Nigeria: Labour leaders hopeful of living wage for workers

EIGHTEEN months after organised labour mooted an idea for a wage increase for government workers, a positive response may soon come for the unions.

The unions at the 2016 May Day anniversary reechoed their proposal for N56,000 minimum wage for workers. They argued that N18, 000 was no longer realistic as the minimum wage going by the prevailing economic realities. The green light came on Monday with the inauguration of a 30-member committee by President Muhammadu Buhari to review the minimum wage.

Former President Goodluck Jonathan, in March 2011, signed the N18, 000 New Minimum Wage Act into Law after a legendary struggle by the unions for a living wage for their members.

The N18, 000 minimum wage was a review from N7, 000. Its historic signing came after more than three years of agitations, prolonged negotiations and threats of strikes by the organised labour.

With the inauguration of the minimum wage committee by the President, the workers are back on a familiar turf – a new round of negotiations to determine a national minimum wage.

Although the workers are optimistic of a pay rise, the instability in the economy is a source of concern. But, whether the government will accede to the labour’s demand or not, is something that will be determined in the weeks ahead.

The agitated workers’ unions have called on the national wage review panel to consider their plight and pensioners’ during its deliberations. The leaders, who are members of the committee, spoke with The Nation. According to them, what the Nigerian worker needs now, is a living wage and not minimum wage, saying that the inauguration of the committee was long overdue and that efforts should be made to fast track its deliberations for workers and retirees to get their accrued benefits.

They promised to discuss the workers’ proposal with an open mind for the desired result.

The President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Ayuba Wabba envisaged social dialogue and collective bargaining discussion at the meetings of the tripartite committee.

He told The Nation that labour would put its cards on the table for all the parties to discuss in line with the prevailing value of the local currency.

Wabba said the prevailing exchange rate of the Naira has rendered the N56, 000 proposal as inadequate.minimum wage.

Commending the President, Wabba described the panel’s inauguration as timely.

He said: “This is something that workers have long anticipated and our expectation is that we want a speedy process and that the fact that the issues are very obvious.

“If you look at the exchange rate, N18, 000 minimum wage of 2011 when we signed the agreement was almost equivalent to N110 dollars, but today, N18, 000 is less than 46 dollars.

“So, this is the reality and with the purchasing power of the ordinary Nigerian worker, the high cost of transaction, our expectation is that the committee should look at the conditions of the workers and pensioners.’’

He described as unacceptable the payment of N4, 000 as pension to some retirees, urging an immediate review.

The NLC president argued that such review was imperative to address the issues of social imbalance and inequality in the country.

He said: “As you are aware, there is lack of employment in the country, therefore, workers have a lot of burden like taking care of their children and other dependents. So, there is no worker today who does not cater for dependants.

“Therefore, our expectation is that the process must be driven with commitment and above all, they should take into consideration, the condition of workers and pensioners.”

The General Secretary, Textile Workers Union and a member of NLC, Issa Aremu, lauded the inauguration, saying “it is better late than never.”

He, however, said that labour will be expecting the committee to come out with their reports within six months.

Aremu said: “The five-year cycle of the current Minimum Wage Act, legally backing the subsisting negotiated minimum wage of N18, 000 signed by President Goodluck Jonathan in 2010 was due for negotiation in 2015 – two years ago.

“The historic inauguration once again demonstrates the globally-acknowledged concern of President Muhammadu Buhari to the welfare of the workers and citizens in general as contained in the 1999 Constitution.

“History will record it that at a time some state governors unacceptably defaulted in paying workers as at when due, the President commendably wondered aloud to ask how these governors go to bed when for whatever reasons, their workforce have not been paid.

“President Buhari has also demonstrated his fatherly concern through serial bailouts of the defaulting states. Nigerian workers are grateful to him for the presidential sensitivity and direct prompt actions on workers’ pay. We also formally thank all progressive governors who pay their workers before their monthly sweat dry”.

Aremu reminded the three tiers of government that they are not just employers of labour, but also enforcers of labour laws and must therefore take responsibility to ensure minimum standards with respect to decent wages for workers in the public and private sectors.

He noted that the presidential committee is rich with experienced stakeholders.

“It is also inclusive of all labour market operators. Under the able chairmanship of Mrs. Amma Pepple – a former Head of Service, the expectations are very high that the negotiation will be fair and just to the workers and national economy in line with the President’s inaugural speech,” he said.

Aremu said that with the high inflation and Naira devaluation due to fallen crude oil prices, the value of the current minimum wages and pension had been eroded.

He said: “At the time we submitted our proposal a year ago, at N160 to one dollar, the national minimum wage was about 80 dollars per month. Today with Naira devaluation, national minimum wage is around $40 dollars.

“The monthly salaries can hardly take the workers home with all the attendant negative implications on income poverty and low productivity. We therefore look forward to a mutually speedy and rewarding negotiation on a new minimum wage.”

In his reaction, the National President of the Association of Senior Staff of Banks, Insurance and Financial Institutions (ASSBIFI), Mrs. Oyinkan Olasanoye, called on the committee to use the opportunity to bring about economic growth and build a new global economy that put people first without struggling for living minimum wage and pay rise for all its workers.

Mrs. Olasanoye, who restated workers’ confident in the decision of their leaders and representatives, urged them to come out with something good for their members.

Her words: “The point cannot be overstated that improved wage is good economics for a developing nation like ours. The low capacity utilisation of the remaining functioning manufacturing industries is due to weak domestic demand. Improved pay to workers will positively re inflate the economy.”

The NLC General Secretary, Peter Ozo-Eson, said the committee would discuss many issues affecting the minimum wage at its sittings and chart a way forward.

According to him, it is over two years since the organised labour proposed N56, 000 as minimum wage to the government and will, therefore, look at a number of socio-economic indices to guide its action.

He said that the workers’ umbrella would be on the lookout for the tripartite group to discuss issues affecting the workers.

Ozo-Eson said: “We’ll be looking forward to the inaugural sitting of the panel, which I believe, will discuss the facts and economic realities when it starts negotiation.

“The meeting will not be based on the proposed wage by the NLC/TUC but on what is on ground. A lot of facts will be traded when the committee starts meeting and I hope we will move forward from there.’’

In his reaction, Igwe Achese, the President of Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), said he has great expectations that the dream to give workers an improved welfare would be realised during negotiation.

Achese commended the government for the inauguration of the committee and said he looked forward for the inauguration which he described as a decision in the right direction.

According to him, his dream of seeing workers earning living wage will be achieved when the committee members begin negotiations.

He further said that the committee would not focus on the N56, 000 or N96, 000 proposed by labour bodies but on the economic factors that would enable workers earn improved salary.

The General Secretary, Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN), Okugbawa Lumumba, expressed the hope that the principles of full consultation with social partners and their direct participation would be utilised by the committee,

The point that cannot be overstated is that an improved wage will exponentially rub off on the economy. No doubt, wage increase to workers will positively re-inflate the economy.

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