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Politics of national minimum wage bill

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By Chibisi Ohakah [Abuja]

Today, the House of Representatives would be holding a public debate on the National Minimum Wage Bill (2019) presented by President Muhammadu Buhari last week. Tomorrow, the House said it would vote on the recommendation of its adhoc committee. When the Bill returns to the Senate plenary in the next two weeks for possible final consideration, it will go down in the history of the 8th National Assembly as the fastest bill passed into law. Last Thursday, the bill scaled both first and second reading after which it was committed to a special adhoc committee for further legislative work.

The twist between N27, 000 and N30, 000  

But very importantly, and contrary to the expectation that the amendment bill of the Minimum Wage Act 1981 before the National Assembly, from President Muhammadu Buhari, was for N30, 000, the Deputy Senate President, Chief Ike Ekweremadu, who presided over plenary, said that the minimum wage bill was for N27. At the House of Representative, members also faulted the N27, 000 approved by President Muhammadu Buhari.

 

The President said in his letter to the National Assembly that: “The new bill and the amendments contained therein were arrived at after consultations by the tripartite committee on national minimum wage, which was constituted in November 2017 to consider, make recommendations, and advise the government on this issue. The Committee comprised representatives of the federal government, (Nigerian) Governor’s Forum, organized private sector [OPS] and the Organised Federations of Trade Unions in Nigeria.”  

He stressed that the federal executive council, national economic council, and the national council of state have all noted and approved the recommended amendments. Other highlights of the amendments include: (I) Exemptions for establishments employing less than 25 persons, (ii) five years review period of the Act in consonance with the Constitutional Review for Pensions, (iii) alterations in the amount of fines payable by defaulters on the prosecution.   

President Muhammadu Buhari

 

But it would appear that the President’s claim that the N27, 000 recommendation was of the tripartite committee varied from what the National Assembly, labour and members of the public knew. After reading the President’s letter, Speaker of House of Representatives Dogara expressed surprise that the N30, 000 proposed by the tripartite committee, and which federal government said it would pay its workers in the lower cadre, was not reflected in the letter. The House referred Buhari’s letter to an ad hoc committee, which would conduct a public hearing today, while the plenary would reconvene to pass the Bill tomorrow [Tuesday].

Ekweremadu said the Senate is faced with the question of whether the minimum wage covers workers in the private sector. According to him, if the minimum does not affect the people in the private sector, it means a whole number of people would be left outside the minimum wage, “and that is not right,” he said. According to him, in most countries, the minimum wage applies to all workers, regardless of the number of people in an establishment. Speaking further during the second reading of the Bill, Ekweremadu expressed the hope that all that has been said and put up on the bill will suffice in guiding the Senate adhoc committee.  The Senate committee was directed to report back to the plenary within two weeks.

Lawmakers weigh in on the Minimum Wage Bill

Prior to the second reading of the Bill, Senators weighed in on the proposed National Minimum wage. Majority Leader, Senator Ahmad Lawan expressed the hope that civil servants will be excited about the development. “It may not be all they hoped, but it is still an improved situation. Nigeria cannot develop without the help of our civil servants,” he said

In his own comments, Senator Shehu Sani said it is important for all Nigerians to lend their voice and ensure that the minimum wage bill sees realization. “Even though this may not be enough, productivity is sure to increase,” he said. In her own contribution, Senator Biodun Olujimi called on government to equally take the Bill seriously by ensuring that workers are paid what they are promised. “We will work hard, but it is important that this does not become another election gimmick. Let the people who should get paid, actually get paid,” she said Olujimi who is the senate Minority Leader.

One senator, Chief Barnabas Gemade, stood on the side of the workers demanding for N30, 000 as minimum wage. “This increase, to me, is just a little scratch. I think the federal government should be able to pay N30, 000 as opposed to N27, 000. Let us accelerate the passage of this Bill. It should not be delayed any further,” he said

Lawmakers in the House of Representatives gave a hint of what they may settle for tomorrow when they would vote on the Bill. Deputy Chief Whip, Mr. Pally Iriase, called on lawmakers to ignore the President’s recommendation and vote for the approval of N30, 000 wage for workers. “The Nigerian worker earns too much less. Go to the market, because of the noise of N30, 000, go and price the items today. This bill must be dealt with in accordance with what the tripartite committee came up with. Not even Mr. President himself could deny what the tripartite committee presented,” Iriase stated, urging his colleagues to “stand up for once” in defence of workers.

Addressing the Speaker, the Deputy Chief Whip moved: “Mr. Speaker, N30, 000 will be what this House will pass. This House should pass N30, 000 instead of this rigmarole.” Similarly, another lawmaker, Mr. Oluwole Oke, said, “I want to observe that no Nigerian worker earns a minimum wage. I’ve tried to compare the minimum wage here with other climes and arrived at an average of N900, assuming the worker works for eight hours. The N27, 000 is grossly inadequate.”

Minimum wage back-and-forth trek from N18, 000  

The national minimum wage trip, in the current dispensation, from the ends of the federal government, the organized labour, and the workers themselves, and even the ordinary Nigerians, is well known. An observer said it has been one “back and forth journey” over what should pass for a new minimum wage.

In actual fact, the Nigerian Labour Congress [NLC] made the minimum wage demand for a new minimum wage an effective one with a 14-day ultimatum to the government on September 12, 2018. They called on government to agree with their demand for the tripartite committee deliberating on a new minimum wage to reconvene and complete its assignment. The NLC followed up with a threat that it would commence a nationwide warning strike by September 26 if the federal government failed to pay a new minimum wage of N56,000.

Labour minister, Dr Chris Ngige

The warning from the NLC triggered reactions from various quarters, especially the league of governors. They argued: ‘how can they pay N56, 000 when they have been finding it difficult paying N18, 000?’ With the NLC threat to shut down the economy made real by repeated commentaries in the media, and heightened anxiety following the proximity of the planned strike to the 2019 general elections, minister of labour, Dr Chris Ngige, announced that the tripartite committee set up to review the nation’s minimum wage will reconvene on October 4 and continue the negotiations.

The threat starring state governors

The tripartite committee, as the name implies, is made up of three parties, namely, the federal government, organized labour and the private sector. In what looked like a subtle blackmail, the NLC warned that state governors that are opposed to new minimum wage demand will lose the upcoming elections because workers will be mobilised against them.

NLC President, Comrade Ayuba Wabba

 

“Majority of governors that fail to implement the minimum wage may not come back for their second term. Instead they will be voted out of office, because of lack of political will”, said Adamu Garba, vice chairman after an NLC contact meeting in Gombe state. While the dillydallying continued among government quarters, and equally from among the governors’ forum, who had become split by the to-pay-or-not argument, the NLC called out workers on a warning strike on September 27. Business activities were paralyzed in many states nationwide.

The warning strike by workers prompted President Muhammadu Buhari to authorize an emergency meeting between officials of the labour ministry and the union executives. On September 30, the NLC called off the nationwide strike. The NLC President Ayuba Wabba assured workers that the federal government was going to announce new minimum wage.

“I want to assure workers that all has been concluded and will be passed for signing within the week. I also want to appreciate the organized private sector [OPS], manufacturers association of Nigeria [MAN], and Nigeria employer’s consultative association (NECA) for their resolve to pay the new minimum wage when it is signed into law,” Wabba says.

Onset to rigmarole; governors break ranks  

But instead of sighting the end with the anticipated announcement of the N30, 000 new minimum wage, the federal government, on October 10, 2018, declared that new minimum wage will be N24, 000. Minister of Labour, Dr Chris Ngige, posited that the state governments’ figure last time was N20, 000; the federal government had a figure of N24, 000, pointing out that it was upon that the federal government stood. “These negotiations took into account these irreducible offers from the different governments but we could not arrive at a consensus”, Chris Ngige stated.

While some governors like Nyesom Wike of Rivers state and his Lagos state counterpart, Akinwunmi Ambode expressed the readiness to pay as much as N30, 000 as minimum wage, a number of other governors voiced out that they may be unable to do same. Indeed on October 18, 2018, the chairman of the Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF), Governor Abdulaziz Yari of Zamfara state said governors have no resources to pay a new minimum wage.

“But, the problem of states is the capacity to pay what is agreed. As we are talking today, we are struggling with N18, 000. Some of the states are paying 35%, some 50% and still some states have salary arrears. “So, it is not about only reviewing it but how we are going to get the resources to cater for it?” Yari asked. The Ogun state governor, ibikunle Amosun, said the governors would be unable to pay any new minimum wage, “whatever the figure was”

“With N18, 000 minimum wage, as we speak in this country, only seven or eight governors are able to pay full salaries. We are not magicians or miracle workers that will turn things around, we only make do with what we have, nobody has the money,” Amosun said

The federal government continued to plead with labour to accept N24, 000 as new minimum wage, but the union leaders insisted on its reviewed stand of N30, 000, from N50, 000, or nothing. But by October 20, 2018, the federal government came smoking, drawing its first line of resistance, with a position to treat the strikers with the controversial stance of “no work, no pay” policy.  Undeterred, Labour piled pressure on the federal government, and asked Nigerians to stock up on food because the looming strike would be total and difficult to deal with.

On October 30, panicky Governors’ Forum held an emergency meeting, signaling that they would be coming up with a minimum wage proposal. At the time, the ranks of the governors had been effectively broken. Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue came out openly to state that he would be willing to pay workers in his state any amount agreed as new minimum wage. “I am known for championing improved welfare for workers”, Ortom boasts.

After the emergency meeting, governors came up with an offer N22, 500 minimum wage. “It is in this sense that we feel strongly that our acceptable minimum wage must be done in such a way that total personnel cost does not exceed 50% of the revenue available to each state. Governors therefore agreed to pay a national minimum wage of N22, 500,” the leader of the governors’ Forum, Yari told newsmen.

But the news did not impress the labour union leaders who reiterated that it is N30, 000 or nothing. Ngige,the labour minister said the federal government does not agree with the governors on the N22,500 proposal. “The national minimum wage is a national legislation being driven by the federal government of Nigeria in pursuance to item 34 of the Exclusive Legislative List. But you don’t go and make a law which people will disobey at the initial,” he said. In line with Ngige’s argument, the Vice President Osinbajo convened a meeting with the presidential economic management team over minimum wage.

On the way to the November 6, proposed nationwide strike, the Nigerian Labour Congress issued a statement mobilizing their members for the showdown. “We call on our members to continue to mobilise in preparation for the commencement of an indefinite strike on Nov. 6, if by then necessary steps are not taken to adopt the recommendation of the tripartite committee,” Wabba said in the statement.

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