Minimum wage: Who’s afraid of federalism?

President of the Nigeria Labour Congress Ayuba Philibus Wabba leads anti-government protesters during a march in Abuja. PHOTO: REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

The statement by the organised labour last week, that it would take nothing less than N30,000 as the new minimum wage is misleading and unconvincing, just as its threat to vote out any government that refuses to meet its demands, is obnoxious and puerile. The reasons for this strong comment against the position of the organised labour lies in the faulty logic put forward by Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) in arguing for a regulated minimum wage across the country.

According to a statement issued by labour, the quest for living wages for the worker, and the abrogation of the “no-work-no pay” policy of the government tended to have informed labour’s decision. One of the most curious of Labour’s positions came from the chairman of the Ogun State branch of the NLC, Akeem Ambali, who argued against deregulated minimum salary for workers.

Ambali was quoted to have said: “There is no basis for salary deregulation being clamoured for in some quarters. There is no deregulation of salary for any governor. All the governors in this country take the same salary. No deregulation of salary for National Assembly members. Do you know how much governors take per month? People in this country in the same market, take as much as a cumulative total of N23 million and N16 million per month, yet you say you can’t afford N30,000.” These are flattering words for the gallery in today’s world.

There are very expedient reasons given by labour to hold their ground against the governors. As a matter of fact, the right to strike is indeed both a human and a trade union right. And in truth, in agreement with the communique signed by the NLC President, Ayuba Wabba and its Secretary-General, Dr. Peter Ozo-Eson, this right cannot be abridged or taken away from the worker since it is what distinguishes him from a slave. Beyond that, this right derives from natural law, which prescribes the fundamental dignity of the human person as an end in itself; one that cannot be instrumentalised or dispensed with by others, including the state. This right guarantees that the human person, be he a worker or not, does not only have a right to protest injustice or any unjustified harm done to one, but also is obliged and duty-bound to protest injustice.

By this imperative, it would be immoral to see injustice and not protest against it. Thus in consonance with the natural moral law, labour is justified in carrying out any strike against perceived injustice.

However, the grouse people have had with the labour organisation has been that its planned strike for a regulated national minimum wage is unwittingly a subscription to the economic injustice that indiscriminately generalises our disparate socio-economic life under a unitarist system of governance. The issue about the wages of workers is not whether the Nigerian worker earns N100, 000 or N7,000 a month as minimum wage, but rather what he or she needs to live a life with some dignity befitting of humans. These basic existential human provisions can hardly be legislated across board in disparate circumstances. This should be the point at issue.

The argument here is that there is no way N50,000 as a minimum wage would cater reasonably for the Nigerian worker in Abuja or Lagos, or Port Harcourt, for instance. In the same way one can imagine what N30,000 as minimum wage would do for the janitor in Ikot Abasi, Akwa Ibom State, or Zango Daura in Katsina State. The economic capabilities and cost of living of such socio-economic settings are key factors that should be considered, in this regard.

The point being made here is that the minimum wage issue cannot be resolved in a unitary system. So, rather than dilly-dally over incongruent positions that do no one any good, the organised labour should use this strike as a medium to tell units to strive on their own on the basis of their circumstances.

In other words, the minimum wage issue should be a means for labour to foster the cause of federalism and restructuring this newspaper has been harping on every week.

In the same vein, governors, who have been economically hamstrung by the regulated salary structure should use the wage issue as an argument for a true federation structure. The economic capabilities of a state and the cost of living of a state should determine whatever the governor of a state can pay or not. Let each state pay what it can pay, and make it a law. Alas, they would hardly pursue this cause because it is profitable, especially for their personal and unofficial interests to subsist on the largesse that comes from the central government- every month without any effort. This is the real trouble with Nigeria at the moment. That is why the federation is not working for the people. That is why we can no longer create values that used to create wealth for the federation before 1966 when the soldiers of fortune struck down federalism.

Therefore, in considering what salary the state can pay as minimum wage, the governors should be mindful of the fact that their regulated perquisites and emoluments are inconsistent with the peculiarities and economic circumstances of their states. Beside this unjustified proportionate distribution, as has been noted in our earlier comments, the governors’ salaries are scandalous compared to the workers. It is proper that the workers’ unions are saying so now.

Beyond all this, some comment should be made about the value of the strike itself. In recent times, labour has called for and mobilised workers for industrial action only for them to back out at the last minute. The effect of this action is that people have ceased to take labour movement seriously and take in comments of its leaders with a pinch of salt. This is more especially so with the prevalent factions and diminishing quality of their protests. This latest one, which threatens to vote the present government out if it refuses to accede to labour’s N30,000 minimum wage, is a case in point.

This is a dirty blackmail with the possibility of misleading interpretations. It could suggest that, should this government accede to its request, it would be voted in. Conversely, it could also mean that if the government does not pay, they would lose the polls on labour’s account. This thinking is puerile and reflective of collective mob action devoid of clear rigorous thinking. Labour should ascend from the clamour over inanities and mobilise, enlighten and act on profound and more palpable requests that people can relate with.

It is because of this seeming impertinence and trivialisation of workers’ plight that strikes seem not to be effective anymore. Whilst certain quarters have criticised labour leaders for being prebendal politicians in disguise, only waiting for an opportune time to be initiated into a gang of national oppressors, others have punched them for being too selfish in their struggle request – minimum wage. They have wondered: Why can’t certain affiliates or state chapters carry out industrial actions over bad leadership and poor governance too? Or why can’t there be protests over poor healthcare in the system killing hapless citizens? Why can’t workers in many states disrupt government activities over poor roads infrastructure all over the place? Why must strikes be staged over remuneration and allowances all the time?

In the main, if this government still needs any convincing about the need for Nigeria to run as a true federation, the on-going labour negotiation on minimum wage provides that starting point. This is because it does not make common sense let alone economic sense for all the 36 states of the federation, with their socio-economic peculiarities to pay the same minimum wage. This is the truth that will set us free from powerlessness of unitarism – since 1966.

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