Buhari promised labour minimum wage but no FG commitment — Olaleye, TUC President

In this interview, President of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), Quadri Olaleye, narrates that government’s failure to implement the N30,000 minimum wage will kill job satisfaction.

Excerpts:

What is the level of involvement of the Trade Union Congress in the negotiation over implementation of the N30,000 minimum wage so far?

TUC is the main body negotiating for the consequential effect of the new minimum wage. We have 99 per cent of our members in that category, so we are the major body negotiating with the government.

The Nigeria Labour Congress is giving its support even though it has a minimal number of workers in the category we are talking about. However, we are united in the fight for the new minimum wage.

I can also tell Nigerians that so far, despite the ultimatum issued to the Federal Government by organised labour, there is no official meeting between the parties involved. What we are having is consultation which cannot replace official meeting. An official meeting has been fixed for Tuesday, October 15, 2019.

We have had consultations with the Senate over the issue and we looked at various ways to resolve the issue. We reiterated that our mandate was 29 per cent salary increase for officers on levels 07 to 14, and 24 per cent salary adjustment for officers on levels 15 to 17. Our deadline of October 16, 2019 however stands.

Has the National Assembly intervened in any way?

We received invitation from the House of Representatives, calling for a meeting on the same day (October 16, 2019), which we are going to attend. But for now, there is no official meeting. Our mandate and ultimatum have not changed.

Are you impressed so far with the way the Joint National Public Service Negotiating Council has handled negotiations with the Federal Government’s team on labour’s behalf?

On the part of the council, we are highly impressed. Members of the team have represented the work force well because they have shown understanding with the country. They have been able to move from above 66 per cent salary increase mandate to 29 per cent which demonstrated their maturity in handling the issue.

What is your opinion on the attitude of the government team in the negotiation and the government’s commitment to implement the new wage structure totally?

They started with four per cent and it is now 11 per cent. You can see that the behaviour is like saying we are in control, we represent the government and we have all the jokers up our sleeves. You will agree with me that during any negotiation, all parties involved are equal. You don’t come to a negotiating table with your authority or power. So far, our own team has done well.

The poor commitment of the Federal Government is what has brought us to this level. President Muhammadu Buhari gave his word but the body language of his representatives shows that the commitment is not there.

That is why we at a point advised the FG team to meet the President and present the positions of the two parties to him so that he could transform his commitment and promises to something that workers would feel. Promises and commitments that cannot be interpreted in financial term to boost workers morale are meaningless. We are pleading with the President to salvage that area before it gets out of hand.

How often was the TUC briefed about what happened at each of the meeting with government?

We were part of all the meetings. The JNPSNC, NLC and TUC agreed that all the meetings must be attended and we have been doing that.

The Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige, said on Thursday that minimum wage was not the same as total salary review. He said labour made a mistake in taking the two as the same. How will you react to that?

I appreciate him for telling us that after the minimum wage implementation, we should send another proposal for general salary review or living wage discussion. When you analyse the minimum wage of N30,000 per month that we are discussing, it simply means N1,000 per day for workers (at the lower rung).

We all know that for a worker with a wife and four children as recognised by law, N1,000 is not enough to take care of the family in a day. He will pay for rent, transport, children school fees and so on.

That brings us to the issue of living wage and general salary review. The last time we had salary review in Nigeria was in 2010. Nine years after, we have not reviewed workers’ salaries while the costs of rent and other services, including food items, have increased.

Nigerians eat food that cannot supply the body with necessary nutrients because what they have is minimum wage and not living wage.

Like I said, I appreciate the minister and the FG should expect our proposal on general salary review or living wage that will sustain an average worker in Nigeria. What you call living wage is earning something that irrespective of the state you live, it will be enough to cater for you. We can start after the minimum wage discussion.

The purpose of consequential increase as a result of minimum wage is to motivate workers to do more. Now, if someone was already on N30,000 before the new minimum wage and the salary of his junior colleague was increased by 66 per cent as a result of minimum wage increase. It means both of them will now earn N30,000 each as salary. This will cause job dissatisfaction, salary discrepancy and salary overlapping whereby a junior staff member earns more than their boss.

It is our responsibility to go back to the salary scale and do some adjustment. That is the consequential effect. That effect is what we are discussing; I have to let the minister have this information. We know that what we are discussing is not general salary review.

We should ask the question – why do we have workers under the same ministry earning different salaries even though they are on the same grade. This is something that the FG must look into and correct.

It is difficult to move people from a department to another because they have different salary grades. These are anomalies that should be corrected and we are ready to discuss with the government.

Will the percentage increase that the FG has put on the table not address the discrepancy you talk about?

That cannot address it. Increasing salary from N18,000 to N30,000 created N12,000 difference which translates to 66 per cent. Anything less than what we are demanding will translate into short-changing the workers affected. It means robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Now that 2020 total salary review has been mentioned by the FG ahead your negotiation in Tuesday, do you suspect that the government might put something forward to weaken your position?

We believe that should be an additional opportunity to make Nigerian workers happy apart from our demands. Let us first correct the consequential effect and salary overlapping first. When the Federal Government comes with the 2020 salary adjustment or review, it will benefit everyone. It is the responsibility of employers to motivate workers and the government is also an employer. If people are paid salaries that are commensurate with their efforts on the job, corruption will be drastically reduced.

Do you trust the government to increase salaries twice in one year?

This is the same way they cajoled us before the 2019 elections to get our votes. They said minimum wage would be approved and implemented within two months but after the elections, what happened? This is likely to be the same thing. The cajoling cannot work. They are saying this to discourage workers from going on strike. We know government’s gimmick and we cannot be deceived twice. We have learnt our lesson and we are ready for the government.

It is expected that the meeting on Tuesday will be the last one. If both parties fail to address all issues, will labour be ready to give the government more time beyond the October 16 ultimatum?

We have been on this issue for a long time. We are not going to discuss preliminary issues at the meeting. We are discussing a key issue, which is our mandate on percentage increase. That is why at the meeting, we should concentrate our efforts on the issue. If the government gives us what we ask for, there will be no need to go on strike. If we are discussing even minor matters and time elapses on October 16, we will go on strike the next day.

We have opened the opportunity to discuss officially or unofficially. That window closes on October 16, 2019. At that time, we will take our case to the public and the people will be the judge. They will know who is right or wrong. Our mandate and ultimatum remain the same.

Considering the state of the economy and what the government has been telling the public, do you think there is money to pay?

There is money to pay. We have advised them to block all financial loopholes. The Minister of Labour claimed that we have 1.3 million employees in the civil service but the right figure is 938, 000. We were made to know that they had made provision in the budget for 1.3 million workers. We are saying that the money is for 938,000 workers. Let us confirm which of these figures are correct. I am sure our own figure is correct.

If you have prepared food for 1.3 million people – a slice of bread per one and you find out that the figure is wrong, it means that 938, 000 people can have enough food. That is the situation we have. There is enough money for workers.

A government that budgets billions of money for social intervention should have enough to pay its workers if it concentrates on their welfare. The burden of workers goes beyond their immediate families. They have dependants too. Let the government use part of the money for social intervention to pay salaries and there will be enough to do so.

Some categories of unions who are not under the NLC or TUC have said they are unlikely to join the strike. What are you doing to ensure that all workers’ unions are on board?

At the moment, we have fully mobilised our members and we are united. We are not unaware of comments of people that have claimed that they would not join. I want them to know that in unity we stand; the strike is for all workers and their families. The best thing we can do is to support the struggle.

Former Deputy National Publicity Secretary of the All Progressives Congress, Timi Frank, said recently that the government had not implemented the new minimum wage fully because labour leaders’ ranks had been compromised. Is there division among you on the issue of the new wage structure?

I do not know where he got his information. The best thing is for him to name the labour leaders that have been bought over by the government. Like every other person, he has the right to his statement. Maybe he is just awakening the conscience of the people. For me, I see it as a challenge to do more. It is not really a negative comment so he should continue to do that for us so we can prepare ourselves.

If the strike paralyses the economy and becomes lengthy. How far can labour go?

We should be thinking of how far can the government go – it will lose billions of naira in the event of a lengthy strike? We should be thinking of how far can they cope with the effect of such a strike action? We will stop our services because we are not happy with what we earn. We should be calculating the losses to the government. If we proceed on strike, I wonder how the National Assembly will debate the 2020 budget. The strike will also affect direct foreign investment in Nigeria.

You met the Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, as part of your effort to resolve the minimum wage deadlock. What did you achieve with that meeting?

We appreciate him for receiving us at his office. We talked about a lot of issues; minimum wage, job creation and what the government role should be in creating sustainable job beyond the N-Power and giving money to marketers.

Job creation should focus on youths. The devil finds work for idle hands. Our youths are employed by all vices because they are available. We must create jobs that have security; jobs that will make people appreciate going to school and acquiring skills. He has promised that the government of President Muhammadu Buhari, supported by him, will not relent in engaging labour.

He also pleaded with us to show understanding with the government on the issue of minimum wage. We made him to understand that our mandate was still the same. It was an opportunity for him to consult with his boss on the issues raised. If the government concentrates on workers’ welfare, workers will help the government to block loopholes.

Labour minister. Ngige, said personnel and wage bill of government has risen from N1.88tn to N3.08tn between 2016 and 2020. How will you react to this?

We have told the government several times that it is not its responsibility to create all the jobs. The government is to provide an enabling environment where businesses can thrive. I will encourage the government to work with all parties involved to encourage investors.

The government can help create jobs through retirees if it comes with better schemes. The retirees have benefits, experience and professionalism to invest and employ youths. It should concentrate on assisting the private sector to create jobs.

There is the need for the government to review the functions of banks established to help certain sectors like agriculture, industry and so on. I am aware that a lot of dying companies have approached such banks for facilities to revive their companies but the banks give difficult conditions that cannot be met. There is the need for regular oversight of these banks to see if they are really solving the problems of the investors.

There is also the need for transparency. The banks should publish the companies that are benefitting from the intervention policies.

We have written to the Central Bank of Nigeria to publish the names of companies that have benefitted from its dollar disbursement but up till now, that has not been done. Those are the loopholes that the government should look at instead of revealing the astronomical increase in its wage figures. There are many companies do not exist but still benefit from CBN disbursement while existing ones who apply do not get it.

Do you trust the figure and do you think that with the figure given by Ngige, labour can still get its demands from the government?

We can have our way despite the claim. From 1999 till date, we have all agreed that there are ghost workers in the system. Each government promises to remove them but I have never seen regular reports being done on how many workers government have shed. Let us concentrate on getting those ghost workers off the system instead of discussing this fake figure. – Culled from Punch.

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