Minimum Wage, NLAC: In Praise of Minister Chris Ngige, By Issa Aremu


Having related with dozen of Ministers of Labour during my eventful 35 years in the labour movement, I bear witness that Senator Chris Ngige, stands out among the best for his statesmanship in upholding the cherished core values of tripartism, Decent work, defense of workers rights that Nigeria signed into as a long standing member of International Labour Organization ( ILO).

ILO Membership is a national heritage. Nigeria has been an ILO member since 1960, on attaining independence. The country has also commendably ratified 40 international labour Conventions compared to United States which has ratified only 14 of 189 ILO Conventions despite being member of the executive body ILO Governing Body. ILO Convention 28, the Minimum Wage Fixing Machinery Convention of 1928 (No.26) and the Minimum Wage Fixing Convention of 1970 (No131) are notable conventions with Nigeria’s signature.

The conventions provided international biding framework for the first national Minimum Wage in 1981 as demanded for by NLC’s Chatter of Demands initiated by the founding leadership of NLC led by Alhaji Hassan Sunmonu. Since 1981 there had been significant four reviews of National Minimum Wage: 1990 (N250 per month), 2000 (N5,500 per month, 7,500 for Federal employees, N6000 for Delta and Rivers states), 2011 ( N18,000) and 2018 (N30,000). Thanks to organized Labour’s demand and struggles led by the Nigeria labour Congress! While many enlightened employers in private and public sectors uphold minimum wage principle, regrettably the notable gain of Nigeria’s working class has come under varying attacks in recent times by some few governors who often claim inability to pay negotiated rate. Ironically minimum wage negotiation process is inclusive of governors.

I recall that at the height of the negotiation for the latest minimum wage in 2018, Abdulaziz Yari, then chairman of the Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF), reportedly said that governors “are not against the upward review of the minimum wage but they only lack capacity to pay it”.The received wisdom had it that if there is the will, there would always be some ways.

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Many governors like Abdulaziz Yari feigning inability to pay minimum wage paradoxically exhibited enormous will to seek “ways” and “means” to finance and refinance serial televised primary and indirect political party primaries with some delegates paid in sundry currencies (and certainly more than national minimum wage!). Governors’ Forum under Yari had scandalously proposed N20000.

Precisely because yours comradely “was involved” (apology to late Nkemba Chief Emeka Ojukwu), I can disclose that no political party accepts N30000 for local government or house of assembly nomination form, the amount a worker with a wife and four children earns in a month. Former President Goodluck Jonathan also demonstrated uncommon statesmanship and resisted the pressures of Governors Forum under Rotimi Amaechi not to sign N18,000 minimum wage Act of 2011. However the most unhelpful, uninformed and most dangerous controversial attack on the principle of National Minimum Wage lies in the recent private member bill sponsored by Hon. Garba Datti Mohammed representing Sabon Gari Federal Constituency in Kaduna State.

The bill seeks to move minimum wage from Exclusive list to concurrent legislative of the 1999 constitution. Some Governors have even inexplicably and ingeniously argued that the bill was part of a “national restructuring”, the new buzz word by the political class to escape from the challenge of good governance. The controversial bill had passed second reading at the House of Representatives before thousands of members of Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) marched into the National Assembly to protest against move by lawmakers to remove minimum wage matters from the exclusive legislative list to the concurrent legislative list. Should the bill become law, the federal government will not have exclusive jurisdiction to determine a national minimum wage and states will now have the power to determine their own minimum wages, preferably down wards.

It is to the eternal credit of Minister Chris Igige that he rose in defense of the principle of minimum wage which is also enshrined in 1999 constitution. Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, at the inaugural meeting of the newly-constituted National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) in Owerri, Imo State capital, reiterated the government’s position in defense of minimum wage on exclusive list. He said it was based on the need to comply with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 144 to which Nigeria is a signatory. With this singular Honourable intervention, Minister Igige would be credited with the best labour practice legacies, just like some Labour Ministers who had commendably defended Workers’ rights despite political pressures.

I recall that Dr Emmanuel Udogu was the Labour Minister under General Abubakar Abdulsalam as the military head of state following the death of the maximum military dictator: Sanni Abacha. Despite political pressures by some anti-labour forces in Abubakar military junta to retain obnoxious decrees promoted by his predecessor Minister Uba Ahmed, Dr Emmanuel Udogu commendably upheld the sanctity of ILO conventions and progressive labour laws Nigeria had signed into. His predecessor, Alhaji Uba Ahmed, the Honourable Labour and Productivity Minister, had enthusiastically promoted obnoxious Decree No. 4 of 1996 which chose to ‘reinvent’ the country’s trade unions by providing legal backing for the restructuring of the hitherto 41 into 29 industrial unions as well as redefining union membership through exclusion of so called “non-card-carrying members”. Uba Ahmed also promoted the notorious decrees 9, 1 0 and 24 which dissolved the Executive councils of the NLC, NUPENG, PEGASSAN, ASSU and NASU (almost in that order). Dr Emmanuel Udogu as the Labour Minister engaged with organized labour to repeal these obnoxious and restore trade union independence in line with ILO conventions.

History would credit Minister Ngige and minister of state, Festus Kyamo that at times like this when national minimum wage principle is under attack, they acted like statesmen to uphold trade union rights even if not politically correct with some members of the ruling party.

The point cannot be overstated that Minimum Wage on Exclusive list is a settled national question. Since the second Republic with the enactment of the inaugural Minimum Wage in 1981, only the Federal government through the Ministries Labour and Finance, Bureau of Statistics, has the data to engage organized labour and private sector before arriving at the national minimum to ensure Decent, not slave work and productivity. 21 years after uninterrupted democratic process, it is unacceptable that some legislators lack sufficient knowledge of 1999 constitution which puts critical factors of development like labour, capital and land on the exclusive list with a view of promoting a planned and balanced economic development of Nigeria. All Federations of the world maintain minimum labour, health, safety pension, welfare and financial standards failing which sustainable and harmonious development is impossible. 1999 envisages good governance and welfare of all persons in “consolidating the unity of our people which he says explains while it directs that suitable and adequate shelter, suitable and adequate food, reasonable national minimum living wage, old age care and pensions, and unemployment, sick benefits and welfare of the disabled are provided for all citizens”.

I commend President Muhammadu Buhari for following in the footsteps of Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo, Musa Yar/ Good Luck Jonathan to increase minimum wage as part of agenda for Decent work, growth and development. Economic recovery would elude Nigerian economy until the country put an end to persistent crisis of compensation of the working class through enhanced purchasing power which is only possible through prompt and adequate payment of minimum and living wage for the employed workforce. The key to sustainable development is labour productivity in both public and private sectors which is only possible with motivated paid workers at work and after work through adequate pensions. Nigeria must remain committed to decent work agenda which include payment of a living wage to all categories of workers in the public and private sectors, as an investment in human capital is an investment nation- building. This is why the inauguration of the newly-constituted National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) is timely. It offers another opportunity to revive tripartism and social dialogue on critical labour issues at times like this which throws up covid: 19 pandemic and it’s attendant economic recession. The rationale for new minimum wage is simple; The ILO (which Nigeria joined at independence) has passed Convention 131 and Recommendation No. 135 1970 ratified by Nigeria show that:– national minimum wage fixing should constitute one element in a national policy designed to overcome poverty and to ensure the satisfactions of the needs of workers and their families; and– That the fundamental purpose of national minimum wage fixing should be to give earner necessary special protection as regards minimum permissible levels of wage.

Many employers have the liberty to pay more as we have seen in year 2000 when Federal government, many private sector employers and some states paid beyond the legally permissible national minimum.

Issa Aremu mni

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