For a good part of my working life spanning over sixty years, I became part of Trade Union activism that met with employers to negotiate working and living conditions for fellow workers which was known as the “Collective Bargaining Mechanism”. A bit long after, I became head of a multi-national organization that employed over 5000 workers and found myself face to face with fellow workers but this time negotiating on behalf of employers and shareholders of the organization on the same subject matter. So, when the issue of many years of negotiations, debates, strikes and the issue of “No work, No Pay” came up, I wrote a piece in this column a few years ago with the title “The Minimum Wage Debate Contributing to the Endemic Corruption in Nigeria”.
I have always pondered why living wage matters should be between labour and government. What is known today as the minimum wage syndrome started immediately after the abolition of slavery, particularly amongst the countries that harboured slaves.
Employees must individually come to this knowledge of their rights and be firm to demand a better wage for the services they offer.
They also do not necessarily need to depend on a labour union to start or chart this course. Simply put, as an employee, if an employer offers you conditions that you don’t think you can live on or conditions that are not commensurate with the services you are required to offer; you turn down the job and look elsewhere. It is possible that given the rate of unemployment in the country, an employee may be tempted to take up a job that clearly will not meet his/her needs. No doubt, in turning down an offer, one may feel like he/she is the losing party because the employer can always look for the next candidate who may gladly take up the job with even lesser terms.
However, if an employee develops a mindset of dignity in labour and is willing to take risks by turning down offers that don’t meet their needs, rather than accept whatever is dished to them for the fear of remaining unemployed, their situation could substantially improve. This way, employers will be forced to offer more if they know that employees will not just take anything they dish out. If this is not done, we may continue with what we have today which is very close to modern-day slavery against the dignity of labour.
Thus, it is vital that we make a clear distinction between a minimum wage and a living wage. Minimum wage, as I described earlier, is a concept that was used as a solution to prevent unpaid slave wages. It is not always the wage an employee deserves. In my opinion, the more appropriate concept that should be adopted is a living wage.
An individual who wants to employ a steward should be open to negotiating a wage the steward can comfortably live on. If this individual is not able to agree with the living wage suggested by the steward, he should look elsewhere or find someone else who is willing to accept his offer.
The police and customs officers will mount roadblocks (sometimes unauthorized) to extort money from road users. The domestic help will eat all your good food and send some home to their families. The press workers will demand their brown envelopes. They do all these because they have school fees to pay, they have their rent to pay and fund their transportation to and from work, they have mouths to feed etc. For some of these employees, a salary of N100, 000 will not be sufficient to take care of their responsibilities. So why must we keep fooling ourselves? Why must we look the other way and allow corruption to develop from the bottom – up?
Most of these categories of workers know that their bosses are on a salary of a little over N200, 000; yet are able to afford to build a house worth over N50m and drive a car worth N20m. Some of these employers are faith workers (Pastors and Imams) who misappropriate funds which have been given to the church or mosque as personal offerings from members of the congregation. They also know that they make millions monthly outside the constraints of their employment, which is why the employees’ thought process is usually skewed towards the unfairness of their employer.
We have gotten used to not asking questions about the shady sources of income that we see within our communities. Strangely enough, a lot of Nigerians aspire to be that wealthy men or women with untraceable sources of income. This reminds me of a funny story I once heard about a Nigerian businessman and a European businessman. The European businessman was asked how he acquired his wealth and became successful. He answered the question with facts only: He mentioned his successful real estate business and a vibrant investment portfolio amongst many other concrete sources. When it was the turn of the Nigerian businessman to answer the question, he puckered his lips and with a wide grin on his face, he exclaimed: “Na God oh!”
The endemic corruption in the country cannot be stopped systematically if we don’t review the wages offered to our employees. In the past, corruption was only present in top positions, but today, it is spread across the whole pyramid scheme. Somehow this plague of institutional corruption has trickled down to the bottom of the pyramid.This must not be allowed to continue. Therefore, the time to restructure the employer-employee pay arrangement starts now, not tomorrow. The labour movement must rise in support of this and also stop politicizing the process. If the bar continues to be lowered, it will come crashing down and the consequences for the country will be disastrous.
The simple fact known all over the country by the big and small is that in today’s Nigeria, no worker is able to live with today’s prescribed minimum wage. The lowest of the low members of the working class cannot survive on the minimum wage that is still being negotiated. In most cases, it takes years to negotiate involving the National Assembly and sometimes, the Presidency and at the time an agreement is reached, inflation would have eaten into more than half of the negotiated amount. There is also the devaluation of the currency which happens daily. So, we all know that the wage regime is flawed, which leaves the average worker with no choice but to begin to beg, and sometimes steal to survive. We all see stealing and cheating but choose to look the other way.
The scenario is what is carried to the top and the endemic goes from bottom to top and top to bottom resulting in today’s massive corruption.
Therefore, if those at the top must hold onto their position without remembering how they got there, there must be a new and different realignment of the whole structure that would check corruption at all levels so as to stop the script that is being played out in movies and chart shows all over the world, a country that is fantastically corrupt.