The subject of wage increase has been a contentious one in our nation over the years. In 2011, for instance, agitation by various labour interests over the minimum wage palaver nearly threw the country into a state of confusion. While labour stuck to its gun, some state governors outrightly claimed that they did not have the resources to pay the N18, 000 minimum wage being demanded by labour. Till date, it is yet to be ascertained if all states of the federation have fully complied with the spirit of the agreement reached with labour on the issue in 2011. As for the private sector, most employers of labour are yet to actually embrace the 2011 minimum wage act.
Based on the provision of the Minimum Wage Act signed into law by former President Goodluck Jonathan in March 2011, the minimum wage is supposed to be reviewed every five years. The implication of this is that the current wage will be due for appraisal next year. Consequently, some labour leaders have been advising the federal government, and rightly so, to begin the process of the preparation in terms of gathering information and analysing them, in order to have the law reviewed for another five years. Indeed, at a recent parley with the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) president, Ayuba Wabba, revealed that labour is already working on a wage increase proposal which he has urged the senate to quickly approve considering the biting economic situation in the country. Particularly hinging their argument on the dwindling economic fortune of the country and its ensuing hardship on workers, some labour leaders are already benchmarking N90, 000 as the most reasonable minimum wage for workers in the country.
Undoubtedly, labour is both m orally and constitutionally correct to negotiate for a new minimum wage with the federal government. On the moral side, it could be argued that since the political class has learnt how to take care of its share of the national cake, labour leaders equally have a moral obligation to protect the interests of their members. Indeed, considering the hard reality of our current economic predicament, labour is well justified to demand for wage increase. Similarly, as previously stressed, by the spirit of the 2011 Minimum Wage Act, labour has a legal ground upon which it could justify any agitation for the appraisal of the current minimum wage.
However, in as much as labour has a good ground to start clamouring for wage increase, it is, however, important to stress that labour should, for once, change strategy and consider other options. If, indeed, the welfare of Nigerian workers is paramount, as one would want to believe it is, to labour leaders in the country, insisting on wage increase as the only way out of workers’ current and obvious economic woes would be counter- productive. As a public servant, one is a critical stakeholder on this issue. Hence, one is actually arguing from a pragmatic point of view.
It needs to be emphasised that, from experience, previous wage increases, over the years, only helped to assuage workers economic miseries over a short period of time before the inflationary reality of such increase begins to agonizingly dawn on them. Consequently, any rigid insistence on wage increase by labour leaders, especially with the present economic downturn in the country, might eventually consume rather than console the workers. Since wage increase agreement is always announced with much fanfare by government and labour, one does not need to be a classical economist to conjecture how market forces and other variables would immediately react to such increase. Your guess, of course, is as good mine.
Alternatively, therefore, one would like to canvas that our labour leaders should concentrate more energy on ensuring that government make more concessions in areas that would have direct and immediate impact on workers’ welfare such as provision of housing loans or indeed, affordable houses. As a matter fact, labour should constructively engage all tiers of government on the needed to effectively and creatively meet the housing needs of workers across the country. Aside, food and clothing, shelter remains one of the most essential elements required for human survival. Hence, labour leaders need to properly engage the government on how to creatively fashion ways through which this all important human need could be practically met. Once a man is assured of shelter, half of his problem is considered solved. Of what essence is a salary raise that ends up in the hands of shylock landlords?
Equally, labour must as a matter of urgency engage the federal government on the need to improve the power situation in the country. With the current unstable state of power supply in the country, many Nigerian workers spend a quarter of their earnings to fuel and service their various generating sets. One would rather advocate for labour to embark on industrial action over the state of power in the country than doing same over wage increase. Once there is a marked improvement in power supply across the country, workers would have more money in their pockets as they wouldn’t have to spend excessively on their generating sets anymore.
In same vein, labour leaders must engage both federal and state governments as well as federal and states lawmakers on the need to the increase funding of the education sector. Labour should enter into helpful dialogue with government at all tiers on the need to lift the standard of public education in the country. In the 70s and 80s, most Nigerians attended public schools. By then, private schools were not really in vogue. It is the collapse of public schools in the 90s that led to the springing up of private schools. Today, the average Nigerian worker spends quite a fortune educating his children. Once the quality of education on offer at public schools improves remarkably, most workers and, indeed Nigerians, would be willing to send their wards to public schools. No matter, what the national minimum wage is, if the state of public education remains unchanged, Nigerian workers would continue to spend a large chunk of their earnings on the education of their wards.
Ogunbiyi is of the Lagos State Ministry of Information and Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja