One won’t be right to blame the labour movement for their constant demand for wage increases in Nigeria. Labour movements are pressure groups and one of the basic reasons for their existence is to clamour for the welfare of their members. Bodies like the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Trade Union Congress (TUC), Nigeria Medical Association (NMA), Nigeria Union of Journalists(NUJ), etc are all pressure groups and so far, they have not failed in their primary calling, which is to protect the interest of their members.
Over the years, there have been clashes between the government at various levels and labour unions. One very prominent in history is that between the NLC/TUC and the federal govt over the minimum wage.
One actually appreciates that there is a law that mandates both parties to always return to the table at least every 5 years to renegotiate the minimum wage to fit into current realities. The drafters of the law, sure appreciated that the society is dynamic. So are the echoes from the markets. The question is, should the minimum wage be a federal govt affair or strictly that of the component units?
For me, minimum wages should not be an Abuja affair. I shall elucidate presently. But, before then, let me say that we are fantastic flyers of sentiments. Almost everything in this part of the world is shrouded in politics. The minimum wage is also a victim of our very askew system.
All over the world, the cost of living varies. These varieties have greatly influenced the choices of many people. Especially where they choose to live or work. In Nigeria, for instance, the cost of living in a state capital Is higher just as the cost if living in Abuja dwarfs that of the state capitals. So, what is the sense in fixing the minimum wage structure in Abuja and shoving it down on the throats of States that can’t even pay the current one?
Having lived in Benin city for many years as a student, and also in Abuja, I can say with authority that the cost of living in both cities are millions of miles apart. For instance, a three bedroom flat that costs N200,000 in a high brow area in Benin will be twice the price in a satellite town in Abuja. A settlement where you could still be your local government. As in relying on water vendors, depending mainly on your generating set to provide power and paying through your nose to daily migrate to the city center. In Benin, water vendors are aliens and one needs very little money to traverse the city. The poshest Self-contained “accommodation” around the campuses in Benin would cost at most a hundred thousand. Some areas low as N35,000. They are always wet with water. Same, around the University of Abuja or Dubem polytechnic (still in Abuja), could be N2000 or more thousand naira. Now, you decree the same minimum wage to cater for a worker in Benin and another in Abuja or Port Harcourt? That is not wisdom. One would always have his nose above waters while the other remains perpetually below. Let me quickly say that boxing anyone into a cul-de-sac is an expressway to test his loyalty to God and the system. A worker whose monthly pay can’t take home is vulnerable to temptation and all kind of Hocus-Pocus. Why not help ourselves to be righteous?
The politics of the minimum wage stinks. Otherwise, the states should have been given the power to negotiate their own minimum wage in line with the strength of their economies. Doing this would also attract the best brains into their civil service. For instance, if Lagos state government paid more and someone in Jigawa state want to work for Lagos, he would apply. If the man in Lagos prefers the cheap standard of living in Dutse or Auchi, he would apply for a job there and relocate if given the job.
The advocates of restructuring aptly captured these challenges. Minimum wages should not be decided in Abuja. The state governments and even the government closest to the people should be able to negotiate with their workers on how much the minimum wage should be. Alas! those in power have made restructuring to appear like rocket science. Election time is here, a lot of compromises are about to be made again to score cheap political points.
The federal government has announced that there will be some increment in wages this post-election year. The state governments will also reap from the aftermath. Hence, the current sheepish hands in gloves. How can you think of an increase when over 28 governors cannot even pay the current few coins? Asking a man who can’t N18,000 to pay N25, 000 or more amounts to playing to the gallery and in dare say that it is a project that will die in it’s prime.
Leading a complex society like Nigeria requires only common sense. Even if the minimum wage is jerked up to a hundred thousand per week, the masses number one enemy is ever ready to devour same before the worker gets home. This enemy is Mr. inflation. Until the foe is ferociously wrestled, we will continue to drift till we land on where Zimbabwe landed some years ago. Let the govt do the needful. Let there be a functional transport system, let there be massive investments in agriculture to crash the prices of foodstuffs, let there be power and industrialisation. This will crash the prices of household items,( needs), let there be a massive construction of housing that both those in the formal and informal sector can afford. If you do these and allow federalism to take its roots, whatever the minimum wage is will conveniently take the worker home. He or she could plan his life around his /her pay. Bribery and corruption will die a slow death. The status quo is a mere child’s play. Fixing the minimum wage from Abuja is like directing a father on the clothes he must buy for his wife and children for Christmas without asking him if he can foot the bill. The federal govt should stop playing to the gallery. Desperation to win elections should not becloud their sense of reasoning.
Comr. Okhifo Oscar is a public affairs commentator based in Abuja.