EDITORIAL: When Minimum Wage Tango becomes Maximum ‘Wahala’

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The mills of government are such that not only do they grind slowly; they do so even in matters that ordinarily should be accorded priority attention, grinding at a snail pace until it is almost too late. Situated in this context, it is no wonder that the long-standing issue of a new minimum wage for Nigerian workers was allowed to drag on endlessly until not only was it almost too late but got to a stage when the Federal Government virtually boxed itself into a corner.

What makes this issue particularly perplexing is that negotiations for the new wage, which incidentally was one of the campaign pledges made by the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) government ahead of the 2015 general polls, had started about three years ago. Yet, inexplicably, until the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) got fed up with officialdom’s foot-dragging and called out workers for a “warning strike” last September, not much was done by the government as a measure of its seriousness.

Apparently caught flat-footed by that industrial action which had cast a shadow over the celebration of this year’s Independence Day, the central government scrambled to end the strike at dawn with a pledge to fast-track implementation of the new minimum wage. Alas, little or nothing was done until organized Labour announced a “total and indefinite” strike three weeks ago. Only then did the Minister of Labour, Chris Ngige and company wake up from their slumber, began to take proactive steps and prevailed on workers to sheath their swords and give government time to do the needful.

To their credit, following Labour’s decision to shelve the strike initially scheduled to start on Tuesday 6 November, 2018 the Federal Government indeed acted swiftly, even if a bit belatedly. A tripartite committee headed by the renowned public servant, Ama Pepple, concluded its assignment in record time and subsequently recommended N30,000.00 as the new national minimum wage. Presenting her committee’s report to President Muhammadu Buhari, she intoned that the new wage regime would ultimately stimulate business and overall economic growth, aside from boosting workers’ purchasing power.

President Buhari, apparently in total agreement with Pepple’s ascertion, declared in his speech: “In constituting this committee we took into account the need for all stakeholders to be adequately represented–the government, the private sector and most importantly, the workers. Our goal was to get an outcome that was consensual”. With N30,000.00 having been agreed by the Pepple–led committee, it is no wonder that conventional wisdom – as reported by the mass media – has it that the presidency had agreed to the consensus reached by Pepple and Co.

Against this backdrop, it has come as little surprise that workers on the one hand, and the generality of Nigerians on the other, bristled with indignation when Aso Rock back-tracked barely a few hours later. According to governments spokesperson, notably Femi Adesina, Buhari’s Special Assistant on Media, the president never agreed to N30,000 as the new minimum wage but merely said he would forward the committee’s proposal to the National Council of States, National Assembly and so forth.

Needless to say, this inexplicable rebuttal has raised eyebrows leading to questions being asked about the government’s sincerity vis-à-vis the minimum wage matter. The general consensus is that the government is either merely playing for time or taking Nigerian workers for a jolly ride. Not a few find it hard to believe that between 2015 and now the incumbent administration has found it difficult to take a stand on the minimum wage matter.

Unfortunately, time has become a luxury which the Buhari government no longer has. With the general elections barely three months away, the government has been boxed into a tight corner. It’s like finding oneself between the devil and the deep blue sea. Whichever way the pendulum swings, the blame will be squarely laid on the Federal Government’s table.

All this would have been avoided if the officialdom had not dilly-dallied on the contentious issue for far too long. The Labour Minister, Nigige, in particular performed below average with respect to the negotiation. The way out now is for the government to live up to expectations, even if belatedly, before the matter gets out of hand. With workers restive and patient and with the Labour leadership under pressure to strike, government should ensure that the new minimum wage doesn’t degenerate into maximum ‘wahala’ capable of consuming the whole nation.

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