Nigeria, Waiting For A Living Wage Uprising

Dispute over a minimum wage is not likely to settle with the controversial N30,000 regime in Nigeria. Labour will be pushing for a living wage if the authorities are concerned with the comfort of the Nigerian people. As at today, while the least paid federal receives N18,000, a politician goes home with N29 million, generally believed to be the highest in the world.

While the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Ayuba Wabba, has been working on finalising a new wage regime, he does not appear to be receiving much support from the Federal Government. And while the governors are battling to block the new wage, the National Minimum Wage Act in South Africa has already set a minimum wage at 20 rand an hour (about $1.45 an hour). South Africa’s average household net-adjusted disposable income per capita is currently about $10,872.

Proponents of the new deal had touted benefits the move will bring to the country’s mixed bag of economic indicators. For instance, between 2008 and 2017, South Africa’s average real wage growth was said to be only around 2.4 percent, lagging behind many of its sub-Saharan African peers. In addition, the country was recently ranked the world’s most unequal country, with a Gini coefficient of about 0.63, according to the World Bank’s World Development Indicators.

In Algeria, the minimum wage is N83,000, in Chad N60,000, in Cameroon N38,000, and in Libya N190,000. Apparently uncomfortable with the Nigerian slave wage, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, is proposing for a more reasonable living wage that will not only provide for basic needs of the workers but also enable them to make provisions for themselves that will lift them out of poverty and lead to a reduction in corruption.

The N30, 000 minimum wage being canvassed can barely feed a small family unit, Dogara said, adding that it is only when workers are dignified with wages that can provide them minimum comfort that their productivity level will increase.

He was however, speaking at the National Assembly during a public hearing on the New Minimum Wage organised by the House Ad-Hoc Committee on New Minimum Wage, 2019. He noted that the two focal points that must be given priority by government are poverty and corruption because while the former, caused mainly by underemployment and unemployment, is a threat to democracy, the latter fundamentally undermines democratic institutions and values.

Dogara explained that poverty as a threat to democracy is evident in vote buying and in the use of money to compromise electoral and security officials during elections, thereby subverting the will of the people on account of the sense of despondency and powerlessness that their lack breeds, and therefore, making them ever ready tools in the hands of tyrants and demagogues, who in the course of history, have always found it easy to mobilise for the purposes of subverting democratic Institutions.

According to him, ‘’while we are not oblivious of the current economic downturn and the dwindling revenue of government, we cannot also be blind to the fact that all economic indices indicate that even the N30,000 minimum wage that labour is asking for is not enough to sustain a small family unit.  The nation may not have enough to satisfy the minimum demands of the Nigerian worker, but as a nation, we need to set our economic priorities right and ensure that we dignify our workers by making allowance for their minimum comfort.  I know of no alternative if we hope to up the productivity level of our workforce.

‘’It is said that the promise of democracy is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. According to Thomas Jefferson, these are God given rights. Therefore, it is not enough to merely be alive and free, one must also be engaged in the pursuit of happiness in order to enjoy the promise of democracy.  If that is the case, can we say that Nigerian workers are enjoying the promise of democracy? Can we say that millions of our youth who roam the streets daily in search of non-existing jobs are enjoying the promise of democracy? Absolutely, no.

‘’This is because, although they are alive and free, they lack the means with which to pursue happiness. While the workers are underemployed, the latter are unemployed. So as a country, we are battling twin evils, namely: underemployment, which is as grave a problem, as unemployment. Dr King Jnr aptly summed it up when he said, while talking about underemployment in America, that ‘Most of the poverty-stricken people of America are persons who are working every day, and they end up getting part-time wages for full-time work.’ Of course America has moved on since Dr King’s time. We must make Nigeria move on in our time.

‘’I have said before that poverty is the greatest threat to our democracy. Those who doubted me have seen that threat manifest itself in vote buying and in the use of money to compromise electoral and security officials during elections. On account of the sense of despondency and powerlessness that poverty breeds amongst the poor, the poor have and will always remain ever ready tools in the hands of tyrants and demagogues, who in the course of history, have always found it easy to mobilise for the purposes of subverting democratic Institutions. Since underemployment and unemployment are bedmates of poverty, eliminating them must be the focal point of government’s policies.

‘’The next evil is corruption. It is not in doubt that corruption fundamentally undermines democratic institutions and values. Corruption affects the poor most because they depend more on government for support. How then do we fight corruption from the roots rather than dealing with its symptoms as is currently the case? The answer is for us to begin to pay workers living wage not minimum wage. When we do not pay living wage, we cannot tame corruption. When workers take home is not enough to take them home, the temptation for them to cut corners in order to get home will always be there.

‘’Workers keep and process our national wealth and the only way to insulate them from the temptation to want to help themselves to it, is to ensure they are well remunerated. It is not in contention that it is a mean job to muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain. Leaving workers to their temptations is dangerous unless we can show that they are greater than Oscar Wilde, who in his vintage wicked wit, proclaimed, I can resist everything except temptation.

‘’That we cannot pay a living wage in a country that represents a major promise for economic prosperity in the world speaks to the bane of our leadership. In order to reverse these tragic narratives, we must invest in proactive and innovative leadership not the reactive leadership model that we practiced all this while.

‘’Reality is, I am not a believer in minimum wage although it is a constitutional issue and the practice in many nations. I believe in living wage and wish the framers of our Constitution had provided for a living wage instead. No wonder the UN Covenant on Economic, social and cultural rights speaks to rights to a living wage in Article 7(A)2 as incorporated in International Labour Organisation document.

‘’Therefore, I cannot wait for that Nigeria to emerge wherein workers are paid wages that would not only take them home but have a portion to spare in savings in order to pursue happiness and  give their children the training that they could ever dream of. That should be our national goal going forward if we hope to ever make it to the club of elite nations.

‘’If we do not  ever make it to the point where we can have a conversation about Economic justice, it would not be because it’s impossible to achieve but because we lack the right leadership. We have talked about ending so many things in Nigeria, now is the time to talk about creating wealth and ending poverty; and those who bear the burden of the nation must be the first beneficiaries.’’

He said the House gave accelerated consideration to the bill to forestall the threat by the labour force to go on strike and because it is long overdue since the current National Minimum Wage, which was fixed in 2011, has become unrealistic due to supervening developments in the nation.

‘’As most of us here must be aware, the National Assembly will need to go on a short recess for the purpose of the General Elections, which is less than three weeks from now.  We must, therefore, conclude this public hearing as quickly as possible today to enable the House proceed with further legislative actions on it at its plenary tomorrow as already resolved in our last sitting’’, Dogara said.

Continuing, he said, ‘’more importantly, the consideration and passage of this Bill is equally exigent because our country is at the brink of a national industrial crisis that we can least afford at this time.  Passions are extremely high within the entire organised labour on this issue.  Even before the consideration of the bill by parliament, the labour leaders have rejected the N27,000  recommended to us by the Executive arm as National Minimum Wage.

‘’At the slightest opportunity, the entire workforce in the country could be called out by Labour leaders to resume the strike action that was recently put on hold without any further notice.  The effect that such scenario can have on the ongoing electioneering process is better imagined than experienced.  There is no doubt, therefore, that the entire nation is awaiting and looking up to the National Assembly to do the needful with the promptitude it deserves.’’

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