The leadership of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) has said that workers across the country will, from tomorrow, embark on yet another strike over the issue of a new minimum wage. Despite setting up a 30-member tripartite committee to negotiate a new minimum wage in December last year, the government failed to offer a proposal acceptable to the organised labour. Of a truth, workers remain a catalyst for growth and development, notwithstanding the steady rise of technology-driven processes, and should never be trifled with. However, the albatross which the struggle for a new national minimum wage has become could have been averted if Nigerian leaders had trodden the path of honour and righted the deliberate wrong symbolised by the existing federal structure.
Sadly, rather than muster the political will to institute a just and equitable political system, successive Nigerian leaders have sustained the current weird contraption through brutal force, dubious legal frameworks and convoluted processes. The consequent virtual collapse or ineffectiveness of key institutions has hampered national growth, integration and harmony, as well fostering a credibility crisis in governance. The primary objectives of a minimum wage are to boost the morale of workers, raise their standard of living and reduce poverty and inequality. Many countries have legislation prescribing minimum wage, with some caveats. It can be graduated or flexible based on the capacity of constituent states in a congruous arrangement like a federation.
The big question which the government, the organised labour, the private sector and other employers of labour ought to bother themselves about is not just how much workers should earn but what it can buy. The new minimum wage should be about the purchasing power vis-a-viz the emasculating economic climate that seems to defy all theories and solutions.The government, in particular, should be concerned about the spiraling inflation, low level of production and productivity, bloated workforce and moribund industries and institutions and the lack of political will to tame corruption and sleaze in the country. All should be worried about how to further reduce the cost of governance and make leaders truly accountable to the people.
Undoubtedly, the indefinite strike which begins tomorrow over the failure of the concerned parties to reach a compromise on a new minimum wage underlines the fundamental issues inherent in the present quasi-federal arrangement. As critical stakeholders in the Nigerian project, workers ought to be at the vanguard of the struggle and campaign for restructuring to make Nigerians reclaim their patrimony and country. The workers are among the direct victims of the existing fraudulent arrangement and ought to collaborate with other stakeholders to restore fiscal federalism, as it is only such a system that will allow labour to negotiate an appropriate minimum wage for its members, taking cognizance of the varying capacity and capability of the states to pay.
Most of the present 36 states in the country are still experiencing difficulties in paying the existing N18,000 minimum wage. In fact, some are reportedly paying a lower wage. In a restructured Nigeria, states can decide to go beyond a minimum wage benchmark as obtained in other democracies where there is room for flexibility. Though strike remains a legitimate weapon for labour to press for workers’ needs after exhausting all avenues for negotiation, workers should never go on strike in defiance of court orders. That is sheer lawlessness. Besides, the labour leadership must rise above mere tokenism and collaborate in the struggle to institute a workable and enduring political system. During the First Republic, workers in the then Western Region earned higher than their counterparts at the centre. The autonomy enjoyed by the regions allowed the constituent units to develop at their individual pace, harness their resources and allocate them based on the peculiar needs of their immediate environment.
The earning power and resources will always differ across board. We believe that whatever compromise labour might extract from the government in the interim might not stand the test of time given the trajectory of the existing national minimum wage and the complexity of the Nigerian society. The country needs more than a cosmetic approach to issues. It needs an enduring institution founded on a just and equitable system.