Opinion: We can have a downward review of minimum wage – By TUNJI AJIBADE
Recently, the Nigerian Labour Congress returned to the trenches threatening strike action. Its leadership says governments drag their feet over an agreement to increase minimum wage for workers. A reader may notice that I use ‘increase’ not ‘review’. It’s because in Nigeria, labour leaders regard review of minimum wage as increase only. But a review can be to review downward, upward, or reach an agreement to let the status quo remain for certain reasons. When the NLC threatens strike action over wages these days, it seems it’s the only thing it thinks about regarding how to improve the living condition of workers. Is wage increase the only way to improve workers’ condition? If labour unions fully have their thinking caps on, increase in minimum wage isn’t the only language they should be speaking from the 1940s till date. I will explain.
I ask: Is a downward review of minimum wage possible? Is it also possible for labour unions and governments to agree to maintain the status quo i.e. conclude that any wage increase will trigger inflation and as such there’s no point? Both are possible. But under some conditions? Why did I give thought to this? With the direction negotiation on upward review of minimum wages has taken – N22, 500 or N30,000 – I don’t see workers benefitting much. Those involved know that this increase doesn’t translate into real succour in the face of existing inflation, as well as the usual price hikes that will follow any such increase. The little monetary addition is lost before it is cashed. Is this the path organised labour will continually follow every five years? With the weakened state of the naira, I don’t see anything less than N150,000 as minimum wage making a difference in the condition of workers. If there’s a way other measures could be worked on such that what workers are paid makes life more comfortable for them, shouldn’t we consider that too? Also, if it’s possible for us to create a condition under which we could sometimes maintain the status quo, shouldn’t labour unions think about it and intensify efforts in that direction? In order to address this, the question may be asked differently: What do labour unions do?
Labour unions represent employees in a collective bargain situation. Worldwide, workers regard union’s benefits to include higher wages, better benefits and safer working conditions. Union workers may strike as a negotiation tool during a collective bargaining situation. In Nigeria, the NLC says its fundamental aims and objectives are to protect, defend and promote the rights, well-being and the interests of all workers. In order to advance these and other causes, the NLC outlines numerous measures. For the purpose of the direction this piece is headed, I select a few. One, by working “for the industrialisation and prosperity of the Nigerian nation”. Two, by striving “to influence public corporate policies and legislation on all issues at all levels, in the interest of workers, disadvantaged social groups and trade unions”. Three, “ensure viable financial base for the congress and the trade unions by engaging in profitable business ventures, etc., jointly or severally owned with other establishments and these include right to own property, mortgage and disposal of same for the purpose of the attainment of the aims and objectives of the Congress and the trade unions”. I shall look at each of the three measures. But it’s also relevant to point out that the NLC says it has the following departments in its structure: Education, Administration, Finance, Health and Safety, Industrial Relations, Information, International Relations, Research, Women and Youth.
I think it was in the days of Adams Oshiomhole as the NLC president that he once referred to the research which the organisation engaged in. He said this with regard to how he thought governments shouldn’t try to sell wrong information to the organised labour and Nigerians over the state of the economy. This was against the background of another battle over wage increase at the time. Oshiomhole said the Research Department of the NLC had in it experts from various fields who brainstormed using relevant data to dissect the economy, and as such governments shouldn’t think the NLC didn’t know what it was saying. Since that time, I’m not aware of other occasions when the NLC used the findings of its researches to challenge government on some relevant economic indices, and by so doing proffer viable solutions that may indirectly improve the welfare of workers.
I didn’t see an occasion that labour leaders called for industrial action when governments ignored such solutions. I don’t get the impression the NLC has been engaged in any research on our economy in relation to workers’ condition that is worthy of the financial capacity which the body has. In terms of membership and financial muscle, I should think the NLC is stronger than NISER in Ibadan and the NIIA in Lagos. But strike action over wage increase that may not do much to alleviate the sufferings of workers is all that labour leadership seems keen about. I think there should be more depth than this to the NLC after decades of its existence.
Yes, workers should be well-paid. But in countries where they have depth, labour unions are incubators of brilliant ideas that help workers and keep governments on their toes. Wage increase should be accompanied by measures which ensure what workers get is not stripped by inflation, current or anticipated. That isn’t happening in Nigeria where unions call for wage increase but do nothing to curb inflation, and governments care nothing about harmonising wages and inflation. Instead, governments say it’s all about the ability of the employer to pay. Under this kind of scenario, increase in wage and threats of strike action if it doesn’t happen shouldn’t be the only focus of labour unions. Efforts should include engaging in some highly cerebral researches and endeavours which ensure that what workers earn sustains them. This means keeping inflation down using different measures. There are many ways to do it, and researches by the unions should indicate them. The NLC, for instance, says it is interested in the industrialisation and prosperity of the Nigerian nation. We know how far industrialisation can improve the prosperity of the nation and its workforce. When last did the NLC present findings by its researchers to government and insist they do something about them? Also, when last did its Research Department come up with findings on corporate policies and legislation “on all issues at all levels”? What strategies has the NLC adopted to ensure such findings lead to promoting “the interest of workers, disadvantaged social groups and trade unions”? There are quite a few non-wage related issues that if pursued by the NLC more workers will be at work, unemployment will be reduced, workers will be fairly spread across the economy such that their pay is improved and condition of service is better. When too many workers chase a few jobs, we know the next to nothing that they would be paid, as well as the inhuman conditions they would be subjected to as is currently the case in Nigeria.
The NLC maintains “viable financial base for the congress and the trade unions by engaging in profitable business ventures, etc.” How much of its revenue from membership fees and business ventures is channelled into worthy researchers that could ensure workers are assisted to practise farming which the law permits them to engage in? There are many fronts where labour unions can use their financial resources to ensure that inflation is kept down, for instance, local food prices and transport. These can be done by direct or indirect means. Further researches will indicate it. For instance, skewed distributorship process in all sectors of the economy allows some idle hands rake in profits between the producer and the consumer. This makes articles costlier than they should. How much research has the NLC carried out in this area in order to eradicate the anomaly? How much of the required measures has it ensured their execution? Really, there’s something dramatic and hollow in the regular call for a wage increase that everyone knows won’t bring tangible relief to workers. Labour unions should equally work on other measures which could see workers enjoy the benefits of what they earn. Punch