MINIMUM WAGE AGITATION: TIME FOR MASS ACTIONS
MINIMUM WAGE AGITATION: TIME FOR MASS ACTIONS
By Chinedu Bosah
The minimum wage agitation is one that has generated so much interest amongst Nigerian workers, considering the fact that the wages currently earned can be best described as poverty wages. The issue has been characterized by conflicting stories from the government quarters and the media. This has confirmed the position being advocated by the DSM that without a determined mass struggle, the government will not willingly grant the new minimum wage.
For instance, contrary to a report that President Goodluck Jonathan was to announce a new minimum wage for workers on July 1 2010, the Minister of State for Finance Mr. Remi Babalola was reported to have said that the new minimum wage to be expected will only cover workers in tertiary institutions as agreed with government last year (2009), but with a caveat that other categories of workers will subsequently enjoy the same salary increment later.
Also the Chief Executive of the Salaries and Wages Commission, Richard Egbule, who had on April 13, 2010 in Abuja said that the Federal Government could not afford to increase workers’ salary at this time, was later reported in Punch of July 9, 2010 to have said that the government had released a circular that suggests that as from July 2010, the new minimum wage of N17,000 would be implemented for federal civil service workers. But till date, there has been no official announcement of when the new minimum wage will take effect.
At present, workers earn a minimum wage of N5500/N7500. The President of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), Peter Esele, at the 2010 May Day celebration in Abuja, announced N18,000 as a figure agreed with government by Labour leaders. But this was roundly rejected by workers as this figure is a far cry from the N52, 200 being officially demanded by Labour since December 2008. Besides, the workers realized that with inflationary trends and ever increasing cost of living, N18,000 or N17,000 is paltry. There is also a feeling of injustice when the figure is compared with the outrageous, jumbo pay of the political office holders. Provocatively, as at press time, the House of Representative members who earn N27 million per quarter (9 million per month) as constituency allowance are agitating to increase it to N42 million per quarter (14 million per month).
Although, it is still inadequate in the face of harsh economic realities and Labour’s original demand, N17,000 minimum wage is a small victory that needs to be consolidated upon through agitations and mass action in order to extend the victory to all workers irrespective of their employer and to be increased periodically until a living wage is achieved. It must also be stressed that no worker must lose his/her job on account of the new minimum wage.
The last one decade of the civil rule has witnessed huge job loses in spite of the increase in the oil wealth of the country. For example, according to Prof. Sam Aluko, between 1999 and 2007, the governments, both federal and state, banks and insurance companies have sacked about 4.8 million Nigerians, most of whom are from the civil service. These figures were somewhat buttressed by Mr. Stephen Oronsaye, the Head of Civil Service of the Federation, who was reported in the Business Day of June 21, 2010, to have disclosed that the federal government have retrenched no fewer than 42,000 civil servants lately. Yet, government has made over N34 trillion in revenue for the period between (1999-2009).
This has simply shown that whatever concession government and private sector employers grant is not sustainable since it comes with attacks in forms of retrenchment, inflation, increase in taxes and cuts in public spending.
The past experiences have also shown that most states, if not all and private sector employers would refuse to pay the new minimum wage after the federal government starts to implement it. Already, many state governments have warned that they are not duty bound on the basis of federalism to implement whatever the federal government agrees with NLC/TUC. This is a fraudulent argument. The Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC), a federal government agency, determines wages and allowances for political office holders without recourse to federalism. It is only when it comes to increment in worker wages that all types of ploy are employed to defeat it. This has always been the pattern. For instance, after the federal government agreed to N7,500 minimum wage in year 2000, many states refused to pay while those who agreed only conceded to N5,500 after strikes and other mass actions by workers. Indeed, in Lagos the struggle led to the sack of Ayodele Akele and other trade union activists who led the struggle against the then Bola Tinubu state government.
The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) has issued an ultimatum to the government to implement the new minimum wage on or before the end of September, in line with recommendations of the tripartite committee on minimum wage, or face a series of protests and industrial unrest (Guardian, August 9, 2010).
This is a positive step and indeed, long overdue. It is 18 months now since the NLC first demanded N52, 200. The elements in government, at all levels, have proved again and again that they are not interested in ameliorating the lots of workers and poor masses. It is only mass actions of workers with the support of pro-masses’ organizations and the public which could force the government to concede to a living wage for workers. Therefore, to ensure that government takes this ultimatum seriously and not seen as usual hot puffs, labour should immediately begin a process for concrete actions like leaflets, posters, symposia, rallies, mass meeting and building of action committees at workplaces and mobilization of support from pro-masses’ organizations and the public in preparation for a warning strike as a first step after the expiration of the ultimatum. It is also imperative for the NLC and TUC to work in together for the prosecution of the struggle. Already, there is a platform of Labour and Civil Society Coalition (LASCO) to carry out such joint actions. It should also be stressed that the Labour must always add to the demand for the new minimum wage the need for a regular increase in wages in line with the rate of inflation. Moreover, there must be a clause that no worker loses his/her job on the account of the new minimum wage, and Labour must be prepared to defend this.
An important lesson from the Labour leaders’ long delay in starting to fight for the N52,200 demand is the need to ensure that there is a mass movement from below that either forces these leaders to struggle or prepares the way for new activists and leaders who will struggle. This is vital as the battle for a living wage is, in many ways, also a political struggle.
More importantly, the labour leaders must realize that it is counter productive both in the short and the long run to have the same government who unleash neo-liberal attacks on the working people to remain in power and expect the gains or concessions won to remain without being eroded. Therefore, the struggle of the working people for concessions like improvement in wages should be linked with the overall struggle to wrest political power from the thieving capitalist ruling elite with the aim of forming a working people’s government that will mobilize the resources of the society for the provision of basic needs like education, health care, water, decent jobs, decent housing and infrastructure like electricity and roads. To sustain such program on a lasting basis, it will require public ownership of the commanding heights of economy with democratic management and control of the working people along a comprehensive socialist programme and policies.