The Nigeria Labour Congress insists on a nationwide strike following the expiration of the ultimatum it issued to government over the new minimum wage
For Emeka Wogu, minister of labour and productivity, the events of this week Thursday may very well serve as a litmus test. As a returnee minister to the labour and productivity ministry, Wogu is not new to industrial unrests.
But as the two-week ultimatum issued by the leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC for the full implementation of the new national minimum wage expires Thursday, Wogu may just need to do something more than the ordinary to prevent a shutdown of the nation’s economy.
And he appears to be confident. Shortly after he was sworn in as minister, Wogu told journalists in Abuja that he is used to the labour movement in Nigeria and would find means of engaging them to ensure that a nationwide strike action is averted.
Perhaps to make good his promise, Wogu, in what appears to be his first official duty visited the leadership of the NLC in Abuja last week Monday. In the course of the visit, Wogu appealed to labour leaders to give government more time to implement the new minimum wage structure as specified by the Minimum Wage Act.
However, if statements emanating from labour leaders and civil society groups are anything to go by, this effort may not succeed in averting a nationwide strike. And the reason for this is not far-fetched. To start with, three months after the new Minimum Wage Act, which makes it compulsory for all employers of labour – public and private – to pay a minimum wage of N18,000 per month, was signed into law, federal government is yet to produce a table for its implementation through the Salaries and Wages Commission.
Owei Lakemfa, assistant secretary-general, NLC, gave an insight: “From all indications, it is obvious that governments at all levels are dilly-dallying over the payment of the new minimum wage. If truly they are sincere, how come they have not prepared the payment template? It has been three months since the National Minimum Wage (Amendment) Act 2011, was signed into law, and since then, we have come to the sad realisation that no level of government has implemented the law, be it federal, state or local governments.”
Indeed Section 2(1) of the Authentication Act, CAP. A2, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria states that “as from the commencement of this Act, it shall be the duty of every employer (except as provided for under the Principal Act as amended) to pay a wage not less than the national minimum wage of N18,000 per month to every worker under his establishment.” Now three months after, the implementation has met a brick wall.
State governors were the first to fan the embers of discord. Though they were part of the negotiations that produced the new Minimum Wage Act, state governors have now turned round to argue that they would not be able to meet up with the new wage bill. Led by Chibuike Amaechi, Rivers State governor and chairman of Nigerian Governors’ Forum, the governors rose from their meeting to insist that they would be unable to pay the new minimum wage except the revenue sharing formula is reviewed. They also went further to argue that government might need to remove fuel subsidy in order to meet the demands of the new wage.
Some of the state governors have also gone ahead to attempt to break the ranks of the labour movement. For instance, the labour in Ondo State now appears set on a collision course with the national leadership of the NLC. Whereas the Ondo chapter of the NLC had agreed to a N14,000 minimum wage with Olusegun Mimiko, the state governor, national leadership of the NLC has disowned this agreement insisting that it is illegal for anyone to negotiate the law.
“The purported agreement between the Ondo State government and a handful of labour leaders is without the support of the authority of NLC,” Lakemfa said. He added that for the leaders to “enter into an agreement that seeks to subvert the law of the country is a criminal conspiracy and these handful of labour leaders do not in any sense represent workers.” Lakemfa described the actions of the Ondo NLC leadership as a betrayal of trust while advising “state governors that seek to compromise labour leaders in their states in order to circumvent minimum wage should stop wasting taxpayers money on such frivolities.”
On his part, Abdulwaheed Omar, NLC president, has also been talking tough. Said he: “The Governors’ Forum in a show of reckless insensitivity to the plight of the Nigerian people have introduced strange elements into the scene, geared at subverting the process. Firstly, the issue of new revenue allocation formula, which requires constitutional amendment to achieve, has been touted to be condition precedent to implementation of the minimum wage. We find this laughable and completely unacceptable, as the law is clear and unambiguous. All stakeholders were party to the formulation of the law and we know of a fact that they can pay the N18,000 minimum wages.”
He added: “The sadistic introduction of the oil subsidy argument, is essentially asking government to increase the prices of petroleum products and further impoverish the mass of the people.” He, on behalf of the labour movement, said “we reject this, and state unequivocally that there can be no conditionality for payment of the new minimum wage.”
The labour leaders have a supporter in Itse Sagay, renowned professor of Law and Senior Advocate of Nigeria. The erudite lawyer said it is unconstitutional for government at all levels to now rescind payment of the new minimum wage after it had been signed into law. “They have no choice on this matter. It is high time they realised that the payment of the new wage is a legal issue and they must adhere to it,” Sagay said.
On the call for review of revenue allocation formula, the professor insisted that such argument should not arise since the governors had been part of the tripartite agreement reached during the negotiation. “Did they not all agree to pay the new minimum wage of N18,000? Did they not consult widely before reaching the agreement? Were they not aware of what comes into their coffers before agreeing on that amount? It is high time they realised that they cannot continue to take us for a ride. They must pay the agreed amount,” Sagay said.
Agreeing with Sagay, Peter Esele, president-general, Trade Union Congress, TUC, said, these are some of the reasons why this week’s industrial action will go on as planned. He explained that as soon as the ultimatum expires, “the National Executive Council of the NLC will meet and decide on what form the action will take. It may decide to shut down the airspace, it may call those in the oil and gas sector to close shop, or call for a sit-at-home for all workers both in private and public sector.”
Lakemfa is also definite that the strike action will go on as planned. The labour leader says he could not see any miracle government will perform between now and the expiration of the ultimatum. “They had a whole three months to come to a concrete decision, they have not put into motion plans to carry out the payment, no template has been fashioned out as to when and how they want to pay. So it is obvious that government is not sincere or ready for the minimum wage to be paid. So it leaves us no choice than to call for a shut down of the economy,” he said.
In spite of the labour leaders’ tough stance, Wogu is not giving up. Aside from visiting the leadership of the NLC in Abuja last week, the minister is also planning to visit the Lagos leadership of the NLC this week as part of efforts to avert the strike action. Whether that will be sufficient to make the labour movement back down on its decision or not remains a question only time will tell.