The ‘cat and mouse’ on new minimum wage

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Dr. Chris Ngige, Minister for Labour and Productivity
By Ehichioya Ezomon
By Ehichioya Ezomon
ANOTHER May Day passed on Monday, May 1, 2017, without the Federal Government and the organized labour seeming to see eye-to-eye on the lingering issue of new minimum wage. Yet, this is a matter on which both sides should have read from the same page if proper consultations and genuine discussions were held prior to the day’s celebrations. What that bred was mutual suspicion on an epochal occasion.
  Absent such parleys, tempers flared, and the proceedings were disrupted by the union members, who were, first, displeased that neither President Muhammadu Buhari nor Vice President Yemi Osinbajo was present to address them, and second, considered it a condescension for the speech of the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, to be read by the ministry’s Acting Permanent Secretary, Mrs. Abiola Bawa. 
  Thus, boos, jeers and expletives, directed at the government and its officials, took over the arena. Intervention by labour leaders, Comrade Ayuba Wabba of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Comrade Bala Kaigama of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), and former Governor of Edo State and past president of the NLC, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, failed to control the highly-motivated, placard-waving and air-punching members, who chanted: “No! We need a new minimum wage” under the tropical heat of 38 degrees Celsius.
  But thank God for small mercies, and the maturity displayed by the security agents at the Eagle Square venue in Abuja, the situation would have been similar, if not worse than what occurred in many countries around the world, where skirmishes broke out between union members and security operatives.
  From the mood and readings leading up to the celebrations, the major issue agitating the Nigerian workers was government’s alleged lack of a definite position on the new minimum wage that could make the “take-home pay” to truly take one home.
  So, in Abuja (and across the country), they were not unmindful of the niceties of the events venue nor ungrateful to the presence of important dignitaries, including Senate President Bukola Saraki and House Speaker Yakubu Dogara, both heads of the National Assembly that’s primed for passage of any bill on the minimum wage.
  Actually, on the eve of the Workers’ Day, Mr. Dogara said the rising cost of living in the country necessitated the need to increase workers’ salary.
  “While commending you for your commitment to the service and building of the nation, I wish to assure you that the National Assembly remains committed to the passage of the National Minimum Wage Bill when presented by the executive,” Dogara said in a message to the unions.
  Similarly, the Deputy Senate President, Dr. Ike Ekweremadu, iterated his call for a N50,000 minimum wage for workers, echoing his demand while delivering the 4th National Public Service Lecture of the University of Ibadan Alumni Association early in the year.
  At that forum, he queried: “When a man, who earns N18,000, cannot buy a bag of rice, how then can such a person take care of his family? Does it make sense to him if you tell him not to find alternative means of catering to the needs of his family?”
  Again on May Day, Ekweremadu, in a goodwill message to the workers, said the nation could afford N50,000 minimum wage “through proper management of the economy and prudent expenditure by all levels of government.”
  “I felicitate with our workers, who toil day and night to move the nation forward. But we must collectively show the workers that we care beyond lip service. Importantly, it is high time we raised the minimum wage from N18,000 to N50,000,” he said.
  Apart from government’s repeated commitment to a new minimum wage, which has so far resulted in a joint committee with labour, the clamour for and assurances given by the legislature for a quick passage of a bill to that effect must have goaded the union members into action.
  With Senate President Saraki and Speaker Dogara seated there, and ostensibly willing them ‘we have your back,’ the unions needed to hear from the government, in an unambiguous tone, when and how it would establish the wage.
  Hence, they made some noise, which President Buhari said he “heard loud and clear,” especially as “the economic recession in the country has huge implication for the seamless conduct of industrial relations.”
  The president, through Labour Minister Ngige, acknowledged that economic recession, by its nature, is characterized by “a substantial risk of the vicious circles of low-productivity, mass retrenchment of workers and closure of workplaces due to high cost of doing business, unregulated subcontracting and outsourcing with its consequences on welfare of workers, among others.”
  For these reasons, he announced that the government would give expeditious consideration to the proposal contained in the Technical Committee’s Report submitted to it on April 6, 2017.
  “Government will take necessary steps to implement the final recommendation of the Main Government/Labour Committee as it relates to the setting up of the new National Minimum Wage Committee and the needed palliatives,” the president said, adding, “this is in order to reduce the discomfort currently being experienced by the Nigerian working class.”
  Well, like in a movie shoot, the government has rolled the film. What remains is action, which should not be long in coming now that it has admitted working with labour to form a committee on the minimum wage.
  However, while President Buhari called on the organized labour to continue to partner with his administration, “by resorting to social dialogue as an indispensable tool for conflict resolution,” the government must avoid moving from one committee to another, and shifting the goalpost till another May Day beckons.
  It’s only then that the president can truly proclaim that, “Today, we stand in solitary with workers all over the world, to commemorate this historic Day,” and “salute the (Nigerian) workers’ great sense of patriotism and loyalty to the country in the face of these inevitable challenges.”
  And labour should reciprocate government’s gesture by showing good faith, as only the two hands can wash both hands clean.
Mr. Ezomon, Journalist and Media Consultant, writes from Lagos, Nigeria.

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