President, Nigeria Labour Congress, Ayuba Wabba, tells ADELANI ADEPEGBA that the proposed bill on minimum wage is designed to further impoverish the Nigerian workers
Why do you think the proposed bill would undermine the working class in the country?
First is to point out clearly that the national minimum wage is a global standard set by the International Labour Organisation to protect workers from exploitation and it is defined as the minimum which workers can be paid hourly, weekly or monthly. For the avoidance of doubt, the International Labour Organisation which is the first agency of the United Nations, said this in its Philadelphia Declaration. This is the foundation of having a minimum wage in laws of countries but importantly, we have also two important conventions of the ILO which regulate the minimum wage. First is Convention 26 of 30th of May, 1928 which is further reinforced by Convention 931 of 1970. Nigeria as a member nation of the ILO has ratified Convention 26. The issue of minimum wage is also to enforce true federalism; there is nothing like true federalism, we only have federalism and the cradle of federalism is the United State of America where the minimum wage is $7.25 hourly fixed by a federal law. It is the lowest which can be paid to a worker as mandated by a federal law; states can pay higher in America because some are paying $10, $12 but no state can pay lower because it is contained in a federal law. What we are saying in the case of Nigeria is that the minimum wage law is insulated and when you say federal law, it means states can pay higher but not lower. That is the principle that has been set by the ILO but what our governors want is to remove it from the exclusive list and go and fix what they want.
Why would the governors pay below the minimum wage when they signed the agreement that resulted in the law?
We negotiated that the minimum wage for more than six months and six governors were in attendance representing the state governments. We had the governors of Imo, Kebbi, Rivers, Plateau, Osun and Gombe states all participating in the process of arriving at a national minimum wage. We also had the organised private sector and others and the issue of ability to pay were discussed. In any case, setting the barest minimum doesn’t mean states can’t pay higher. As of today, some states are paying higher than the N30,000. That is the principle and that is why we don’t want that law which is a global standard abused. We don’t want it removed from the exclusive list because once you remove it, it means we don’t have a national minimum wage.
How do you react to claims by the sponsor of the bill that it was in furtherance of the clamour for restructuring of the country?
That is what I’m debunking; such clamour cannot put away a global convention and standard and that is why I cited the situation in America because they said they want true federalism as is practised in America. Is that not restructuring? That is why I told you on authority that the national minimum wage in America is insulated by a federal law. States can make minimum wage law but it cannot be lower than the national minimum wage of America. So that argument cannot stand, it has no substance. So, because you want to restructure, you want to turn Nigerian workers into slaves? If they want restructuring, let them start with their salaries. As I speak with you, all National Assembly members, all state houses of assembly members, governors are receiving the same salaries, including councillors. If it is about restructuring, they should propose a bill to restructure their salaries. We were told and it has not been debunked, that some of them are collecting N13 million monthly. It is about setting priorities. Can’t they restructure their salaries if it is about restructuring?
Do you agree with the argument that centralising workers’ wages would make states that can pay more to restrict themselves to the national minimum wage thus depriving workers in those states the opportunity of earning more?
It’s not true. When minimum wage was N5,500, Rivers State was paying N7,500. When minimum wage was N18,000, Edo State was paying N20,000; are you aware of that? Were they forced to pay that? By the law of the national minimum wage, you cannot pay lower but you can pay higher. What the states want to do is to pay below N30,000 and what is N30,000 that can’t buy a bag of rice. If you say state governments should fix the minimum wage, who fixes for the private sector? It means there would be confusion and the philosophy behind it would be defeated.
Many Nigerians are saying that NLC should be championing the fight for restructuring the country instead of focusing on salaries… (cuts in)
The problem of Nigeria is not about fighting, we have been fighting these past 40 years. The problem of Nigeria is the political elite, they want restructure for their own benefits, we cannot be part of that. The NLC is the first organisation to organise a platform to discuss the issue of restructuring, it was televised live and we came out with clear positions. Restructuring should not be at the whims and caprices of the political class because they are part of Nigeria and they have divided Nigeria along ethnic and religious lines and now they want to divide us along class lines