Politics of National Minimum Wage

By Charles Onyeagba

Once more, Nigeria is enmeshed in a palaver over a National Minimum Wage. A Minimum Wage, by the way, is a legally set minimum amount below which an employer of labour may not pay his employee. It is supposed to be a product of negotiation by a tripartite committee of government, other employers and workers representatives. Government is represented by officials from the Federal and State levels. Other Employers are usually represented by the National Employers Consultative Assembly (NECA) whose membership is not encompassing. Workers, otherwise known as Labour are represented by the Trade Unions through their Central Labour Organization(s) viz the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the United Labour Congress (ULC). The Revenue Mobilization, Fiscal and Allocation Commission (RMFAC) and the Salaries and Wages Review Commission are supposed to be technical partners to this Committee which is usually headed by the Federal Minister of Labour.

Above, approximates to the Committee which fixes the salaries and wages of the workforce. It is yet to be clearly known who, when and how the huge salaries and other benefits enjoyed by the ‘other workers’ of the same Governments ie the politicians, are fixed. And while the earlier scenario usually involves a protracted, rancorous, disputation often in the public domain, the later is usually conjectured and rarely published.

Nevertheless, the final outcome of the negotiations, are expected to be applicable to all wage earners after being passed into law. In reality, only the Federal Government and some States actually comply.

By far, the, most successful wage review in the country since Independence, was the Jerome Udoji Salary and Wages Review Commission which produced the Udoji Unified Salary Scales (USS) or the Udoji Awards of 1974. It was very comprehensive, and, compared to subsequent Wage Reviews, was epochal and well thought through. It made provisions for periodic reviews, adjustments for inflation and recognized wages as inalienable compensation, a fruit of labour and an equitable share of profits of Companies.

These characteristics could be ascribed to its makers and to its period in history when the military with their Decrees held sway and were yet to be overly politicized under General Yakubu Gowon. The politicization of most governance processes concretised under the era of General Ibrahim Babangida who commenced sectoral dislocation of the USS and began the trend that led to various salary scales currently competing to outdo each other in vain attempts to get as much as the politicians were getting.

Further attempts to review salaries and fix a new national minimum wage became largely academic and unsuccessful. The reasons were not far to seek. State creation exercises carried out by the military were short sighted and atavistic. It sought to achieve parity, between regions or punish peoples without due consideration to viability or consequences as varied interests sought to carve out petty enclaves in which to exercise local sovereignty and as a footstool to the national cake. Brazen mismanagement and misappropriation of common resources led to the emergence of a new class of the super rich who, either became politicians, funded politics and thereafter began to dictate the tune to everybody that mattered.

These gave rise to the entrenchment of godfatherism and, as the gap between the Haves and Have-nots widened, it became easier to exploit the latter who became ready tools in the hands of the former. It was classic feudalism and unemployment held sway. Citizens, including workers accepted pittance to keep body and soul together.

Meanwhile, following the return to ‘Democracy’, the nouveau riche acquired and clung to political power by hook and crook and ensured inequitable distribution of resources, horizontally or laterally.

Finding themselves as the new helmsmen in power, and bothered by the strident demands of Labour which was turning into an opposition party of sorts, they metamorphosed into Governors Forum, et al, whose only credential was the constitutionally provided-for Freedom to Assemble. They went ahead to muscle all opposition beginning with attempts to break the ranks of Labour. Labour was split into ‘senior and junior’ under President Olusegun Obasanjo. Police permits were demanded for protest marches irrespective of the same Freedom to Assemble. No work, no pay threats, even Court injunctions, manifested.

As these went on in vain attempts to deny the workers a minimum, not even a living wage, they proceeded with their co-travellers in this iniquity present in all the Assemblies, Federal and State, to award themselves jumbo salaries and perquisites of office which defied all logic and which none dared to question. It was such that even former opponents to this incredulity who somehow found themselves in these ‘hallowed chambers’ suddenly developed lockjaw and willy-nilly scooped up the windfall.

It became their unwritten code to self-appropriate tens of millions of Naira at the National Assembly per month and pittance, eighteen thousand Naira per month to the ‘five percent’ workforce. They kept doing this without qualms despite their serial mismanagement of the economy. They had immuned themselves from inflationary pressures, some from prosecution while in office while most ensured that even if they were eventually prosecuted, they had resources to frustrate any such move ad infinitum until it atrophied with time.

Politics ensured that salary reviews came to nothing, that the senior citizens’ pension reviews and adjustments are not attended to. They talk about inability to pay the workforce, past and present when they ensure that the polity had ability to fund their extravagance in ‘security votes’, bloated, badly executed contracts, constituency allowances, oversight functions, paddings etc, etc.

Lately, they have created a third Labour Centre hoping somehow that the contention that led to its emergence may split Labour. But Solidarity, which makes Labour strong has instead fortified it with the Civil Society component during its just struggles. Aside from politicizing, and bastardizing wage reviews, they have infiltrated the Civil Service. Bankers now work as Government revenue staff while Professors abandon the classrooms to become politicians so as to join the fray. Of course they scoop from the common patrimony, and with impunity.

And Labour. The workforce may soon lose faith with their Leadership who now appear to be all bombast and seem to be playing games with their demands. The lifestyles of many labour leaders tend to confirm that the politicization, has come full circle as was predicted by a member of the Governors Forum in 2007 when he claimed that he had found an antidote to the menace of Labour. He demonstrated this by refusing to implement the subsisting minimum wage as legislated, including arrears of Salaries, Pensions and Allowances. For an icing on the cake, Labour gave him an award as the ‘Most Labour friendly Governor in the Country’.

Onyeagba, former chairman of NLC in Anambra State, writes from Awka