Nigeria: The struggle for N18,000 minimum wage

For a two-day general strike now! No to retrenchment of workers!

A wave of strikes has erupted across Nigeria as workers in many federal states have gone on strike to demand the implementation of the 18,000 naira (US$116) monthly minimum wage that was passed into law just before last April’s elections.

In some states the local union leaderships have been under huge pressure from, and even bypassed by their rank and file. Under this pressure, which has been increased by the announcement of huge fuel and electricity price rises, the Nigeria Labour Congress has called a national rally in Abuja, the federal capital, for September 22, which must not be simply left as a one-off protest.

The need for the Labour movement to give a clear lead is urgent. Without one there is a danger of an increase in ethnic and religious clashes that have also been recently increasing.

This article, written before the NLC called this latest protest, is from the September/October edition of “Socialist Democracy”, the paper of the Democratic Socialist Movement (CWI in Nigeria).

Socialistworld.net

The current administration had hardly been inaugurated when workers were set on a warpath with the Federal and state governments over the implementation of the N18,000 new National Minimum Wage. Especially in the public sector, strike activities involving tens of thousands and paralyzing several states have broken out in quick succession. But these are not just over minimum wage, the strike of doctors in Delta state against unfair taxation aside other demands and the health workers and lecturers in Osun state for better pay as well as the preparation for strike by University lecturers union (ASUU) show the depth of the mass anger and dissatisfaction against politicians across parties.

Even among the youth and students, there is increased restiveness and the beginning of protest, although sometimes violent, on issues like fee hike in tertiary schools. This is not at all surprising given the fundamental crisis of capitalism particularly in Nigeria and its incapability to guarantee for the working class and youth a decent living standard.

From all indications, this is the beginning of a new rise in class struggle in Nigeria after two years of ’quietude’ following the mighty battles of the last eleven years which included 6 successful general strikes, aside 5 others called off at the last minute, all of which, unfortunately, failed to win serious concessions on issues of fuel price, deregulation and minimum wage nor point a way out of the crisis of capitalism.

From Ondo state strikes have taken place as action spread quickly to Oyo, Edo, Osun, Niger, Kebbi, Ebonyi, Zamfara, Adamawa, Enugu, Kano, Ekiti, Imo and Anambra states as workers rose to fight for improvement in their living condition against the gang-up by the federal government and state governors. Even in Lagos State which claims to be implementing the minimum wage agreement, workers in the State’s radio and television stations commenced a 3 day warning strike. Despite slackening of the struggle in some states, it appears the last word has not been heard as state governors continue to prevaricate while workers in the private sector are yet to give battle.

Labour leaders foot dragging

One key feature of the unfolding struggle is the compromises the trade union centers – the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) – have made and are still willing to make in a desperate effort to avoid calling a general strike and mass demonstrations despite clear signals that the ruling class does not want to pay the agreed wage in full and without mass retrenchment.

The minimum wage agreement, whose negotiation started way back in December 2008, was signed into law by President Jonathan few weeks before the last general elections in which he stood as a Presidential candidate of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Many assumed that once signed into law, there would be no further negotiation on the minimum wage agreement as this would amount to breaking the law. But capitalism does not work like that, there is no guarantee that ruling elite will willingly grant concessions to the working class unless it is forced to concede. This is why trade unions must be prepared to force the hands of the capitalist ruling elite with mobilization for mass demonstrations and strikes to ensure that even agreed minimum concessions are implemented.

It was not therefore surprising that the music changed immediately after elections. Not only were the State governments (with states being ruled by opposition parties of the ACN, Labour Party etc leading the pack) calling for renegotiation of the minimum wage agreement with workers in their employment in contravention of the laws of the country, even the federal government initially refused to pay showing the disgust with which the ruling elite hold the working masses. The private employers through the employers’ association equally threw their weight behind the government in a classic display of the unity of the political and business wing of the capitalist ruling class against the interest of the working class.

But despite this obvious about-face of the ruling regime, it was remarkable that the trade union leaders continued to foot-drag on calling a general strike. Even the 3-day warning general strike they grudgingly called for July 20 after talks with government got stalemated, was quickly called off in the midnight when the government just offered to engage in further talks! This was not just a simple matter of dialoguing, but reveals the unpreparedness on the part of the pro-capitalist leaders of the NLC and TUC, in tune with their philosophy of "strategic partnership", to continue to appease the ruling elite even at the risk of losing the minimum wage struggle!

Keen on getting any kind of deal without having to carry out general strike and mass actions, the NLC and TUC and relevant affiliates have ignored private companies many of whom still pay most workers much less than N18,000 minimum wage. Also dropped for reason of convenience was the demand against retrenchment by any employer while implementing the minimum wage agreement.

The immediate implication of these latest retreats is that tens of thousands of private sector workers whose wage and working conditions are often lower than public sector workers are being let down. Added to this are the thousands of public sector workers who would be laid off by state governments under the excuse of "no money".

Potential for building struggle from below

However the strike actions that have broken out in several states across the country show the limit of the trade union bureaucracy in putting a lid on struggle. Workers desperate to fight for improved wage are beginning to move sometimes without but often beyond the trade union bureaucracy. The mushrooming of strikes that have broken out are a direct reaction of workers to the foot-dragging of labour leaders and not a product of any conscious strategy of the labour leadership. Although the NLC and TUC have now hurriedly approved strikes by unions at the state level, the strike actions were initially a product of mass pressure from below which the leadership of the NLC and TUC at the state level could not resist.

Even before the botched July 20 to 23 warning general strike, workers in Ondo and Oyo states had already begun strike actions. In Ondo state particularly where the misnamed Labour Party (LP) holds office, the strike action had become an embarrassment to the NLC. This was because the NLC itself had first formed the LP, which was called Party for Social Democracy between 2002 and 2004, but then refused to build it as a mass-based political party of the working class and poor.

In Oyo State, angry workers had stoned their leaders for negotiating a lower agreement with the ACN government. And when these leaders failed to attend a congress fixed earlier for the purpose of informing workers about the progress of negotiation with the Oyo government, the workers passed a vote of no confidence on the official union leadership and promptly set up a congressional committee – into which a member of the DSM in Oyo state Abiodun Bamigboye (Abbey Trotsky) was nominated – to provide leadership for the struggle. Equally in Enugu, workers moved beyond the official trade union leadership and despite repression by the police carried the struggle on.

All these are features of the mass radicalization taking place and the increasing realization that for the struggle to move forward, the trade unions have to be cleansed of pro-capitalist bureaucrats. The congressional committee formed by Oyo workers represents in embryo a manifestation of the demand of the DSM for democratic and mass strike committees to be formed at workplaces involving rank and file workers to act as the organizational and political leadership of strikes and mass struggle.

Workers should reject contemptuous offers and appeal for mass solidarity

The state governments, trying scheming to out-manoeuvre workers, have been arguing that they do not have money to place all cadres of workers on the new minimum wage. Instead they would only place workers on the Levels 1 to 7 on the new wage agreement.

Attempting to turn the anger of artisans, youth and other members of the oppressed masses against public sector workers, the state governments have claimed that implementing the new minimum wage across board will mean that they will be unable to carry out much needed infrastructural development and social service like electricity, water, roads, education, health etc. This is a lie. The fact is that even without taking the minimum wage into account ordinary people have not benefited from the government.

The nation’s infrastructure is in sorry state while public education and health facilities have been grossly underfunded despite the huge resources at disposal of the government at all levels. Not only do the states collect huge amount of money as monthly allocation from the federation account, they equally occasionally collect billions of Naira from the excess crude account aside Internally Generated Revenues (IGR). It is not workers’ salaries but the wasteful spending of state governments, who employ a large retinue of special assistants and advisers with no real job to do but are just associates of the ruling party as well as the outrageous salaries and allowances of top government functionaries, which gulps a lion’s share of state resources. This is apart from brazen looting through inflated contract sums or fictitious projects.

Socialists have always argued that why Nigeria’s resources seem incapable of meeting the interests of majority in society is because of the unjust capitalist system which ensures that 1% of the entire population enjoys over 80% of the revenue from oil production leaving the vast majority of the people to wallow in poverty.

However, some state governments have successfully used this utter falsehood to mobilize some sections of the public against the workers. For instance, in Osun state where the strike action lasted for about a month, Governor Aregbesola of the ACN went as far as mobilizing okada riders and members of the Osun state Youth Employment Scheme (OYES), who are paid a paltry N10, 000 as monthly wage, to protest against workers.

To answer these type of "divide and conquer" tactics the workers engaged in struggle have to actively explain their case, win support from fellow workers and the wider community and show concretely that they are not struggling simply for themselves but actually spearheading the wider battle for all to receive a living wage

This is one of the reasons why the DSM comrades in Osun state who were actively involved in the minimum wage struggle in the state have been consistently campaigning through public speeches and several publications, circulated in thousands, for the OYES "volunteers" to be paid minimum wage, allowed to join trade union and enjoy all the rights and privileges of civil servants. The DSM also called on workers to include the issues of OYES in their demands.

Labour must reject the contemptuous offer from the state governments which claim to implement the minimum wage by merely raising the monthly pay of workers between grade 1 and 7 above N18,000 and adding whatever ridiculous amount crossing the mind to other grade levels above. The immediate implication of this is that the state governments while claiming to be implementing the minimum wage agreement are in the real sense only paying a minority of the workforces (those on Level 1 to 7) while cutting off the majority. For instance, the teachers who usually constitute the largest part of the workforce and mostly above Level 8, will not benefit fundamentally from the minimum wage.

However as against this disdainful offer from the government, labour must demand a definite and significant percentage of increase worked on the basis of a formula that tends to bridge the income gap between the highest and lowest paid workers while at the same time ensure that all the workforce benefit from the minimum wage. Efforts must also be made by labour to publicise the minimum wage agreement and the federal government table.

However this approach will only be acceptable to all workers if labour equally begin a vigorous campaign of strikes, protest and demonstrations against the jumbo salaries and allowances of political office holders which according to statistics gulp up to 40% of annual budget. Labour must raise the demand for all political office holders to accept a wage not higher than the highest paid civil servant. This must not just be a demand suitable for the adornment of press statements but a slogan for strikes and mass actions. Labour must also strive to unite the workers and oppressed masses to struggle for improvement in living conditions by broadening the scope of the ongoing struggle to include demands for immediate implementation of the minimum wage law in all private companies employing 50 workers and above, jobs for the unemployed, against education underfunding and mass public works program to rebuild decaying public infrastructures.

It is also important for Labour to ensure that the N18, 000 minimum wage is what the least-paid workers take home after tax. Labour must also ensure that no worker loses his or her job on account of the implementation of the new minimum wage. Some governors have already come with various specious and ridiculous ways of retrenching workers. In Abia state, the governor has announced the plan to sack all the workers who are not indigenes of the state according to him in order to be able to implement the minimum wage and also to save funds to cater for indigenes who were displaced by the Boko Haram violence in the North.

Indeed, the anti-poor governments irrespective of political parties could go to any length to deny workers the payment of new wage. This also accounts for the resort to strong-arm tactics and employment of state apparatus of repression as was the case in Enugu state where the national labour leaders were detained at a hotel by armed police at the instance of the state government. This was to prevent the Labour leaders from leading workers in the state on scheduled mass protests organised as part of activities of the indefinite strike called to compel the highhanded state governor to implement the new minimum wage.

To counter the various repressive and fraudulent measures of the state governments, Labour should make public their demands and mobilize the support of the public and other sections of the working people while at the same time mounting pressure on the government to implement the minimum wage. This will require a series of mass activities like protest marches, rallies, symposia and mass circulation of leaflets and appeal for solidarity actions of other sections of the working people.

Without this approach, labour will leave the field for government which has superior propaganda machinery and allow workers to be blackmailed and arm-twisted into accepting a rotten deal.

Two-day general strike and mass demonstration urgently needed

More importantly, to break the resistance of the state governments as well as to back the workers on strike or at different stages of negotiations at the state level, the NLC and TUC need to call a two-day general strike and mass demonstrations as the next steps.

Unless a general strike is called, the ongoing strikes in the states could, despite the courage of workers, be defeated or forced to settle for a deal worse than the original demands due to weariness and isolation. This has been the case in Oyo, Osun and other states where the workers had gone on strike. But a well mobilized solidarity strike of public and private sector workers can quickly paralyze the resistance of the state governments and private employers, frighten them from victimizing workers and win significant concession for workers.

While the direct intervention of the national leadership of Labour in the struggle of the Enugu state workers is a welcome development, there is limitation to the capacity of labour to intervene on the state by state basis. The strikes that have broken out in many states and refusal of a number of state governments and private employers to implement the minimum wage have underscored the imperative of a nationwide general strike.

Again the ongoing struggle underlines the importance of labour struggling uncompromisingly against all anti-poor and neo-liberal policies of privatization and deregulation and linking this with the need for change of society. Despite the huge sacrifices workers are paying in the ongoing struggle, the unfortunate reality is that N18, 000 is not even enough to take care of even the smallest basic needs of working class families. Due to policies of privatization and commercialization, basic needs like food items, clothing, rent, education of the children and health care are priced beyond what ordinary working class families can afford. This combined with the high cost of kerosene for cooking and the fact that working class families have to cater for their own electricity needs means that poverty will continue to be the lot of vast majority of the people. All this has shown that it is impossible to win a real living wage under capitalism.

Therefore the only solution is for labour to begin to build a bold working class political alternative to wrest political power from the corrupt capitalist ruling elite and build a democratic socialist society. The ongoing struggle has exposed the consensus of all political parties on defending capitalism over the interests of workers. With the hostility of governors irrespective of political parties, many rank and file workers, youth and oppressed masses are beginning to realize that they are not fundamentally different from one another, especially when it comes to workers’ welfare.

The building of a mass-based and democratic working class political party that intervenes in the daily struggle of the working masses against anti-poor policies and also puts up working class candidates in elections is the only way the working and poor masses of Nigeria, Africa and the whole world can be rescued from capitalist induced penury. Armed with socialist programs for nationalization of all key sectors of the economy under public control, such a party can become a vehicle for the taking over of political power from the corrupt capitalist ruling elite and the forming of a workers and poor people’s government that can use society’s resources to cater for the interest of the vast majority.

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