Comrade Peters Adeyemi is an astute labour leader and probably the most experienced in the labour movement. As the Chairman of the 2017 May Day Planning Committee and leader of the Labour representative to the Technical Committee on Palliative and Minimum Wage he speaks on minimum wage and other related issues with SOJI-EZE FAGBEMI.
THE action of workers during the last May Day rally in Abuja took Nigerians by surprise. As the chairman of the planning committee, can you justify this action?
I do not think that what happened at Eagles Square on May 1, 2017 was anything strange because May Day all over the world is not only celebrated with dancing and jubilation. In fact, it is an occasion for workers to ventilate their anger if there is any, against government and employers of labour. Clearly, if you have followed in the last one year what has happened in our country, then you would have expected that it would have been naive for workers to come there and start dancing. These are workers whose salaries are falling in arrears in some states for upward of 10, 11, 12 months. Even as of May 1st, federal workers were not paid their salaries for April and promotion arrears for several years and other allowances have not been redressed. I can inform you that coming from the tertiary institution sector, our members have been receiving salaries in percentages since November 2015. Some of them are paid 70, 60 per cent every month, and those arrears are still there. So, clearly, this year’s May Day celebration was not the best of time for Nigerian workers and, of course, there wouldn’t have been any reason to expect anything different. I am not surprised.
But as the chairman of the May Day Committee, personally, are you not disappointed that the labour leaders could not control the workers?
No! I am not disappointed, because the point is always that leadership will always show maturity and level- headedness and, of course, when the workers are assembled, on that type of occasion and they find critical government functionaries who are responsible for making life better for them but who have refused to do what they are supposed to do, clearly, we would do our best as leaders to pacify them, but naturally, they would have to show their anger.
What we did was to try to pacify them, but what they did was not extraordinary. It was not out of the ordinary. If you look at it, some of the previous May Day celebrations we had, the president of the country had always been in attendance, but last year our president was not in attendance and the vice president was not there. It was the Minister of Labour that represented him. This year, the same scenario happened, which showed clearly that the government did not attach that level of importance it ought to have attached to the May Day celebration. If you look at it, virtually in all the states, with the exception of very few states, the number one citizens of those states were present at the celebrations. While we showed tremendous understanding about the health situation of our president, we would not have expected the president to be at the May Day rally, but there wasn’t any reason why the vice president shouldn’t have been there. So, that also was the part of the reasons this anger was expressed by the workers. I tell you as chairman of May Day Committee, it wasn’t a surprise I wasn’t disappointed.
Workers and other government officials also agitated that the present labour leaders rely so much on Comrade Oshiomhole, a former NLC president and call on him too often in crisis. Some were also angry that you called on him that day?
Don’t forget that Adams has made his mark and no matter what you say about Comrade Oshiomole he was our former president and I do not think he wants to also pretend as if he doesn’t know why the agitations of workers were ongoing. Even the immediate past president of the congress was also shuttling up and down, that’s Comrade Abdulwaheed Omar. He was shuttling between the stand and the state box, trying to see how the situation could be pacified. So there is no big deal about calling on former presidents of NLC when we have such intense situation to also participate in our attempt to pacify the workers. It is the right thing to do. There’s no big deal in it for me. If he was there, why not? You know my problem is that people tend to read different meanings into each situation, but I clearly wouldn’t join those who think that it is something extraordinary to have called Adams.
How do you see what happened on May Day and will it affect the struggle for the benefit of Nigerian workers?
It was positive. It is a very positive development. Don’t be surprised I am sounding like this because there is tendency for people in government to think that it’s the leadership of labour that is deliberately fomenting trouble in the country; that we don’t have the backing of our members. You see, the danger in this present situation is that this government came on a platform of massive support which itself has affected the ability of labour to confront it because people felt that if you confront the Buhari government, you don’t want it to succeed because they believe so much in this government. But you found out that, the belief is waning as a result of the economic crisis, as a result of the fact that the purchasing power of an average Nigerian worker has been partly decimated. So, even beyond the average Nigeria worker, the average person who has so much hope in this change, which this government represents, appears to be getting frustrated and it’s still possible that those in government are still relying on their popularity prior to the election and thinking that nothing can happen. But they can see themselves that an average worker is completely impatient and the attempt to paint the picture that labour leaders are crisis mongers and people who want to destabilise government will begin to change, when people see clearly that even the ordinary worker is expressing anger.
On the issue of minimum wage, since that time and now, has there been any critical step taken?
What matters is that the government called a meeting, I think last Tuesday. There was a meeting of government and labour last week Tuesday on this matter where action have was finalised on the report of the 16-person technical committee taken to the Federal Executive Council, where appropriate approval will be granted for the tripartite committee to be set in motion. That was done last week Tuesday.
That means the government is now ready to negotiate with other stakeholders on the issue of minimum wage, most especially labour movement?
I think the fact that we had that meeting on Tuesday and the type of positive attitude shown by government functionaries shows that maybe the reaction of workers is compelling government to address the issue. We hope so.
Who are the major government functionaries at the meeting?
The Acting SGF, Minister of Labour, Minister of Water Resources, representative of petroleum ministry, Minister of Budget, and other top officials. These are very critical element in government. The presidents of NLC, TUC were all there.
Then to the issue of N56,000 proposed by the NLC and the TUC, do you think this is feasible with the present economic reality?
There is nothing like economic reality. I don’t know why people keep on talking about economic reality when you are finding money everywhere without owners. Nigeria is not poor; Nigeria is not a poor country. It is because the government has not been able to pay adequate wages and salaries to workers that you have surplus money everywhere. Do you know that you cannot stimulate Nigeria’s economy if you don’t pay Nigerian workers well? Unlike politicians and others, when an average Nigerian worker is paid his salaries, that salary is not kept in the wardrobe. It goes immediately to the landlord, to transporters, to market women; it is used to stimulate the economy, for medical attention, for school fees. When you see the budget of an average civil servant before you pay him the salary, he has already shared it out. So, how can anybody who is normal tell us that the demand for N56,000 is not accommodate-able because of the economic recession? Can’t you also imagine the level of the destruction of our Naira today? What is N18,000 minimum wage? N18,000 cannot buy a bag of rice. What will N18,000 do? And then when you talk of N56,000, that will fetch you how many dollars? Even N56,000 today is not up to $200 with the current exchange rate and you say to pay an average Nigeria worker $200 a month is a lot of money. You have forgotten that in 1981, when the average minimum wage was about N125 that fetch you more than $125 because of the value of the currency. The currency has been bastardised. You are not sure of what you can refer to as the correct exchange rate now.
What about the Federal Government and its disposition towards the issue of minimum wage?
For me I think the Federal Government has demonstrated commitment. I have not heard the Federal Government say they cannot pay, even when we read in papers that the Minister of Labour made some statements that the government said they cannot pay a new minimum and we asked him at the meeting on Tuesday, he denied it and we told him that if you don’t say such things, get your press people to do a rejoinder. The Federal Government sure has the capacity to pay.
The issue of negotiation in a tripartite arrangement is a matter of give and take. Will labour leaders be flexible in their demand?
Why won’t we be rigid? In the face of all these wastages and stealing, will you as a labour leader go and ask for peanut? I don’t think you will do that and that is not the position of Labour. If we go there and we are talking about the flexibility of labour even before we start, it means that we are not serious, it means that we didn’t do our work well, that we don’t have justification for our demand. But I think before that amount was put to government, labour has done its own work properly, put into consideration everything.
The unity of labour is paramount in all these things. While the United Labour Congress (ULC), which was seeking registration after some of the NLC affiliates left the congress, demanded N96,000, the NLC and TUC jointly presented N56,000 to the government. Even though the ULC promised to work together with you, will this not affect the struggle as witnessed during the last fuel price increase?
For me labour is one and when it comes to the issue that affects the Nigerian working people I don’t think there’s a division. But clearly if they have made their own demand, they must have reasons for making that demand. They will go to where they will go and justify that demand. They didn’t make the demand for us. They made the demand to appropriate quarters of theirs. We have made our own demand to our own appropriate quarters and it is left for those appropriate quarters to bring those demands. And if they want to collaborate with us, of course, we don’t have a problem.
Finally, are you assuring the workers and Nigerians that after the negotiation with government on the new minimum wage, the workers will be happy?
The truth of the matter is that it is not possible for labour to go into a struggle like this and come out with nothing. It has never happened and it is not going to happen in our time, because everything points to the fact that what is currently paid is clearly an insult. I am not really sure that there is any government person who wants workers to continue to live in abject poverty or wants a living dead worker to render service. The assurance is that Nigerian people should support the NLC in its struggle to emancipate down trodden workers.