Labour must look beyond strikes alone

AFTER a period of relative lull the President of the Nigerian Labour Congress, NLC, Comrade Ayuba Wabba, called out workers to an indefinite strike action last week Thursday, September 27, 2018.

Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige’s assurances that negotiations by the tripartite committee which had adjourned sine die on September  4, would resume on October  4, 2018 (tomorrow) could not budge Labour’s determination to down tools at the expiration of its 14-day ultimatum.

The NLC wants N66,000 as the new national minimum wage, NMW, up from the N18,000 that public sector workers are currently entitled to. Section 173 (3) of the Constitution 1999 as Amended prescribes five-yearly review of pensions “or together with any Federal Civil Service salary reviews, whichever is earlier”. There have been only two successful minimum wage reviews since 1999. In 2004, it was set at N5,500 but was upgraded to N18,000 in 2011.

The justification of the NLC’s call for a strike over a new minimum wage can hardly be faulted. Governments at all levels have always foot-dragged whenever the legitimate demand for the upward adjustment of the minimum wage is brought up. The suspension of the talks a month ago by the tripartite committee even after Minister Ngige had promised that a new minimum wage would be ready by September this year was the typical government delay tactic which infuriates Labour.

Also, there is no doubt that the N18,000 (about $50) is hardly a living wage. The N66,000 being demanded will only be a stop-gap until a new minimum wage is agreed according to the periodic review required by law.

In reality, however, it is very difficult to see how any government at any level will be able to pay the N66,000 to its workers. Most state governments are still owing their workers months, if not years, of salaries and pensions, despite the Federal Government’s bailout funds in September 2015 and the two tranches of Paris Club Debt refunds to the states. Most governors depend on such periodic windfalls and borrowings to keep their states going.

The only way to sustainably resolve the minimum wage imbroglio is for Labour to be more proactively involved in the struggle to ensure overall good governance. Political office holders live way above the earning capacities of the governments they control. They spend public funds mercilessly, and they live like kings while workers languish in poverty. Labour has not done enough to curtail this anomaly.

Labour should look beyond strikes because they bring everyone back to square one after subjecting the masses to untold suffering. Unless Labour becomes a part of the struggle for a better and more productive structure of governance, strikes will eventually lose their potency as a means of holding government to account.