Rising cost of living

     Unpaid salaries of workers

    N56,000 Minimum Wage

SW.exp.Jan_17

2016 was one of the gloomiest years for Nigerian workers. We must turn this worrisome reality around in 2017. We can do this only with relentless struggle. At the heart of the problem is the exploitative nature of the capitalist system. 2017 is a year to fight for system change!

In the past year, unemployment rates reached a 15-year high of 13.9%, as it continued to rise for seven 7 consecutive months. Tens of thousands of jobs were lost as the country sank into its worst recession in almost 40 years, while about a million new entrants into the labour market were left hapless and hopeless, trying to eke a living as they could find in the informal economy.

Over 3 million public sector workers in two thirds of the states are owed salaries, for 3 months, at the least. Cost of living has become unbearable even for those that still have jobs. But, the bosses and politicians continue to feed fat, with barely 18,000 political office holders across the three tiers of the federation being paid N1.3trillion as salaries and emoluments, amounting to a tenth of the annual budget for just 0.01% of the population.

Despite its much vaunted anti-corruption stance, key figures in the Buhari-led administration have been fingered in large scale malfeasance, including the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr Babachir Lawal who’s company, Rholavision Engineering Ltd., inflated contracts to the tune of hundreds of millions of naira, by manipulating the “emergency situation” clause in the 2007 Public Procurement Act to divert monies meant for alleviating the conditions of Internally Displaced Persons.

President Buhari claimed to “know how difficult things are” for poor working class people, as he assured the nation that “that this recession will not last”, during his Independence speech in October. The Federal Government and other spokespersons of the rich bosses have called on the working masses to bear the burden of recovery, freezing wages where these are even paid in the first place.

But this is rubbing insult upon injury. A few people grew stupendously rich during the preceding period of significant economic growth of up to 7.4%. According to Forbes magazine, there were 5,000 rich bosses in Nigeria who could be counted as dollar millionaires, in 2010. This number rose to 15,400 by 2015. The number of “naira billionaires” equally tripled to at least 770.

During the same period, the poverty rate increased from 53.5% to 69%. Real wages remained near stagnant. Miserly increases in nominal wages were rendered ineffective for bettering the lot of workers. Galloping inflation and the collapse of the naira against the dollar have made prices of most goods unaffordable.

What has become almost as worrisome for the working masses as this depressing situation is the inadequate response of organised labour in coming up with radical alternatives and putting up a fight. While the NLC has put together committees of radical academics to come up with a socio-economic alternative national development agenda, there has been no programmatic popularisation of this.

When the working class faced such a situation as we are going through in the early 1980s, NLC came up with the Workers’ Charter of Demands, a simple but powerfully articulated document that became the platform for a anti-austerity struggle, in that period.

NLC and TUC have also not adequately challenged the nauseating new normal of workers being owed backlogs of salaries. Councils of the trade union centres in a number of states have organised protests and general strikes, with some level off success of the other. But, without a generalised response to the general problem of unpaid wages and struggle for a N56,000 national minimum wage, we cannot win.

And if we do not robustly fightback to ensure the backlogs are paid, issuing press statements insisting on the time being ripe for reviewing the national minimum wage cannot but sound sterile, even to the bosses. The fight for N56,000 minimum wage has to be tied to the struggle for payment of salary arrears across the states.

Recessions are one of the sharpest demonstration of the inefficiency of capitalism. Millions and indeed billions of people across the world are thrown into states of misery not because there is not enough to go round, but because the profitability from selling these as commodities declines for the bosses.

So, while recessions are not consciously brought about by the bosses, their actions lead to it, as they cut down on investment until this could become more profitable. In Nigeria for example, over $20bn is lying idle in the domiciliary accounts of a few rich people, despite the crash of the naira’s value in the foreign exchange market.

In attempting to use recessions to ruthlessly clear house, so to speak, the bosses do all they can to make working class people to bear the burden of recovery. Recessions are used as a kind of economic “disciplining” of the poor, to accept their state as normal. Thus, the first thing organised labour must move away from is helping the bosses to think along. For example, the “common sense” of there not being enough money, so let us settle for a few months from the backlogs of salaries only plays into the hands of our rulers, who silently smile at how meek we are.

They bosses’ can and do find monies for things they consider priorities. “Labour creates wealth”, as the NLC’s motto rightly captures. We must demand payment of living wages as and at when due, without compromise, as a matter of top priority in 2017. The rich who benefited from growth and whose capitalist system led to recession should be the ones to bear the cost of recovery.

Corporate Income Tax which has been reduced over the years since independence should be increased. All tax holidays for multinational corporations must be ended, and steeped progressive income tax implemented. These should help expand state revenue.

But, we must not stop at this. Without political power, the working class can come up with the best of economic blueprints and this will be in vain. The need for building a mass-based labour party cannot be overemphasized at this point in time. While we should be active in electoral and non-electoral politics within the current political-legal context, we must not be constrained by this.

Lasting political power of the working class will be enthroned only with the mass of workers and other exploited people rising to seize their emancipation in their arms: taking over the factories, banks, mines, from the control of the bosses and changing the very nature of the state from being a means to further the interests of the few over the many, to one of advancing development, democracy from below and ensuring the bosses cannot reverse this.

We can stand building the blocks of this new future in 2017. If we dare to struggle, we dare to win!