Minimum Wage & Struggle for Living Wage

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Half of the states in the federation are yet to commence payment of the miserly N30,000 national minimum wage, two years after it was passed into law. The National Executive Council meeting of the NLC held in the second week of February directed NLC State Councils in the affected states to “immediately proceed on industrial action”.

Weeks after this declaration,  the wave of strikes is yet to materialise. But the bosses on their own part have swung into the offensive, with a constitutional amendment bill to transfer minimum wage setting from the exclusive legislative list to the concurrent.

This Constitution Alteration Bill was speedily passed through two readings in the house of representatives in February. If it is enacted into law, state governments will not be bound by the national minimum wage. They will be free to set their own state-level minimum wage.

Governors have pushed for this for a long time. And they never hid their reason for doing this, which is to set the minimum wage they will pay below that passed as national legislation. It is also pertinent to point out that, many states have always refused to fully implement any of the three national minimum laws, since 1999.

This is even though the real worth (what the money can buy in the market) of the minimum wage has continually declined. They have falsely argued that determination of the minimum wage at the national level goes against the principles of “fiscal federalism”.

But all the governors, even of the poorest states, receive the same amount as salaries, as well as huge amounts as security votes that are not accounted for. They also have other means of corruptly enriching themselves. There is hardly any former governor today that is not a billionaire or at least a multi-millionaire, while workers whose labour creates the wealth wallow in penury.

The fault does not lie in the governors or legislators. They are our oppressors and part of the ruling class which exploits us. They are inclined to take as much from us as they can. But the limit of how much they can take, is largely determined by how hard we as workers collectively fight them.

Few rank-and-file workers will disagree with the view that the national leaderships of organised labour, over the years, have not fought enough. They have been apologetic in leading struggles for minimum wages that were living wages, as well as in defending the paltry minimum wages that were conceded by the bosses.

They have always bent backwards, up to the point of breaking, in the name of “negotiations”. We can still recall how N30,000 was accepted as the new national minimum wage, as against the demand for N52,500. In real terms this was a step backwards from the 2011 minimum wage of N18,000. The 2011 minimum wage was equivalent to $150 at the time, while N30,000 was equivalent to $80 when it was signed into law. It is worth far less today.

We can also recall how the N18,000 minimum wage was not paid in several states and the NLC state councils were asked to fight on their own, just as they have again been directed to do. Ironically, what this means is that organised labour is, in a way, doing exactly what the constitutional alteration bill wants to achieve.

While the bill seeks to decentralise wage-setting, organised labour is decentralising struggle. The state governments are always represented in the tripartite negotiations for setting the national minimum wage. Our struggle for the implementation of the minimum wage anywhere must involve workers everywhere. The argument that states paying should not be fought does not hold water. Solidarity strikes are used by workers to put pressure on the bosses, by workers not directly affected.

Simply directing workers in affected states to go on strike has not always been quite successful. A few NLC and TUC state councils have done so before, but most of these singular struggles have been defeated. What we need is a national general strike to force all state governments to pay. The only language the bosses understand is workers’ collective fightback.

Our struggle must not simply be defensive. We must go on the offensive. We must insist that minimum wage setting remains on the exclusive legislative list. But we must also address substantive issues, along with this important procedural issue. There are two of such issues which need to be addressed.

First, it was agreed upon in 2011 that the national minimum wage would be reviewed every five years. The 2019 review represents a 3-year delay. That must not be allowed to repeat itself. We must have an upward review of the minimum wage this year.

Second, we must fight for the national minimum wage to always be a living wage. Wages are needed by workers in a capitalist economy to be able to put food on the table, cloth themselves and their families, and pay bills.

Minimum wage setting must be based on a cost-of-living index, such that an average worker can live on her or his wage, for it to have meaning. Henceforth, we must insist on this, as the very basis of negotiations.

This is the time for organised labour to stand firm in unequivocal nationwide struggle for the full payment of the national minimum wage in all states, an immediate review which will make the minimum wage a living wage, and against removing minimum wage setting from the exclusive legislative list. Rank-and-file workers must make their voice heard by the union leadership that they will not take anything less.

by Segun OGUN

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