We're Ready To Resist Governors' Blackmail Over Minimum Wage


Owei Lakemfa, Acting Secretary General, Nigeria Labour Congress spoke with OLUOKUN AYORINDE on the arguments by some governors that they cannot pay the minimum wage and other controversies surrounding the issue


Why is Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, adamant on going on strike even after the minimum wage bill has been signed into law by the Federal Government and some of the States have indicated their willingness to pay?

As you know, the minimum wage issue is law and it is also a constitutional issue, and once you have a law, you should obey it. The minimum wage bill was signed in March, so we are even generous by saying let them start paying it in April. Therefore, there is no reason why anybody will not obey the law. The second point is that in negotiating the minimum wage, State governors were represented; the Federal Government was also represented. Everybody, employers’ organisations and so on, were represented. The issue of how much they can pay was also put into consideration. Different organisations and States also recommended how much the minimum wage in Nigeria should be. The Nigeria Institute of Social and Economic Research, NISER, for instance recommended that minimum wage in Nigeria should be N41,000.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel Management said it should be N15,000, the National Productivity Centre said it should be N22,000, National Planning Commission said it should be N15,000, Central Bank of Nigeria proposed N22,000 and so on. For the States, some recommended something lower, but if you look at some, it is higher. FCT recommended N25,000, Kwara State under Bukola, N30,000, Imo State, N30,000, Jigawa recommended N20,400, Abia recommended that the minimum wage in Nigeria should be N46,700, Kebbi, N20,000, Anambra, N20,000. So, if you look at the average for all States, it is N21,800.00. Therefore, it will be ridiculous for anybody to come back and say they can’t pay because they are part of the negotiations throughout and they also made proposals and what I have shown you is the summary of the proposals.

The negotiations took place when oil was selling at $60 per barrel, now it has gone up to over $90 per barrel and that is why they are sharing excess crude. So, what is the argument that they can’t pay? One of the reasons why the State governments are saying that they won’t pay is that you cannot deduct workers’ salary and they won’t make noise; they will shout. On the other hand, you can award contracts and take 50, 60 per cent of it. So, that’s why a lot of state governors prefer to pay contractors than pay workers. But in reality, the state governments can pay. And don’t forget that even before we finally agreed, the Council of State met and agreed on it and most of the members are state governments. Some state governments have even said they will pay. Lagos State has started, Delta State will pay, we just met with Liyel Imoke, the Cross River State governor last week, he said he will pay.

The Rivers State governor who is the Chairman of Governors’ Forum said they are even paying over N17,000 already, so he said he will pay. Edo State will pay. But there are a few of them who said they will not pay and under the Governors’ Forum, a few of the Governors are blackmailing the community. But we’ve told them to come to us, because they are a trade union. The Governors’ Forum is a trade union, and maybe they don’t have enough expertise. They should come to us, we will advise them. There is no way you are going to allow a minority to blackmail the majority, and that is what is happening; so that you find Amaechi who is already paying N17,000 is now saying he will not pay unless you change the revenue allocation formula. But that is not the workers’ problem. Then, when they saw that will not sell, they said, okay, remove subsidy (on petroleum).

What about states that have negotiated with their workers to pay something lower?

It’s not true.

But your members in those states have accepted after negotiating with government, the so called relativity pay like in Ondo State for instance?

Its blackmail and it has been resolved because we were in Ondo last Wednesday and Thursday and we met with them. So, it’s not true. They called out workers on strike over the minimum wage, after negotiations, they brought out the side of the government that the issue of N18,000 new minimum wage will be implemented when an acceptable revenue formula is released by the Federal Government. That is the agreement signed by the state’s Head of Service and the chairman of the Joint Negotiating Council, JNC, for the state. But we went there and the chairman of the JNC said they made an error and begged for forgiveness after which we said no problem. We then held a joint press conference with them. But when the state government saw what happened, they went to some newspapers and placed adverts in the name of the JNC chairman. But the JNC chairman wrote and said he just saw the adverts in the newspapers, he was not the one that placed them; because the Union asked him, ‘you are worker in the Water Corporation, how much is your salary to place adverts worth N1.8 million?’ So, the man said he just saw the adverts in the newspapers. So, the NLC discovered the government officials that placed it and went to confront them.

But in cases where some of the states have come out with how much they are getting from the federal purse and how much they are generating internally and have practically demonstrated that they cannot pay, is it not right for the local labour union to negotiate with the governors?

You cannot have an excuse to disobey the law. The fact is that before the minimum wage was agreed on, we have negotiated for over two years and they (Governors) were involved and they agreed. That was when oil was selling for $60 per barrel. So, it is not true that they can’t pay. Any Governor who tells you that should review his security vote. Look at Okorocha, the new Governor of Imo State, when he learnt that his security vote as the state governor is over N6.8 billion, the man said, ‘what will I do with all that money?’ ‘How much will it cost to do free education in Imo State? ‘Just N4 billion’. So, he said ‘let’s declare free education’.

You know how much those governors spend as security votes, because there is no accountability with those security votes —it’s just what you said you spent the money on. President Jonathan asked the National Assembly to allow him appoint 20 Special Advisers, but there are governors with 1,500 aides and Special Assistants, like in Bauchi. One state governor recently sacked 2,000 aides. What are they doing with those people? There is so much wastage, just like they are doing at the National Assembly, it is also happening in the states. When you spend money on these things, you cannot have money to pay salaries, because salary is a thing that if you take a man’s kobo, you are in trouble.

But is Labour still open to negotiations on the issue of minimum wage?

We are open to negotiations provided you pay the minimum wage of N18,000 with effect from April 1. It is a law and if we are to agree with any state government to violate that law, we will be guilty of criminal conspiracy. We can negotiate that, look, you can pay more than N18,000, so, please can you pay this? We can negotiate that allowances can differ from one state to the other. But we cannot negotiate what is basic. That one is irreducible. So, what we’ve done is to give templates to our State Councils, payment tables to say this is how you should negotiate on this. So, you can for example, negotiate how much meal allowance is payable. So, if the man in Kano says he needs N5 meal allowance, the man in Kaduna says he needs N4, the man in Taraba says he needs N1, those are the things you can negotiate —add N1, add N5 and so on. Those are the things that you can negotiate, but not on what is basic. That’s why it is called minimum wage, it is a wage you cannot go below, you can only go up.

The idea that the governors are putting forward that if the fuel subsidy is removed, they will then be able to pay, is it an acceptable idea to Labour?

You see, the issue of subsidy is a worn out thing. In truth, what it is called in economics is opportunity cost. You produce oil and rather than use some for local refining, you sell everything at the international market. Then, you buy the one you want to use for internal consumption and in buying it, you then pay for the refining, you pay the cost of profit margin, you pay the freight, you pay demurrage, you pay NPA, you pay insurance and when you put all these things together, then you say it’s subsidy. It doesn’t make sense. So, what the governors are now saying is that if you want us to pay, we want more money and how can you get the quickest money?

Increase the price of petrol and give us the difference, let’s share it. Is that governance? When you increase the price of petrol, you know transport fares will go up, accommodation will go up, other things will go up generally. So, you want to give the minimum wage with one hand and take it back through the other, that’s what they are trying to do. And some of them are trying to impose taxes to ensure that they collect the money back, some of them are threatening the workers that if we pay minimum wage, we will reduce your number, blackmail tactics. But all these things will not work.

We have told workers to reject them, we are on the alert to battle any governor that wants to disobey or try to circumvent the law because, if State Governments and the Federal Government do not obey the law, who will obey it?

In the same vein, there are also fears that the increase in the salary of workers may lead to inflation and that those who are not employed by government will also bear the brunt of the inflation?

Do you know the rate of inflation in Nigeria? It has always been in double digits. The last time we had a review of the minimum wage was in year 2000, eleven years ago; and the rate of inflation has continued to rise. So, giving the worker, his spouse and maybe his four children N18,000 a month which comes to N4,500 a week cannot be the cause of inflation. Secondly, with the exception of say Lagos and maybe one or two other states, the bulk of those who make money in other states are salary earners. Their economy is based on the wages that they are paying. It is the wages that the workers now use to buy food, pay rent and do other things. In other words, increase in the minimum wage actually helps the economy, it is better distributed because the money that would otherwise have been taken as security votes, changed into dollars and sent abroad is then left in the states and more people share it. So, the minimum wage helps the economy to grow and that’s the truth. Instead of one governor taking N6 billion, he will be forced to take N2 billion and share N4 billion among the general populace. If you go to a lot of states, it is the civil servants that are actually the backbone of the economy, whether it is Ondo, Jigawa, Ekiti, Borno everywhere, except in only about three states. The person who actually owns the economy is the worker, so if he gets more money, the economy will improve.

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