By Owei Lakemfa
A BOY, about 12 approached my car as I stopped at a traffic light in Abuja. It was difficult to guess when last he might have had a bath. His bushy hair might not have felt the touch of a comb in a long while. When I looked more closely at him as he asked for alms, he was a beauty; like gold in a mud. I asked him his name. “Abdullahi.” His surname? “Abinchi.” That means food in Hausa. So I explained what I was enquiring. He replied: “Abinchi.” He was not smiling, so it wasn’t a joke. But I was convinced that could not be his surname. It might simply mean the reality he faces; hunger.
Abdullahi is one of several street kids we have abandoned on the margins of society. There appears not much of a future for him. Since he appears to have little or nothing; he is likely to grow up taking from the rest of us who have built a country of abject poverty and want for the majority.
The Nigerian worker should be better than Abdullahi; at least he has a job. The tragedy however is that this may be an illusion. When a man leaves his family for work every morning and returns in the evening with little or nothing, and wades through months, or even years of unpaid salaries, his job can only be an illusion. Hope seems to be all he has; hope that eventually his salary or part thereof would be paid. Then he can buy some food for the hungry at home, pay off debts and hopefully buy a new shirt.
The salary in itself, is for most workers, a starvation wage. When I was in the trade unions, we fought a battle that in 2010, significantly raised the National Minimum Wage to N18,000 monthly. That was about $120. I cannot resist the temptation to convert wages in Nigeria in dollars because we are essentially, an import-dependent country. Today, that wage remains unchanged but its value is now less than $50. That means in practical terms that the daily Minimum Wage in Nigeria is $1.6. In comparison, the American and British National Minimum Wage per hour is $7.25 and $10 respectively.
I do not know how Nigerians survive but it is not surprising that the rate of suicide has shot up. A favourite spot is the Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos where some Nigerians simply fly off into the lagoon. One case that shows how very bad things are is that of Mr. Edward Soje, 54, a Director in the Kogi State Teaching Service Commission. After eight months of unpaid salaries, and neck deep in debts with no immediate relief, his family received an heavenly bundle of joy; triplets! Hitherto, his 17-year marriage had not produced a child. Soje reflected on his circumstances and on October, 20, committed suicide. He left behind, a grieving family and an unfeeling State Government which washed itself of any blame in the death of its employee.
Finally after seven years, the Nigerian state has decided to review the Minimum Wage through negotiation amongst stakeholders. The state of the Nigerian worker is so bad that he can be said to be on life support. So no opposition was envisaged. However, the Afenifere Group which since the 1960s has been identified with progressive politics came out opposing the negotiations. While claiming to accept the necessity of a new Minimum Wage, Afenifere declared: “This whole unitary stance that we are maintaining by putting wages in the exclusive list that only the FG (Federal Government) can negotiate on it, will create its own problems because the FG will negotiate for the federal workers as well as state and LG workers whereas it is different tiers that will pay their wages, there will be different problems. We are saying in order to avoid this, the FG should negotiate for its own workers and let the state and the LG do same with their own workers; until this is done some states will underpay their own workers.”
The Afenifere declaration is based on fiction because contrary to its claims that “only the FG can negotiate” the National Minimum Wage, the states and the private sector also take part in the negotiations. This is both historic and easily verifiable. For instance, the composition of the current 29-Member Team is made up of a Federal Government-appointed Chairman and Secretary with the Federal Government contributing five persons from the Public Sector, the State Governors contributing six persons, one from each geopolitical zone, the labour federations presenting eight persons and the Organized Private Sector nominating eight persons.
Also, Afenifere’s cry of a ‘unitary’ imposition is unfounded because even in a federation, the concept of a National Minimum Wage is fundamental. Perhaps the group needs to understand that the concept of a National Minimum Wage is an irreducible minimum wage below which no authority or employer can pay. It is internationally, the protection of workers against slave wages, and an attempt at an equitable society in which the wage earner will have some minimum to feed himself and his family. It is meant to reduce inequality and poverty and increase the standard of living. The first Minimum Wage was in 1389 when England fixed wages to the price of food while King James I enacted the Minimum Wage Law in 1604. Nigerian workers have had National Minimum Wage from colonial times.
I agree with Afenifere that we must practice federalism, but a minimum wage for the labourer is not a negation of federalism. In any case, a federation must have irreducible minimum standards on matters like education and wages.
Afenifere also needs to understand that in exercising the principles of federalism, the states or local governments can pay higher wages than the minimum. I recall that when a New National Minimum Wage of N5,000 was made in 2000, Lagos State and the oil-producing states paid higher minimum wages. In any case, can we in reality make an argument of ‘federalism’ in wages when except for Lagos State, all states rely on federal allocation to pay salaries?
All members of the National Assembly, all governors, all members of the Armed Forces and the security services irrespective of the state or local government they come from or serve, are paid federated salaries and allowances, but when it comes to the worker who is the lowest paid, elite want him paid confederated or separatist wages. This reminds me of a placard during the mass street protests and strikes of January 2012 against steep increases in the price of petrol. It read: “If the poor have nothing to eat, they will eat the rich”.