage that prescribes what no employer could pay below.
He accused the 9th National Assembly of trying to reverse a 40-year-old tradition, stating that the fact that the bill has passed the First and Second reading was a signal that the lawmakers were ready to eventually pass it into law.
Wabba disclosed that the leadership of Organised Labour has the mandate of Nigerian workers to declare a nationwide strike should the National Assembly go ahead to pass the bill.
“We know that the state governors collect the same salary across the country. States and National Assemblies collect the same salaries across the country, so also the counsellors. So, why is the case of workers different if it is the issue of ability to pay?
“Governors also collect humongous amount as security votes that have not been used to address security challenges in Nigeria. If we address this, we will have enough to pay the minimum wage. It’s a national benchmark. If the private sectors can pay, the government has more responsibility to the citizens than the highest private sector,” Wabba added.
On his part, the TUC President, Quadri Olaleye, called on the National Assembly to leave by example, saying that, “leadership by example is desirable at this point in Nigeria’s history.”
He added: “If the National Assembly must take that decision, all the executives should go back to their local councils to collect their salary according to their local council revenue generation,” he said.
During the recent nationwide protest against the bill, the leadership of Organised Labour presented a protest letter by Nigerian workers to both the Senate and House of Representatives.
Majority Leader of the lower chamber, Hassan Doguwa, who received the letter on behalf of the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, commended Labour for expressing their grievances in the right manner.
“I want to say that we have accepted the letter presented to us by the Organised Labour and I want to assure you that we will give it the right treatment. We will also provide the window for the people to come and present their grievances through the public hearing. That presentation of that bill is only a proposal and with what I am seeing now, it appears to me that the leadership of Organised Labour is against that bill. If you are against that bill, you are right and you have every reason to be against that bill. I want to assure you that the House of Representatives will give a listening ear to your grievances. We will still invite you to come and engage with relevant committees to make your contribution to the debate,” the lawmaker said.
Also receiving the document on behalf of the President of the Senate, Ahmed Lawan, the Deputy Chief Whip of the Senate, Senator Abdullahi Sabi, appealed to the workers to have confidence in the lawmakers, whom he said, would do everything possible to ensure that workers’ rights and demands were respected.
He said: “Denying you minimum wage is something I personally as a senator do not support but we are in a democracy, which is about a process. You have read your point, you are standing tenaciously to ask for what is your right but I want to assure you there are a lot of progressive lawmakers in the 9th Assembly.”
Bill Not Well Thought Out, Says Minister Of Labour
Speaking during the Nigerian Television Authority’s (NTA) Good Morning Nigeria programme, monitored by The Guardian, recently, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, declared his support for Organised Labour on the issue.
According to him, the national minimum wage amendment bill was not well thought out. Ngige noted that labour issues all over the world were usually on the Exclusive Legislative List, stressing that that he supports Organised Labour 100 per cent.
The minister said: “The oldest ministry in Nigeria is the Ministry of Labour. Everything you are talking about in Nigeria, whether it is education, construction, banking and currency, among others, you are talking about Labour.
“For me, I have been on the side of the governors as a former governor Anambra State; I have played the role of the lawmakers; I have been there. I am now playing the role of the national government as a minister. So, I talk from a very advantageous position.
“I am preparing my memo to the National Assembly Committee on Constitutional Review, House of Representatives and the Senate, on the hullaballoo that is ongoing about that bill. For me, I don’t think that bill is well thought out. It is a private members’ bill. For such an issue on the Exclusive Legislative List to be touched, it should be an executive bill, not a private members’ bill. That is number one.
“Number two, it is a very fundamental issue that is being talked about being amended. Labour issues all over the world are usually on the Exclusive List. Therein you have issues of industrial dispute, registration of trade, fixing national minimum wage and other items. So, it is an exclusive of the national government. If you have to go to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to discuss, is it states that will go and discuss? The discussion will be national to national. The same goes for defence. Defence is on the Exclusive List; when you discuss defence, it is national to national. The same goes to foreign affairs, currency and insurance. So, you can see that that bill doesn’t flow very well because what it is trying to amend is the foundation of the economy of Nigeria.”
On the chances of the bill being passed, Ngige stated that he doesn’t know how far it bill would go, adding: “I was a legislator. The Senate, by posture and composition, are matured men. I am not saying the other House is not matured. But if you go to the Senate, you see former governors, former managing directors, former ministers, former this and former that. So, they have played in the field and know what is involved. I know what is involved. I support Labour 100 per cent on this matter because they are not being selfish this time.
“There are about 187 countries that make up the ILO and Nigeria is a member. We accepted the ILO wage fixing machinery number 26 in the year 1928. Nigeria domesticated it in 1961. There is also Convention 131, which came in 1970; everybody has domesticated it including Nigeria. So, Nigeria has a labour standing in the world; we are top in labour diplomacy. We have adopted all these conventions and the recommendations following them. So, I will not want us to blow hot and cold.”
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