A few days ago, Nigerian workers joined their counterparts worldwide to celebrate the International Labour Day, otherwise called the Workers’ Day or May Day. The occasion offered another opportunity to reflect on the plight of Nigerian workers in terms of their welfare and working conditions. The theme for this year’s May Day event in the country was, ‘Labour Relations in Economic Recession: An Appraisal’, which enabled observers to critically look at labour matters in the country with a view to improving the lot of workers.
The Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress have at different times called on the Federal Government to urgently review the National Minimum Wage on the logical premise that inflation has increased the people’s suffering, as the naira has lost its value and the impact of the current minimum wage has been completely eroded. The prevailing inflationary trend in the country, estimated at about 18 per cent, has made nonsense of the national minimum wage of N18,000, such that prices of items have skyrocketed to over 300 percent since it became operational.
We would recall that he minimum wage was last reviewed in 2010, although the law demands a joint review by federal and state governments, the organised private sector and the workers’ unions, every five years. However, critics have argued that the federal government may not be able to pay a new wage because of the decline in international oil prices and reduced oil exports due to renewed militancy and other associated factors that have diminished government’s earnings and thus, paying a new minimum wage would definitely bring about a higher wage bill for all levels of government at this time than may be unsustainable.
Despite the pessimism, I still believe that deliberate efforts should be geared towards putting in place a virile framework that would enable Nigerian workers to truly earn a living in tandem with their productivity, hence the minimum wage should be increased. Also, there should be suspension of further discussions on the introduction of a bill to amend the constitution and make the minimum wage a concurrent and not an exclusive legislative matter. Therefore, state assemblies should now have the power to fix the minimum wage in their respective states.
This should be discouraged, bearing in mind that the salaries of political office holders are centrally worked out by the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission, as well as the National Salaries, Incomes and Wages Commission. As a result, there should not be any discrimination and reasonable justification why workers’ salaries should not also be handled centrally. On this premise, the controversial bill, which seeks to remove the National Minimum Wage from the Exclusive Legislative list to Concurrent Legislative List should, therefore, be stepped down.
In other countries, the minimum wage is on the exclusive list because of its sensitive nature and importance to the economy. Transferring such a vital legislation to the states would be counter-productive on the basis of the fact that many states in Nigeria are currently defaulting in the payment of workers’ salaries for several months, in spite of bail-outs received from the federal government and the recent Paris Club refund that should have significantly improved their finances. This is not so because many government workers in the states are still being owed salaries. Is it not worrisome that many states have failed to pay the ridiculously and meager N18,000 minimum wage? What then happens, if the burden of administering the wage is left at their discretion? Maybe, workers in some states would be getting N10,000 as minimum wage? The bill before the National Assembly should not be allowed to thrive because of its anti-labour provisions.
The bitter truth is that many workers today live in rented apartments, cannot maintain vehicles because of the high cost of fuel, afford good food and access quality medicare. For those that have retired from active service, many of who have died in the course of processing their entitlements, those that are lucky to be alive continue to battle to get their hard-earned gratuities and pension allowances. Sometimes, they are swindled by unscrupulous persons in a bid to fast-track the processing. Why this is possible is that the government has failed to do what is right in the interest of the senior citizens.
Other issues that have been the lot of Nigerian workers include victimisation, poor remuneration, absence of good working environment, casualisation, poor safety provisions at workplace, non-unionisation, non-payment of promotion arrears and summary dismissal, among others. Many Nigerians are still being employed as casual workers, which is at variance with the extant laws on labour practice. It is sad to note that many people are working in Nigeria without having anything to show for it because of the prevailing economic situation and the excess burden being placed on them by many unemployed persons, relatives and other dependents. The implication of this is that rather than becoming prosperous, many workers in the country live in penury and abject poverty.
To ensure that the interest of the workers are promoted, government should put in place, sustainable policies to alleviate the suffering of Nigerian workers through subsidised housing, transportation and affordable medicare. The use of strike should be de-emphasised as much as possible, while more of lobbying, consultations, negotiations and bargaining should be embraced. That way, a more realistic framework would be put in place to make it possible for Nigerian workers to get a better deal.
- Adewale Kupoluyi writes from the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta