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Minimum wage: Brinkmanship favours nobody

Last week, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) enforced a national strike, which, amongst other things, shut down the national…

Last week, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) enforced a national strike, which, amongst other things, shut down the national electricity grid, banks, schools and other essential services. Union leaders incurred the wrath of the affected citizens, while government spokespersons accused them of “exposing the country to insecurity” and causing loss of lives in hospitals.

This accusation by the government was ironic considering that atrocious nationwide insecurity has become the norm and collapse of the national electricity grid is now a routine, even when electricity workers are not on strike.

The strike itself resulted from negotiations over a national minimum wage, which, according to law, was supposed to have been implemented in April 2024. The negotiations, which have been going on for close to a year without nearing agreement, clearly indicate irresponsibility by both parties. 

In the light of the current inflation, government’s offer of N60,000 is not a reasonable “living wage.” The minimum wage is supposed to be increased every four years and the new amount should have been included in the 2024 budget.

Government’s belated increased offer of N62,000 points to an extremely poor governance style of only reacting to issues of workers’ welfare after strike is taken.

Faced with a voracious National Assembly, which obstinately refuses to make financial sacrifices, and a routinely uncaring executive arm of government, which seldom keeps to agreements, labour leaders regularly call for strikes, having now adopted brinkmanship as their preferred negotiation strategy.

Brinkmanship is the art or practice of pursuing a dangerous course of action or policy to the limits of safety before stopping. It means trying to get what you want by threatening that something dangerous would occur if you don’t get it.

Although testing how far you can go by taking the risk of pushing a situation to the verge of disaster without quite going over the edge can be effective in achieving short term goals, it does have negative consequences, which eventually outweigh the benefits.

The economic brinkmanship used by labour leaders in the currently suspended strike has led to a predictable loss of their credibility and harm to the economy. As far as the ongoing negotiations are concerned, brinkmanship has resulted in both parties adopting mutually exclusive irrational arbitrary positions, which are the main obstacle to cooperation, agreement and settlement.

There can be no denying the spiralling inflation and reduced standard of living of Nigerian workers. And it is disheartening that successive governments continue to exhibit an almost callous disregard for mass deprivations and suffering while privileged political officeholders pillage the country’s treasury.

While it is necessary to consider government’s capacity to pay higher wages when state governors claim they cannot even pay the old minimum wage of N30,000 per month, and the minister of budget and planning says the federal government cannot afford a minimum wage of more than N62,000, it is disappointing that taking cognisance of the prevailing economic situation, information data, national interest, developments in the polity and the ongoing economic reforms by the administration, the Senate has unanimously supported a bill for a 300 per cent increase in the salaries and benefits of judicial officeholders, which would place them on salaries ranging between N3.5 million to N5.3 million per month.

In truth, Nigeria’s real problem is that top level government officials and political officeholders feel entitled to luxurious lifestyles at public expense, which sends wrong signals to workers. The huge amounts of money they allocate to themselves is unethical and leads Nigerian workers to believe that hardship should not exist, and their suffering is unnecessary.

Be that as it may, the real path to improving their welfare is not to drastically increase their salaries, but ensure that they get more value for the naira.

Although government spokespersons are correct in asserting that a large wage increase would cause massive inflation, their stance contrasts sharply with the minister of finance’s obsession with borrowing humongous amounts to finance questionable infrastructure projects and subsidise the luxurious lifestyle of political officeholders, such as the N21 billion spent on a new mansion for the vice president by a government that claims to champion the efficient use of resources.

At the end of the day, minimum wage relates only to government workers, and Nigerians do not enjoy social services and improvements in their quality of life commensurate with government’s operational costs.

As far as strike goes, the question is whether or not labour unions have the right to shut down vital services.

It has been reported that the Senate is considering enacting a law against labour strikes in “critical” sectors of the economy. This is an ill-considered move that will further enhance the public view that the Senate is anti-people.

The right to strike is recognised and protected by Convention number 87 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and is crucial for the sustenance of democracy. Workers must be able to collectively assert their rights in the workplace with dignity and without fear of intimidation or persecution. Senators should concentrate their efforts on alleviating hardship and making strikes unnecessary. Rather than ban national strikes, they should make it compulsory for the executive arm of government to honour agreements and union leaders to ballot members before undertaking strike action.

It is indeed ridiculous for a few people to brazenly decide to hold the country to ransom. In minimum wage negotiations, brinkmanship does not favours anybody.


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