By Newton Jibunoh in The Sun: 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 among the countries that harboured slaves. The minimum wage was, therefore, introduced to mainly stop the continuation of the practice. It came to be that, if you must continue to keep the slaves in any employment, you must pay a minimum amount to them, turning slaves into employees. By doing so, it became a political issue between government and labour to score points. In the same vein, you have what is known in today’s employee-employer protocol as collective bargaining arrangement. In the same protocol, you have the right of the employer to hire and fire and also no-work-no-pay understanding. Therefore, the right of the employee must be that, if you want my service, you must be prepared to pay me a living wage.
Employees must individually come to this knowledge of their right and be firm to demand 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 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. In fact, by turning down an offer, one may feel like he/she is the losing party because the employer can simply look for the next candidate who may gladly take up the job with even lesser conditions.
But the point is this: If every employee can develop a mindset of dignity in labour and be 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 because then employers would 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 as against the dignity of labour.
I was at a social gathering long ago and present also at the event was Adams Oshiomhole, who was the president of the Nigeria Labour Congress at the time. It was a very big event and bottles of champagne were being popped very frequently. As it happened to be at the time, there was also an impending strike over the minimum wage issue. A funny scenario that happened was that almost every time a bottle was popped and it made a loud noise, Adams Oshiomhole would shout, “there goes the minimum wage.” I didn’t understand the seriousness in the joke until I later found out the average price of a low-end bottle of champagne, which ranged between N14,000 and N30,000, was the amount being negotiated by the NLC.
Most of us retired or retiring former executives with over 65 years of working experience, myself with 20 years in the public sector and 45 years in the private sector, both as an employee and employer, who hired labour in the past, know that the drivers we employ, the domestic staff and security staff we have in our homes and offices, the police and Customs officers at the road checkpoints, the airline staff that issue boarding passes, the press officers and the NEPA officials can never survive on a pay of less than N100,000 monthly. But people will take these jobs where they get paid meagre sums for the fear of being unemployed and then begin to “innovate” ways to get something extra on the job. In the end, we create opportunities for corruption and dubious activities, bringing about a situation where these employees do not give their best to the jobs we have employed them to do; because, after all, they are working for the wage the employer is paying and not what they can live on.
I think it is important that we make a clear distinction between minimum wage and 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 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.
Paying employees what they deserve is one of the major steps to take in the restoration of the dignity of labour.
Your driver who is given N5,000 to fuel the car will spend N4,000 in filling up the tank and pocket the change. The police and Customs officers will mount roadblocks (sometimes unauthorised) 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 have to 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 do 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 boss is on a salary of a little over N200,000 and yet is able to afford to build a house worth over N50 million and drive a car worth N20 million. Some of these employers are faith workers (pastors and imams) who misappropriate funds that 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 his employer.
We have gotten used to not asking questions about the shady sources of income that we see within our communities and, strangely enough, a lot of Nigerians aspire to be that wealthy man or woman 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 rich investment portfolio, among 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 o!”
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 these days 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.