THE NEW MINIMUM WAGE: HOW TO FIGHT AND WIN
THE NEW MINIMUM WAGE: HOW TO FIGHT AND WIN
Apparently to underline its commitment to secure a new minimum wage for workers, the National Executive Council of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), on March 10, issued a 21-day ultimatum to the government “to open discussion with it on the proposed N52,200 new minimum wage”. Members of the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), who had for a long time been campaigning for a decent/living wage for ordinary workers, wholeheartedly welcome this development. However, we wish to seriously warn that the entire labour movement needs to be prepared for a protracted and intensive mass action if the workers are to really win a new minimum wage that would not be accompanied with the usual job massacre by the capitalist ruling elite.
To start with, we strongly urge labour not to put any iota of hope in government taking positive steps to open discussion now with it on this very vital issue. Serious negotiation with government will only take place if labour takes action, or poses a serious threat of action that forces government’s hand. Predictably of course, the government would not take any concrete steps in this direction until a day or two before the expiration of this ultimatum. Even if such a step is taken, from past experience, government would do no more than inviting labour to a purported dialogue with usually low level officials or officials with little or no capacity to take decision on the matter in contention, one or two days before the expiration of labour’s ultimatum! This explains the reason why the Yar’Adua government completely neglected and or failed to take any positive step to meet labour’s original demand in this respect despite the fact that the NLC had first raised the demand for a new minimum wage over three months ago.
While the NLC leaders have issued an ultimatum calling on government “to open discussion with it”, key officials and departments of the Yar’Adua capitalist government have already started making statements that clearly show that nothing positive can come out of the expected negotiation by the labour leaders. Historically, all over the world and particularly in Nigeria, capitalist elements and their ideologues had always resisted the demand for a living minimum wage by the working class. In periods of economic boom, capitalist elites usually oppose demands for wage increments using the pretext that such would herald an unbridled inflationary trend. Conveniently, most capitalist ideologues would never raise in that kind of situation the other side of the argument that low wages mean poor demands for goods and services, which invariably always lead to mass retrenchment of workers. But, even on the occasions when some capitalist economists argue for an increase in wages to boost demand, this call comes into conflict with the capitalists’ drive for profits.
In period of economic recession or bust like that which exists now, the capitalists are always quick to plead lack of sufficient funds to implement general wage increment without resorting to mass retrenchment of workers. Thus, head or tail, it is the ordinary workers that will continue to bear the brunt of the greedy pursuit of profit and opulent life styles of the ruling elite as long as capitalism dominates society. Therefore, labour leaders need to go beyond what the capitalist and their ideologues say if they are determined to win a lasting new minimum wage for workers.
Four days after the NLC ultimatum in issue, officials of the Federal Ministry of Finance and Central Bank of Nigeria had openly come out to say that an increment in workers’ minimum wage is not feasible at this time, as it would take a huge toll on the country’s economy. According to Ibrahim Nikau, the Deputy Director of Human Resources in the Ministry of Finance, the payment of N30, 000 each will cost Federal Government alone N1.3 trillion, an amount which he says constitutes 75% of the national budget. But Nikau and other top government functionaries do not see anything wrong or unrealistic for just 17, 747 political office holders to collect annually almost the same amount – N1.3 trillion in addition to their characteristic looting of public funds.
At the peak of the international economic boom that has just ended, Nigeria’s main income earner â€“ crude oil â€“ was selling at $147 per barrel. Today, a barrel of crude oil is sold for about $40 and this price can still even fall further. Empirically speaking therefore, government already has an unassailable “truth” to back its opposition to general wage increment on the ground that the economy cannot afford it. However, this empirical “truth” could only confuse anyone that is not prepared to think of solutions to workers and poor peoples’ problem beyond what capitalism can afford. In addition, this empirical “truth” can only sway or confuse only those that have forgotten or prepared to forget Nigeria’s recent past history. For record purpose however, when in Nigeria’s recent past, hundreds of billions of dollars were earned from crude oil sales, little or nothing of this huge sum was spent to improve the living standards of the masses and or on vital socio-economic needs and infrastructures. Most of the stupendous resources earned in this period were simply looted and or frittered away on white elephant projects by top government officials and their capitalist contractors/mentors. Therefore, whatever is the state of the economy at any point in time, the capitalist elite would always block or oppose general wage increment and improved living standard of the masses because such a policy is always regarded as an attack on their own unjustifiable opulence and profits.
WHAT IS TO BE DONE
In demanding and fighting for a new minimum wage of N52,200, labour leaders must firmly stand on the premise that the labouring masses, who benefited little or nothing from the recent oil boom, must not now be made to pay for the cost of oil bust. While there has been a sharp contraction in the revenues accruing to the government, at the same time, prices of all basic food items and related needs in areas of education, healthcare, housing, transportation, etc have dramatically surged up in the recent weeks. This fact alone underlines the urgency of an increment in the minimum wage being paid to ordinary workers. Failure to fight and win the new minimum wage will be tantamount to condemning the vast majority of Nigerian working people into a permanent state of poverty.
The situation is serious. In our March 10 2009 statement against oil sector deregulation and privatisation we had pointed out: “At the end of February the United Nations’ Habitat organisation reported that while in 1996 the poverty rate in Nigeria was 46 per cent it had now sky-rocketed to 76 per cent. At virtually the same time the Federal Government’s own Bureau of Statistics reported that 40 million Nigerians are unemployed, that’s a 65 per cent unemployment rate among employable Nigerians. Remember these woeful figures do not take account of the miseries that the world capitalist crisis can inflict, they were collected while the oil prices were at record highs!” These figures illustrate why N52, 200 is so urgent.
However, objectively speaking, Nigeria is so stupendously rich in human and natural resources. Right now, only one of its major mineral resources â€“ crude oil â€“ is supporting the entire economy. But such is the depth of the level of capitalists’ insensitivity to the needs of vast majority in the country that only 1% of the country’s population is consuming 80% of all the proceeds being generated from crude oil exportation. For example, while the minimum wage for workers at state and federal is between N5,500 and N11,000 respectively, each of the 109 senators gets N28 million a year, each of the 360 members of the House of Representatives get N22 million per annum. This is apart from tens of millions of naira being paid as travel allowance, constituency allowance and numerous other perks being paid to each member of the National Assembly. Suffice to note, government officials at states and local governments level earn fabulous salaries and allowances like the members of the National Assembly.
A determined struggle can win gains. What should not happen again is a repeat of the many unfortunate experiences since 2000 of the labour leaders beginning mobilisation and sometimes calling strikes, only to quickly agree to a rotten compromise. A serious mobilisation of the working people could win N52, 200. But so long as the capitalist system remains the ruling class will immediately seek to take back what they have been forced to give.
Consequently, if labour leaders are not armed with democratic socialist programmes and perspectives that go beyond what the unjust capitalism can offer, there will not be a permanent improvement in the lives of working peoples. In this respect, if the commanding heights of the economy including banks and oil sectors are nationalized and placed under the democratic management and control of the working people, the country would not only be in a comfortable position to pay a minimum wage of N52,200, but in fact, be in a position to rapidly transform Nigeria from its present level of capitalist under-development and dead end into a prosperous and thriving economy. If Nigeria’s stupendous human and natural resources are collectively being planned and geared towards meeting the basic needs of people and youth for employment, education, housing, healthcare, etc, the current atmosphere of de-industrialisation and massive jobs massacre will rapidly become a thing of the past. However, to be able to achieve this kind of goal would require removing from powers, the capitalist vampires who presently hold the society down. As we in the DSM have often repeatedly argued, only a democratic socialist government of the workers and the general poor can implement this kind of programme. Therefore, labour leaders need to completely abandon their futile, utopian idea of wishing to better the lots of the working masses without confronting and ultimately defeating the capitalist politically.
At the time of issuing the current ultimatum, the NLC leaders pledged to embark on mass mobilizations of workers and civil societies respectively. Sadly however, little or nothing has been done in this respect. Instead of coming out vigorously with reasoned arguments, printed in millions of copies and being distributed among the masses, in support of its demand for a new minimum wage, the newspapers are awash with various statements by labour leaders, which all tend to downplay practical mass mobilizations through mass rallies, seminars and processions, giving false hope that a diplomatic/negotiated solution can be found between the capitalist elite and the working masses in this respect. We want to seriously warn that little or nothing can be gained through this bankrupt, bourgeois industrial relation tactics. Even if the ruling class from its own self-interest calculation agrees to a paltry increment in the current level of wages, this will certainly be accompanied with threat and actual mass retrenchment of workers from both private and the public sectors. The only way to avoid this kind of debacle is for labour leaders to rely on the mass strength and mobilization of the working masses themselves to fight for an increment with an express clause that there will be no retrenchment.
In workplaces and communities labour and progressive organisations should initiate the formation of democratically run assemblies and committees to build support for a struggle to win N52,200. Of course, capitalist elements and their ideologues would pooh-pooh this idea as unrealistic. But as shown before, this would only mean that capitalism as a system is incapable of meeting the basic demands of people in the society and thus put squarely on the front burner the necessity to fight for its replacement with a just equitable democratic socialist order
Therefore, if labour leaders’ demand for a new minimum wage is serious and their commitment to actualize the figure of N52,200 is real, then, they must immediately commence open and visible mass education and mobilization of workers along this direction. The NLC should reach out to the Trade Union Congress (TUC) for joint action to prosecute the struggle. Going by the conventional anti-poor character of capitalism, we wish to boldly state that nothing will be achieved in this respect by the time the ultimatum will expire. And for this reason, labour’s immediate mass mobilization must be primed towards inevitable industrial and other forms of mass actions immediately after the expiration of this ultimatum.