Nigerian workers, minimum wage and capitalism


The amount determined as a minimum wage has political, economic and social importance. Minimum wages are not simply products of negotiation. There are many issues that come to bear in such negotiations. And quite often, as we now see in Nigeria, there would be need for mobilization of workers power in decisive action to win even a still inadequate upward review of the national minimum wage.

Capitalism has been the dominant socioeconomic system worldwide for just about three hundred years now. It emerged from the revolutionary overthrow of feudalism. Under feudalism the feudal lords consumed most of the products of economic activities, so there was no much crises of unproductive surplus or distribution-related crises.

The capitalist mode of production is different, it creates wage labour. Unlike feudalism, capitalism does not own the wage slaves. This poses serious threat to capitalist mode of production as it brings many persons from different places to toil together and they are subjected to similar material conditions. This affords them chance to unite and call for better services hence reducing the unilateral control of the bosses on labour. This is reflected in institutional terms as collective bargaining.

But the bourgeois bosses will not share ultimate control of the labour process with the working class. Social dialogue and labour market institutions, such as the minimum wage are apparatus that help “regulate” the demand for improvement in condition of services or wages. This gives the trade unions some sense of “social partnership” with the bosses’ class and during situations of normalcy, stunts the extent of workers more demands that come with systemic dangers for capitalism, such as workers’ control over the process of production.

The bosses are aware, given the inherently crises-laden nature of capitalism, that challenges to their domination of society will always burst out at sometimes or other, even spontaneously. Their strategy is to be in control and stay on top of the situation at all times, as much as they can. Concessions such as wage increments are thus seen as means of buying continued peace from the working-class by the bosses. But they will always “price” this purchase like when you want to but something and cut the price you have to pay.

Workers won the right to minimum wage through struggle. And they have to make sure that they are not outpriced by the bosses’ class who want them to get the worst possible scenario of the concessions won, only by mobilizing to defend the grounds won. Negotiations alone are not enough. They have never been enough alone and they never will be, particularly in Nigeria.

The capitalists engage waged labour and workers in turn, with their labour power create wealth. Some capitalists’ apologetics and theoretician might argue that it is not just labour that creates wealth but capital, machines etc. equally creates wealth. But they forget or purposely fail to take into cognizance the fact that capital, which are the machines and other equipment used for production, owned by the bosses, are the products of previous labour, by some workers, earlier. There is thus no doubt whatsoever that labour creates wealth. Profit comes from the wealth labour creates. It is from the surplus value generated with the workers’ toil.

Each of the bosses wants to make more profit than the other. They are actually in competition with each other.  To remain in business, they each try to reduce the unit price of their products, as much as possible, so as to attract the purchase of these goods, for profit to be realised. The less efficient capitalists are forced to collapse to close shop.

Also they can make profit by reducing the costs of “factors of production” to the barest minimum possible.  Since to them, labour power is nothing but commodity, which as a factor of production they purchase with wages, by paying less wages per unit of goods produced, production cost is reduced. Higher profit is generated from the wealth created at the expense of the wellbeing of the workers.

Now the economic implication of this situation (which is an integral element of capitalist development) is that there will be growth in wealth and equally rapid growth in poverty especially in periods of boom. We have a practical example with Nigeria when in 2012-2014 we had a great boom in economic growth, but it did not translate to better living standards for the mass of working-class people. That is because equally at the same period there was massive poverty growth. The wealth from the boom was accumulated into the hands of few.

Not so surprisingly, these were the years before the nation’s economy slipped into recession. Going by the logic of some capitalist theoretician the nation’s economy shouldn’t have been in crisis. The growth indices appeared solid! But, when we have the situation that there is increasing poverty for the workers while there is astronomical increase in wealth for the few bosses, the demand for products will fall because the purchasing power of the millions of poor working-class people has dropped by geometrical proportions.

That leads to products getting stocked or rotten even when there are people who need to consume them but cannot afford to procure them. Now that means low profit for the bosses. Meanwhile, the main aim of investment for the bosses as capitalists is to make profit, not for the need of the masses. Hence the bosses will prefer to keep their monies rather than invest these for production when they are not sure of profit. We then have economic depression. This kind of situation often occurs in a cyclical manner of boom to burst as described here.

For the sustainability of the non-sufficient capitalist system the bosses must give reforms as concessions to working-class people sometimes. In 2011 that the minimum wage of N18,000 was resolved upon and implemented, the exchange rate for instance was N152 to a dollar which made the minimum wage $150 at the time. Practically, it could procure 3 bags of rice at #6,000 each. Now in 2018, the exchange rate is #360 to a dollar, which means the minimum wage is $50 and can barely procure a bag of rice now.

In perspective, that means Nigerian workers are more than 3 times poorer in real terms. Now this will not just create mass hunger but equally mass anger against the state and system – of course a hungry person is often an angry person – and according to a narrative, if a goat is chased to the wall, such goat will charge back at the chaser.

This sort of context could foster mass discontent leading to pre-revolutionary situations. Of course, that is bad for the bosses, so it is in their interest that they give in to the demand of the workers for an upward review of the national minimum wage. But, as we have seen with the dilly dallying over what the miserly new minimum wage on offer would be (N24,00 or N30,000), the bosses continue with the most insulting of “pricing” of the value of our labour power!

The struggle for a living wage is not only of material importance for the working-class, it is also important in raising class consciousness. Despite their claims to representing the whole of society the bosses show themselves to workers as being ever ready to ensure that we get the worst “deal” possible when it concerns our own income but on their own part, nothing is too much for them to get as profits or even through outright looting of the public treasury. It becomes clearer that to have life worth living, we must fight.

But, even the best of upward wages reviews never guarantees us a significantly better life under capitalism. As workers, we are wage-slaves. What we win nominally with these wage increases soon get eroded by inflation and never-ending streams of bills to pay. Thus, as we fight to win improvement of our terms and conditions of service, tied to wages, we must not lose sight of the ultimate aim of our fight which is to end the system of wage slavery itself. A well-fed slave is still nothing but a slave, even if better fed today than yesterday.

Winning our freedom from the exploitative bosses requires we organize politically to build the organization and consciousness of the mass of workers around the ultimate aim of self-emancipation.

It is with this understanding that working-class activists like you are organsied as the Socialist Workers and Youth League (SWL). We are part of the rank and file workers fighting for a living wage while ceaselessly campaigning for the struggle to continue until final victory, which is when we, the workers overthrow the anti-people system of capitalism and with all working-people build a new, socialist society based on solidarity and the collective use of our the social wealth for the benefit and development of everybody. Join us today in this great struggle of our class.

by Lai BROWN