Nigerian Workers Deserve lLving (Not Minimum) Wage By Tayo Oke

Nigerian Workers Deserve lLving (Not Minimum) Wage By Tayo Oke
  • PublishedNovember 13, 2018

With Labour’s agitation for an increase in the minimum wage well and truly thrust unto the top end of political discourse in this country for the umpteenth time, coming on the heels of the threat of a nationwide strike on the issue, it is only appropriate, therefore, that this column finds a little space for an informed opinion on the hottest political issue of the day, especially as it is set to be embroiled in presidential politics in the election cycle. It has probably been timed by union leaders to fall into such, as it is a rare opportunity to catch the Buhari administration on the back foot, and to hold their feet to the fire. Outside the election cycle, it might not command as much attention as it currently does. More so, potential negative consequences of an unresolved labour dispute could spell trouble for the ruling party, hence, the heightened desire on the employer (government) to settle. Figures (N20,000 to N65,000)have been bandied about on the right level for the national minimum wage, which is described as a wage below which no one should fall: “A price floor below which workers may not yield their labour” if Section 34 of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution is anything to go by. This was recently emphasised by the Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, thus: “The intendment of the minimum wage therefore is not about uniformity to hold back rich states or members of the private sector who have resources to pay higher from doing so…” This column would strongly argue that the ideal of a minimum wage for workers has never been founded on economics, since it is the anti-thesis of the free market, yet every industrial nation on earth has enacted legislation to incorporate one. What makes it so compelling?

The answer is wrapped in a combination of history and society’s primordial need for self-preservation. It is the one drag on “free market” economics enthusiastically embraced even by the most vociferous proponents of the philosophy anywhere. Minimum wage, as it happens, is too important to be left to market forces and the corrective “invisible hand” of the market. You find people debating its level, here and there, and everywhere, but no serious analyst or public servant questions its basis, its ideal or raison d’etre, anywhere. The reason for this, above all else, is history. Karl Marx (1818-1883), the greatest revolutionary theorist of the 19th century, in his observation of the conditions of wage labourers, artisans and the skilled working class in European factories, and England in particular, concluded that the world economy is divided between the owners of capital and those offering their labour. Furthermore, that the wages being offered by owners of capital bear no reflection to the true value of labour. Owners of capital are fixated on exploiting the surplus value of workers to accumulate capital for re-investment. The more workers put in for their employers, the less benefit they derive in fact from the attendant growth, but they have no choice, but to continue toiling since they, themselves, do not have access to capital ownership or its control. According to Marx, history tells us though, that this exploitative relationship cannot last forever before there is a violent revolution between capital and labour, of which labour will be triumphant. This has been divinely (historically) ordained. It is a matter of when, not if, it happens.

The above would have been dismissed as another Ivory Tower conjecture from a busy-body middle-class intellectual propounding and joggling unrealistic theories of society in the air, but for the fact that a mode of reasoning; Marxism, emerged from it and was the basis of the “Peasant” (Bolshevik) Revolution in Russia in 1917, and subsequent copycat workers’ revolutions around the developing world (Cuba’s Castrol 1959-2016), Provisionary Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam 1969-1976), People’s Revolutionary Government, Grenada (1979-1983), Ethiopia and the “Marxist-Leninist Derg” (1974-1991) Samora Machel in Mozambique (1975-1986), to name but a few. Fearing the worst, Western capitalist nations responded after World War II by embracing workers’ rights and incorporating union leaders into the apparatus of government in their respective domains. That has remained the consensus ever since; evolution, yes please. Revolution? No, thank you, not in our own backyard. All sorts of employment rights and protection in the workplace became the norm rather than the exception. The Marxist’s dream of a workers’ revolt across the world has since been blunted and reduced to negotiation over wage demands, welfare provision and strike action seen as the last resort. That is the genesis of the perennial minimum wage debate we often witness here and elsewhere.

Minimum wage, of itself, is a highly misleading concept. It creates the impression that minimum standard of living is being taken account of. Nothing could be further from the truth. A minimum wage that is applied across the board regardless of location is at best arbitrary, and at worst, punitive. If, for instance, a minimum wage is set at N30,000 to be applied nationally, how does that reflect the cost of living of a worker living in, say, Lagos, compared to one living in, say, Ohafia, Abia State? Or, Damaturu, Yobe State? How far would a N30,000 minimum wage take you in Lagos for one month when the cost of transport alone will almost gobble up all you have? Minimum wage does not offer a means for addressing the real living wage crisis in this country. When the state has neglected its responsibility in providing basic amenities such as public transport, health, schooling, road infrastructure, personal security, all of which have a bearing on the take-home pay, minimum wage becomes a con and a trick on our collective conscience. Union leaders make rabble-rousing speeches in an election cycle, they threaten fire and brimstone on the ruling party, then, get their long-awaited invites to government circles for ‘talks’. They soon emerge from a protracted negotiation to claim ‘victory’ for having secured an increase to the minimum wage. You see, these union leaders are part of the ruling click themselves for, living wage, not minimum wage, is where the real battle line should be drawn, and they know it.

A minimum wage that is left dangling on its own, without being contingent upon anything else is nothing but a chimera. If union leaders are lacking in courage to fight for a living wage, let them at least peg whatever minimum wage they agree with the government on the consumer price index. for example, so they both rise in tandem. Otherwise, we will be back again to resume this ‘fight’ in a couple of years’ time. As far as the Federal Government is concerned, they have done a good job of outmanoeuvring the union leaders. Any government doling out N15m net, (monthly take-home pay) for its legislators, and managed to pin down union leaders to N30,000 net, (monthly take home pay) for workers in this country has struck the bargain of the century. It will take 10 years for an average worker to earn what a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria takes home in one month without breaking sweat. No wonder President Muhammadu Buhari cannot wait to sign the accord into law even before the dust settles.

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