By NBF News

Nigerians are tired of the lingering feud between the Federal Government and the organised labour unions over the payment of the N18,000 minimum monthly wage. They want President Goodluck Jonathan and the state governors to implement the 2011Wage Act without delay and allow the country to move on.

Labour unions under the aegis of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC), had threatened to embark on a three-day warning strike on July 21 to press home their readiness in getting the Federal Government implement the Wage Act. But the Federal Government, through its high powered delegation, on July 19, rallied to douse the tension by dragging labour to a negotiation desk.

In attendance on the government side at that meeting were Senator Anyim Pius Anyim, Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Chief Emeka Wogu, Minister of Labour, and Prof. O. A. Afolabi, Head of the Civil Service of the Federation. On the side of labour were Comrade Abdulwahed Ibrahim Omar, President, NLC and Comrade Peter Esele, President, Trade Union Congress.

Daily Sun gathered that in that meeting, various decisions were reached. The meat of it was the Federal Government's agreement to comply with the New National Minimum Wage (Amendment) Act 2011. It was on the basis of that, that labour resolved to suspend the three-day warning strike across the country.

On the same July 19, the organised labour met the Nigerian Governor's Forum (NGF), headed by Governor Chibuike Amaechi of Rivers State.

The meeting closed after both parties had agreed that 'the 36 states of the federation would comply with the new National Minimum Wage (Amendment) Act, 2011.' The implementation of the agreement, it was decided, would not be later that August 1, 2011, provided that any worker who earned less than the N18,000 between  April 1 and the effective date of the implementation of the new minimum wage shall be paid in arrears of the difference.'

Having come thus far, many Nigerians heaved a sigh of relief, believing that lasting peace had been achieved and catastrophe averted in the labour sector even in the interim. But how wrong they were! Many were jolted when NLC Deputy President, Kiri Mohammed, in a press statement in Abuja on July 28, alerted the country that the Federal Government delegation had refused to 'discuss or negotiate the three scenarios presented by the Joint Federal Government- Labour Technical Committee' appointed to seek lasting solution to the lingering problems.

With this fog of uncertainty hanging in the air, there is the growing fear that labour is bound to return to the trenches. But what no one knows yet is the nature of war it is going to wage next.

Now the question many people are asking is: how did everyone get close to this cesspit which is increasing looking like the black hole in which the country might plunge itself?

Peter Obukese Orere, Secretary General of the Senior Staff Association of Banks, Insurance and Financial Institutions (ASSBIFI) said: 'Initially, we didn't ask for N18, 000 as minimum wage.

In 2008, labour made a lot of comparison, a lot of calculations taking into consideration that for a family of four to live a fairly decent life, it needed to survive on a monthly income of N52, 200. So we made this proposition to the government. In 2009, government set up a tripartite committee comprising government, labour and the civil society to look into the proposition. One time Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Karibi White headed that committee.  After a series of meetings and considerations, the committee arrived at N18, 000 as minimum wage for Nigerian workers. In pure deep sympathy with the government, labour accepted this. Government position was, 'why are you moving from the current N5, 000 minimum wage' and therefore advocated that the increment be made gradual.

'Then we faced another hurdle: having to legalise the proposed N18, 000.  We had to go through the National Assembly. At the end of the day, the National Assembly passed it and in March 2011, President Goodluck Jonathan signed it into law. So we had the New National Minimum Wage Act, 2011. But at a time we are thinking that both the federal and state governments will start implementation of the act, no one wants to pay.'

Indeed, it has been a mixed bag for various states. While some of them have consented to start implementation of the Act, some others are vehemently opposed to it. For instance, the Kwara State government, through its Head of Service, Alhaji Dabarako Mohammed, has agreed to pay the minimum wage beginning from August, although it claimed it required about N250m to do that. On the other hand, some other states have also indicated their readiness to comply with the provisions of the act. However, Niger and Benue States have claimed they can't pay even if their workers go on strike for the next one year.

'We don't know what those state governments are trying to do,' Obukese wondered. 'But what they fail to realise is that the New Minimum Wage is a law. It is no longer an act. I expect that once a bill is passed and signed by the president, it is a law which must be obeyed.'

He dismissed suggestions that labour would go to court to press for its rights, saying 'we have our own ways of pressurising anybody to do what we want to do because the law has given us more powers to do so. If the powers that be fail to listen to us, labour is not going to fall back; it will continue the struggle until it realises its goals.'

Explaining how the N18, 000 would be utilised by workers, Obukese said: 'If I'm paid N18, 000 as minimum monthly salary, I'm not going to cook the money in a pot and eat it. When labour initially proposed N52, 000 as monthly wage, we had calculated what the beneficiaries will do with the money. The worker who receives the wage is going to ensure that it gets to everybody.

He has to feed, rent a house, among other things. I tell you something, he will ensure that he spreads it among so many people. If a worker does not earn money, how does he give (buy) from the woman out there in the market selling fish? The woman will rot with her fish because workers have no money to buy it. If I earn more, I will be able to give to people who are hoping to get something from me.'

Obukese's later entry appears to run contrary to speculations that with more money in the hands of workers, the wind of inflation would descend on the land like locusts and that market men and women would jerk up prices of food items and take the money away from them.

But Mrs. Regina Onyeka, Secretary General of Food Stuff Dealers Association in Ode-Eran Market in Itire area of Lagos disagreed. Rather she applauded the proposed move to empower the working class, contending that the effort would empower everyone. 'The idea of increasing workers' salary is a wise decision. When workers have money to buy our goods, we sell to them and make our own profit. But if they have no money to pay for food, we will not sell. It is as simple as that.

When there is no money in the economy, we simply sit down and look.' Asked if the market men and women were already expecting to make a kill from the proposed increase in workers' pay, she said: 'We don't do that in our market. We don't increase prices for the fun of it. Price increases are determined by market forces. The moment our suppliers raise their prices we too adjust our own to be able to make some profit.'

It was envisioned that some self employed Nigerians would show disgust and disappointment with the proposed wage increase since they stand to benefit nothing it. But a self employed graduate of graphic arts, Gerald Eke, who runs a business, Fitz Gee Concepts Ltd, in Surulere area of Lagos, applauded the move.

He told our correspondent: 'It is something every worker needs considering the cost of living in Nigeria at the moment. Everything in Nigeria now - feeding, rent, transport fares is on the rise. To be honest with you, even the N18, 000 they are talking about is grossly inadequate for an average worker. Government should do something for them fast.'

He regretted that agitation for salary increases in the country had become a recurring decimal and blamed the government for failing to provide basic infrastructure, which would stabilise the economy.

'If government can provide basic infrastructure and improve on the facilities we have, no one will be crying for salary increase. But the problem is that these things are not there. As an ordinary Nigerian, you do everything virtually for yourself - provide water, generate your own power; you fuel your generating sets both at home and in the office. It is even more worrisome when we hear that our government officials and law makers are earning mega salaries, leaving the masses to their fate.

It is sad.'
Beyond the struggle for the implementation of the minimum wage, the question many are asking is, what implication does this portend for the country's economy? Dr. Yekini Elujoba, a development economist, asserts that it is the only option open to both labour and government.

While explaining the need for the wage increase, he said: 'The problem with the proposed minimum wage is not in the amount payable. Even before the amount is approved, it is already eroded by the rate of inflation. This is because the inflation in the country is moving at a rate faster than the proposed amount.

'Wage increase is both a periodical and a recurring exercise and the reason is simple. Right now, the N18, 000 workers are asking for is even below the equilibrium wage for every worker. The equilibrium wage is one that will satisfy the need of the worker. The wage will be the supply and the demand the basic need of the worker.'

The University of Lagos don, however, noted that both labour and government are approaching the issues wrongly. 'We are not getting things right because as it is, we are simply addressing the supply of wages. 'We are not looking at the factors that affect the demand for wages. That is the explanation. So, we have to look at those factors that affect wages and address them. Right now, we are merely looking at the symptoms of the disease and trying to cure it. But we are not looking at the disease itself. We are supposed to look at the disease and uproot it.

'In other lands, people don't always ask for wage increases because the welfare of the people is guaranteed by the system. But here, it does not appear to be so. Therefore, for any government to say it will not pay the minimum wage will be highly illegitimate because the minimum amount available to each state government for instance, by our calculation, every year is N13b per month. No government is spending more than N3.4b per month on recurrent expenditure.

Now where is the difference?
'The annoying thing about it all is that the money allocated to the office of one governor per month is far higher than the entire wage bill of the state. So, where do we go from there?

'Left to me, the appropriate minimum wage for workers in the country today should be N45, 000. This, I know, will only serve as a palliative measure because as I see things, in another two years, labour will come back demanding for another wage increase.'

Dr Elujoba's prediction was confirmed by the ASSBFI scribe, Obukese, who gave indications that labour was not happy with the proposed N18, 000 mark. He said: 'If governments start paying from August 1, it will not be a big deal. Don't forget that our calculation and expectations were based on N52, 000. If federal and state governments pay us N18, 000, do they expect us to be happy? We will take it and say, okay we will come back.'

What the whole scenario leaves every Nigerian is that the last has not yet been heard about demands for wage increase and labour-government face off in the country. For now, it is as it is said in labour circles, aluta continua. However, the point remains that many Nigerian will continue to get caught in the crossfire. Where then does the country go from here?