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THE STUNTED STRIKE

By NBF News
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Mercifully, the anticipated total paralysis never happened. Organised labour, Wednesday, suspended the three-day warning strike it declared to protest the foot-dragging by federal and state governments in implementing the new national minimum wage of N18, 000.To set the facts straight, labour had earlier pressed for N52, 000 before settling for N18, 000, which was reasonable enough. But for a whole year after reaching that agreement, the federal and state governments refused to act. They dragged and played for time, forcing labour to bay for blood, having run out of patience. Hence, they threatened to embark on a three-day warning strike, an action meant to make the president and his governors to sit up.

However, following the intervention by well-meaning Nigerians, including members of the National Assembly, and after a series of meetings, characterized by hard negotiations, labour announced the suspension Wednesday. In doing so, it advised President Goodluck Jonathan to expedite action on the vexed issue by laying the legal framework for the implementation of the new minimum wage.

In announcing the suspension, labour particularly commended Jonathan's 'humility' and 'the commitment of his administration to the implementation of minimum wage when passed into law.' But they berated the governors for they perceived as 'hypocrisy' in the matter. Labour's angst against the state executives is understandable. The governors and council chairmen had vigorously canvassed discriminatory wages for their employees, arguing that the earning capacities of the states differ. Their monthly allocations from the federation account (though staggering in most cases), and their internally generated revenue differ. Consequently, they foot-dragged, then swept the very important issue under the carpet for a whole year after reaching the agreement with labour.

Angered by that breach of faith, organized labour, like a dog pushed to the wall, decided to turn back and fight.

And fight the labour leaders almost did this week before they finally allowed overriding national interest to prevail. How patriotic.

While it may be true that most states may have been struggling to pay even the current minimum wage of N7,500, it is difficult to convince the ordinary Nigerian out there that he should not earn a living wage.

For so long, he has lived with a profligate political class. For so long, he has seen and convinced himself that we can achieve so much with so little, yet he is denied the very basic things of life. For so long, he has seen, and actually been told how rich his country gets every day with spiraling oil prices in the international market.

Yet, for so long, he has seen how governments in this country have persistently under-value labour. How they have consistently paid wages that cannot even take him home let alone sustain him and his family till the end of the month. Yet, he sees the colossal sums that the states glean from the federation account every month. Thanks to the Central Bank's laudable initiative in publishing the allocations in national newspapers for all to see.

Just this week, we were informed that the states have got well over N1 trillion so far this year. With some states getting over N100 billion, some N90 billion, aside their internally generated revenue, it would be extremely difficult to comprehend why the least paid worker in this country should earn below the irreducible minimum that labour is pressing for. While arguing its case for a strike, the Nigerian Labour Congress, NLC, computed the results of a survey that show that over the last one year, 'inflation has intensified with the cost of living index in the urban sector increasing by over 14 per cent. The disproportionate increase (20.9 percent) in the cost of food means that the erosion in the real wages and salaries of workers is alarmingly severe.'

The report also added that 'The process of monetizing and consolidating in-kind benefits which were hitherto not taxed has resulted in an escalation of the tax paid by workers. This has further depressed the real take home pay of workers.' It is difficult to fault that. In the face of skyrocketing prices of goods and services in the country, it would be wicked, if not ungodly, to expect that the current paltry N7, 500 minimum wage should subsist. Please, permit me to say this, at the risk of being immodest. By any measureable standard, I believe I'm above what you can call a middle-level income earner. Yet, I know what percentage of my income goes into feeding my family. I know how much I dole out every month as house keep allowance and how much I spend to fix other things.

If at my level, I feel the pinch of the ubiquitous 'market forces', how much more people whose total earnings do not exceed N10,000, N20,000 per month?

Very often, the Federal Ministry of Finance bombards us with figures of how much the economy has grown; how well our finances are faring. Yet, more and more people go to bed without food. Go to the streets and verify if this is just some fairy tale. As we speak, a bag of rice which, a few months back, cost between N7, 000 and N8, 000, now goes for between N9, 000 and N10, 000.

This is not to mention the rising cost ofother staple foodstuffs like garri, elubo (yam flour), yam tubers, potatoes, palm oil, groundnut oil, to mention just a few.

The pangs of inflation are not restricted to foods alone. The inflationary trends and their severe effects touch other areas of life. For instance, the cost of healthcare increases by the day. Ditto transportation. Commuters are at the whim of transporters who also must survive. Go to the services sector and watch people pay through their noses to get what should easily have been taken for granted were things normal and working well. The sum total of this is that the Nigerian worker is far worse that he was a couple of years back.

My submission here today is that our governments, both federal and the states, must stop taking workers for granted. The sweat of the workers oils the wheel of production and they must be adequately rewarded for their efforts. Our governments must demonstrate faith by sticking to whatever agreement they have reached with labour. Granting prudent management of the resources at their disposal, the governors should not have much hassle paying N18, 000 to the lowest paid worker. If they reduce wastes, reduce and plug the conduits for stealing, and shun prodigal acquisitions, prioritize their programmes and dump white elephant projects that add little value to society, then, they should not have problems paying the new minimum wage.

That way, they would guarantee industrial peace and harmony, and by extension, peace in the land.