By Tahir Hashim [tahirhashimu@gmail.com]

The emergence of the novel Coronavirus in Wuhan, China, towards the end of the 2019, which has brought with it pains, death and social and economic hardships provided some reliefs for governors of states who did everything possible to stop the approval of the National Minimum Wage in 2018. At least, they can pretend to hide under the cover of the social menace caused by the disease not to implement the payment of the minimum wage in their states for now since attentions are diverted to the issues on how to contain the disease.

The disease and the accompanying economic and social dislocations it has caused have constituted serious threats to governments and corporate institutions all over the world. While governments that are desirous of serving their citizens are at crossroads and are mapping out plans on how to contain the pandemic, here, in Nigeria, the only serious plan the government has for the citizens seem to be imposition of lockdowns and restrictions without considering the impacts and effects they would have on the people.

While the attention of the world has been diverted by the increasing global fatality, capital elsewhere and in Nigeria has been engrossed with the losses that it will incur as there would be no production as a result of the lockdowns imposed to contain the spread of the disease.

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In advanced capitalist economies where people just like in Nigeria were confined to their homes, governments distributed palliatives in money to the unemployed, workers that were not in formal employment and those that were not in any employment at all in order to avoid revolt from the people. In Nigeria, the President directed that palliatives should be given in the form of food and cash to about 3.6 million households. But in reality, nobody seems to know the beneficiaries of these palliatives. If working people were among the recipients of these palliatives, were their organizations not supposed to be involved in the distribution?

“Ideally, we are told, there exist a direct link between democracy and development and democracy and service delivery. Democracy and development are interconnected and cannot be separated. But in Nigeria, what we have is the opposite as democracy means development of the pockets of the political elite, their immediate families and coterie of associates.”

With no palliatives and no minimum wage for workers in most of the states of the federation and citizens were confined to their homes as a result of the government-imposed lockdowns and restrictions, many workers especially those who are self-employed and those working in the informal sector ran out of money to buy basic necessities for themselves and their families.

In countries like Egypt and Algeria, some measures were taken in these last few months which ranged from topping up of pensions and suspension of ‘Pay as You Earn Tax’ for workers for some months. In UK, for instance, commercial and residential tenants who could not pay their rents because of the coronavirus pandemic were given legal protection from eviction by their landlords for at least three months. These measures are stimulus packages given by these countries to protect their economies from collapsing.

Here in our clime, instead of the government providing incentives that could serve as reliefs or palliatives, what we get are policies that clearly compound the hardship being experienced by the people. The Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC), for instance announced on its website on the 4th of January, 2020, that it had approved a new electricity tariff to be charged by the Electricity Distribution Companies (DisCos) in the country with effect from April, 2020.

We know that in countries where some incentives were given with the right hand, they could be taken back with left hand; but at least, they were given. In Nigeria, we do not have anything in spite of the fact that we have been in this lockdown for months.

Even before the emergence and the spread of the disease in Nigeria, most state governments were very apprehensive of the approval of the new national minimum wage because they were wondering how approval could be given for payment of N30,000 minimum wage when some states could not pay the N18,000 minimum wage.  Most state governments that ordinarily did not want to implement the new minimum wage will now hide under the socio-economic scares caused by covid-19 punish workers by refusing to pay the minimum wage when actually they failed to be creative.

“Representative democracy is mediation where people are spoken to, for and about through recognised democratic channels or platforms – parliament, mass media, social dialogue or town hall fora, etc. I am not sure if Governor el- Rufai engaged the workers and their representatives in dialogue or negotiation before he embarked on his tyrannical journey to cut their salaries.”

The states that may not be willing to implement the new minimum wage will not want to do so because its implementation will rub them of funding their frivolities and extravagance.

Nigerians were told that the Nigerian Private Sector Coalition Against COVID-19, which consisted of industrialists and corporate organizations, donated some billions of naira to support the fight against the spread of the contagious disease among Nigerians. In as much as the individuals and corporate organizations that made these donations are appreciated, the public has up to now not been told what these donations have been expended on. If one may ask, were the donations used in buying drugs or were they used to equip the isolation centres and hospitals? Or better still, were they used as palliatives?

At least, if the working people were excluded from the palliatives, they are legally entitled to the new National Minimum Wage which was approved in November 2018 after long negotiations which involved the Nigeria Labour Congress, the Trade Union Congress and other social partners.

With the conclusion of negotiations on the minimum wage, consequential adjustments at the federal level and issuance of a circular by the Federal Government on 15th November, 2019, which can be used as benchmarks to guide state governments and other private sector employers of labour to reach agreement with their workers on what they should pay as minimum wage, the coast was clear on the implementation of the minimum wage by the state governments and other employers.

Ideally, we are told, there exist a direct link between democracy and development and democracy and service delivery. Democracy and development are interconnected and cannot be separated. But in Nigeria, what we have is the opposite as democracy means development of the pockets of the political elite, their immediate families and coterie of associates.

On the 25th of April, 2019, the Bayelsa State House of Assembly passed a bill that was to enable each member of the house, past and serving, to receive monthly life pensions from the coffers of the state government. With the passage of the bill which approved N500,000 post-service monthly pension for the speakers, while deputy speakers would receive N200, 000 and members would get N100,000 each, and with the expectation that the governor was going to assent to the bill to make it legitimate and legal, it is not as if the political elite are saying that there is  no money to pay the minimum wage, but they are saying that if minimum wage is paid, there would be no money for them to play around with to satisfy their greed.

Bayelsa State was not alone in this sleaze. Former governor of Zamfara State, Abdul’aziz Yari, some months ago requested for payment of his monthly upkeep allowance of ten million Naira (N10, 000,000) and a pension equivalent to the salary he was receiving while in office. Many other states are also involved in these rip-offs.

Though the laws in Bayelsa State, and in other states that had similar laws, were repealed by the judgment of the Court of Appeal sitting in Abuja in August, 2019 and reversals of such laws by some state Houses of Assembly, it has become very clear that some political office holders did not seek political office to serve the people but to serve themselves.

The simple truth is that our political elite are only hesitant to pay the minimum wage in order to have enough money to satisfy their greed and extravagant lifestyles. In an ideal environment, minimum wage increases the standard of living for the poor and most vulnerable groups among the working people. It also motivates and encourages employees to work harder to justify the pay raise, all of which invariably put more money in the hands of the working class to boost the economy.

Elsewhere, where politics is engaged in with some measure of moderation, essentially aimed at improving the lot of the people, minimum wage receives very high priority. This is because it is also argued that minimum wage decreases government spending on social welfare programmes with the increase in incomes for the lowest-paid worker. But here, where everything is politicised and democratic ethos are observed in the breach marked by lack of accountability and transparency, minimum wage issues are clearly inconsequential.

The governor of Kaduna State, Nasir el-Rufai, on 26th April, 2020, announced that the state’s public servants earning at least, N67, 000 will donate 25% of their salaries to the state for use in fighting the coronavirus. This decision by the governor was taken without consultation with the workers and their representatives and yet, we said, we are practicing democracy.

Representative democracy is mediation where people are spoken to, for and about through recognised democratic channels or platforms – parliament, mass media, social dialogue or town hall fora, etc. I am not sure if Governor el- Rufai engaged the workers and their representatives in dialogue or negotiation before he embarked on his tyrannical journey to cut their salaries.

Article Two, Paragraph 1 of the ILO Convention 131 of 1970, which is on, Minimum Wage Fixing, states that “Minimum wages shall have the force of law and shall not be subject to abatement, and failure to apply them shall make the person or persons concerned liable to appropriate penal or other sanctions.” Paragraph 2 of the same article states that: “Subject to the provisions of paragraph 1 of this Article, the freedom of collective bargaining shall be fully respected.”

The provisions of the ILO Convention mentioned above inferred that workers’ wage is one of their democratic rights which should freely be given to them and should not be seen by political office holders as favour which can be given or denied or withheld or reduced at the instance of the politicians and employers in both formal and informal sectors. All issues that have to do with the workers are supposed to be negotiated and agreed before decisions can be taken.

It is in this guise that employers should not hide under the cover of Covid-19 to deny workers the new minimum wage. Denying them this basic right by employers will create widespread anger which instruments of coercions wielded by the government may not be able to defuse.

Comrade Hashim is an Assistant General Secretary, Nigeria Labour Congress National Headquarters, Abuja.

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