Minimum wage: We have fully mobilised our people for strike —Olaleye, TUC president

The President of Trade Union Congress (TUC), Comrade Quadri Olaleye, spoke with SOJI-EZE FAGBEMI on the planned nationwide strike over the issue of N30,000 National Minimum Wage and its consequential adjustments, as well as the expectations from the meeting to be held with the Federal Government during the week. Excerpts:

 

WE’VE been on this issue of National Minimum Wage for some time now with Labour threatening to go on strike. What is the situation of things now?

At the moment, there is no official meeting or discussion about the issue. We are doing consultations with government, and the National Assembly, but they are not official meetings. Two days ago, the representative of the joint council and the two Labour centres met with the Minister of Labour, to have a corridor discussion to look at the situations surrounding the minimum wage versus the mandate of TUC, the joint body, which is 29 per cent for the Level 7 to 14 and 24 per cent for Level 15 to 17. At the end of the meeting, the minister [of Labour] agreed to schedule a meeting for Tuesday. While that was going on, I was also with the Senate Committee chairman on Labour, who is also trying to look for a soft landing on how to resolve the issue before the deadline. But I can tell you that so far so good, there have not been any resolution;  there has not been any positive discussion. Labour still maintains the mandate and the ultimatum given.

 

You are talking of 30,000 minimum wage. In reality, what do you think can be a living wage in Nigeria?

When you are talking of a living wage, the minister himself mentioned it that what they are discussing is minimum wage, not salary increase or living wage. And my response was that we should raise another proposal after closing the issue of minimum wage, because we all know that the minimum wage as of today, N30,000, can’t be a living wage for a worker in Nigeria. When you are taking of living wage, you’re talking of salary that is enough to cater for the worker and his family. That is why it must include all the allowances, like the basic, housing, the transport and some other things to cater for the family. Now, when you divide N30,000 by 30 days, it means that the available fund for the family of a worker is 1,000 per day, and out of that money, you expect the worker to transport himself to work. Even when staff buses are provided, at least from the bus stop to his house, he or she needs to provide transport. On a daily basis, we all know either in Lagos, Abuja or Port Harcourt that as a bench mark, there is no how you will not spend a minimum of N300 to transport yourself to and from work. Out of that N1,000, N700 is available, out if that N700 you have to provide morning, afternoon and night food for your family. We simply look at a “Buka” restaurant where you can eat, that N700 is not enough to feed the worker not to talk of family.

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So, what should we be looking at with the present economy reality in the country?

When you want to calculate real living wage in Nigeria, you should be talking about nothing less than N72,000 which would be manageable for the worker, the spouse and the family. We all know by Nigeria law, or its understanding, a worker is entitled to a spouse and maximum of 4 children. So how do you want to divide N30,000? Definitely, the N30,000 is not a living wage and there’s need for a general salary increase in the country. There is the need for government to look at what will be enough to take care of a family. A living wage should take you above the calculated poverty level. And it’s the Federal Government that did the calculation, and the purpose of calculating the poverty level is for them to be able to fix a living wage. So, presently we don’t have a living wage in Nigeria and there is need for us to send a proposal to the Federal Government to discus living wage.

 

There have been calls on labour to shelve the planned strike and go to court. How will you react to this?

You can’t take somebody’s advice. It’s a piece of advice which is not binding on us and I wonder why we have to take such issue to court when we are not businessmen. We are a labour movement and we have to do it in our own way. So, if we take it to court, what are we going to tell our members? To continue to suffer until the judgement comes out? We have to do it in a Labour way. We have given [the Federal Government] ultimatum and we have to follow it up.

 

Since you have declared strike, what is the level of mobilisation?

We have fully mobilised our people in all sectors and I can tell you that if the issue is not resolved before that day, then you’ll see us in action. We have our target. We are going to shut down the federal ministries, and I wonder even if the National Assembly would be able to discuss the 2020 budget, because the action will have to start from there. Our membership cuts across all the sectors of the economy, and I am very sure our family will also join, especially in Nigeria where a worker cares for more than 12 people. If the breadwinner is going on strike, what will happen to the rest, they will have to join in solidarity. And in doing that, you’ll see that we have already shut down the economy.

 

But, we have faced this situation many times in the past, where labour would prepare for strike and even the workers would have been ready,  but at the end of the day they would be  disappointed after  the Federal Government might have called Labour. Afterwards, even if the Federal Government did not offer something tangible, Labour would just go back on their words.

This is going to be different because the way we take our decision is different. It is an ‘organ’ decision; it is a grassroots’ decision. As a leader, we have listened to our people. They are pained; they’re not satisfied with the situation and from the grass-roots, the decision was pushed to the organs of the unions. And the three organs which is the Central Working Committee, National Advisory Committee and National Executive Council took that decision which shows that we have taken a decision that will satisfy the grass-roots. I don’t know why anybody will change that without going back to that grass-roots to review that decision. So, this is going to be a different one.

 

Now, you have not carried the United Labour Congress along, whereas they have one or two very vital unions. Just as we experienced during the last strike, don’t you think that the FG could also use the divide and rule tactics to break the rank of labour again?

Labour movement is one. We are united. We need no official invitation to our counterparts before they participate in a strike. I can tell you that we are united, no different position or opinion, and we have all agreed that the issue is worth mobilising our people for. So, be it NLC, TUC or ULC, we are one and we are partnering together to have a successful strike.

The new song from Labour today is that this is no longer an era of table banging unionism like in the past. Have your leaders thought about gathering facts on minimum wage in countries across Africa and other parts of the world, do a comparison with what is obtainable here to argue your position?

Before you inform the Federal Government, they are aware of the information. All of us know that it is only in Nigeria that we are discussing minimum wage. In other countries, even in a majority of African countries, what they are discussing is living wage, not minimum wage any longer. Yes, we have passed the era of banging tables, and that is why we are having intellectual discussion with them. Let them put what they have on the table and let us look at their analysis. We all heard when the minister said they have 1.3 million workers in the civil service; and immediately we responded that we only have 933. These are intellectual discussions we have been having with them. So, if a minister is saying 1.3 million and the actual figure is 933, it means the provision they made for 1.3 million is actually enough for 933.

We all know the budget for social interventions. It runs into billions of Naira, but we are complaining about N582 million to pay consequential effect of salaries. So, what social intervention programme would be is paying people’s salaries that are commensurate with their work. What should have been the priority of government in its social intervention programme should have been to satisfy the workers first and makes them happy. Then the workers will assist the government in blocking loopholes. We have frauds, leakages all over. It is only the civil servants, the workers that can help government to achieve this and you must make them happy.

You are going to a meeting on Tuesday with the Federal Government. What different thing will you take to the meeting, or will you insist on your present position?

The mandate still remains the same. One of our complaints even to the Negotiation Council is that Tuesday is not feasible because our deadline is Wednesday. So how can you have a meeting on Tuesday. When are you going to have a repeat meeting if there is a need to do that? Maybe the system must have listened to us and from the information I had with me, the meeting had been shifted to Monday for them to be able to consult well. But I can tell you, if by Monday or whenever, the mandate is not met, we will go on strike; because that is the mandate from our members. We as leaders cannot change it.

 

Are you surprised that the government put the meeting on Tuesday?

Not really. That has been the gimmick of government over the years. When Labour declares strike, they wait till the eve of the deadline given before they fix a meeting. It is their style, and a gimmick, but that will fail this time.

 

But if government at the meeting shifts its position a little and adds additional three or five per cent to what they it offered before, what will be your position?

We have gone beyond that. Yes, as requested by the government, we are ready for consultations and discussions before 16th of October, but immediately it is 16th of October, our discussion should be on the media. And I think the media should cover whatever we want to discuss so that the populace, because we all joined hands to elect this government, should be part of it. So, it should not be a judgement between the government and workers to know who is at fault and who is right. It is going to be an open discussion and I am sure government will not wait till that 16th before the issue is resolved.

 

At this point, what kind of preparations are you telling your members, the workers, to make?

We have told them what we needed to tell them. We are well mobilised, but we will continue to review our strategies until the deal date; which I don’t want to expose now. A Yoruba proverb says the name you will give to your child, you don’t reveal it until the eighth day. We have mobilised in all sectors and we are sound. We are ready for it. However, we will continue to review our strategies until we standardise and perfect the strategy and method we are using in organising our people. They will not try it, I tell you.

At the moment, there is no official meeting or discussion about the issue. We are doing consultations with government, and the National Assembly, but they are not official meetings. Two days ago, the representative of the joint council and the two Labour centres met with the Minister of Labour, to have a corridor discussion to look at the situations surrounding the minimum wage versus the mandate of TUC, the joint body, which is 29 per cent for the Level 7 to 14 and 24 per cent for Level 15 to 17. At the end of the meeting, the minister [of Labour] agreed to schedule a meeting for Tuesday. While that was going on, I was also with the Senate Committee chairman on Labour, who is also trying to look for a soft landing on how to resolve the issue before the deadline. But I can tell you that so far so good, there have not been any resolution;  there has not been any positive discussion. Labour still maintains the mandate and the ultimatum given.

 

You are talking of 30,000 minimum wage. In reality, what do you think can be a living wage in Nigeria?

When you are talking of a living wage, the minister himself mentioned it that what they are discussing is minimum wage, not salary increase or living wage. And my response was that we should raise another proposal after closing the issue of minimum wage, because we all know that the minimum wage as of today, N30,000, can’t be a living wage for a worker in Nigeria. When you are taking of living wage, you’re talking of salary that is enough to cater for the worker and his family. That is why it must include all the allowances, like the basic, housing, the transport and some other things to cater for the family. Now, when you divide N30,000 by 30 days, it means that the available fund for the family of a worker is 1,000 per day, and out of that money, you expect the worker to transport himself to work. Even when staff buses are provided, at least from the bus stop to his house, he or she needs to provide transport. On a daily basis, we all know either in Lagos, Abuja or Port Harcourt that as a bench mark, there is no how you will not spend a minimum of N300 to transport yourself to and from work. Out of that N1,000, N700 is available, out if that N700 you have to provide morning, afternoon and night food for your family. We simply look at a “Buka” restaurant where you can eat, that N700 is not enough to feed the worker not to talk of family.

 

So, what should we be looking at with the present economy reality in the country?

When you want to calculate real living wage in Nigeria, you should be talking about nothing less than N72,000 which would be manageable for the worker, the spouse and the family. We all know by Nigeria law, or its understanding, a worker is entitled to a spouse and maximum of 4 children. So how do you want to divide N30,000? Definitely, the N30,000 is not a living wage and there’s need for a general salary increase in the country. There is the need for government to look at what will be enough to take care of a family. A living wage should take you above the calculated poverty level. And it’s the Federal Government that did the calculation, and the purpose of calculating the poverty level is for them to be able to fix a living wage. So, presently we don’t have a living wage in Nigeria and there is need for us to send a proposal to the Federal Government to discus living wage.

 

There have been calls on labour to shelve the planned strike and go to court. How will you react to this?

You can’t take somebody’s advice. It’s a piece of advice which is not binding on us and I wonder why we have to take such issue to court when we are not businessmen. We are a labour movement and we have to do it in our own way. So, if we take it to court, what are we going to tell our members? To continue to suffer until the judgement comes out? We have to do it in a Labour way. We have given [the Federal Government] ultimatum and we have to follow it up.

 

Since you have declared strike, what is the level of mobilisation?

We have fully mobilised our people in all sectors and I can tell you that if the issue is not resolved before that day, then you’ll see us in action. We have our target. We are going to shut down the federal ministries, and I wonder even if the National Assembly would be able to discuss the 2020 budget, because the action will have to start from there. Our membership cuts across all the sectors of the economy, and I am very sure our family will also join, especially in Nigeria where a worker cares for more than 12 people. If the breadwinner is going on strike, what will happen to the rest, they will have to join in solidarity. And in doing that, you’ll see that we have already shut down the economy.

 

But, we have faced this situation many times in the past, where labour would prepare for strike and even the workers would have been ready,  but at the end of the day they would be  disappointed after  the Federal Government might have called Labour. Afterwards, even if the Federal Government did not offer something tangible, Labour would just go back on their words.

This is going to be different because the way we take our decision is different. It is an ‘organ’ decision; it is a grassroots’ decision. As a leader, we have listened to our people. They are pained; they’re not satisfied with the situation and from the grass-roots, the decision was pushed to the organs of the unions. And the three organs which is the Central Working Committee, National Advisory Committee and National Executive Council took that decision which shows that we have taken a decision that will satisfy the grass-roots. I don’t know why anybody will change that without going back to that grass-roots to review that decision. So, this is going to be a different one.

 

Now, you have not carried the United Labour Congress along, whereas they have one or two very vital unions. Just as we experienced during the last strike, don’t you think that the FG could also use the divide and rule tactics to break the rank of labour again?

Labour movement is one. We are united. We need no official invitation to our counterparts before they participate in a strike. I can tell you that we are united, no different position or opinion, and we have all agreed that the issue is worth mobilising our people for. So, be it NLC, TUC or ULC, we are one and we are partnering together to have a successful strike.

The new song from Labour today is that this is no longer an era of table banging unionism like in the past. Have your leaders thought about gathering facts on minimum wage in countries across Africa and other parts of the world, do a comparison with what is obtainable here to argue your position?

Before you inform the Federal Government, they are aware of the information. All of us know that it is only in Nigeria that we are discussing minimum wage. In other countries, even in a majority of African countries, what they are discussing is living wage, not minimum wage any longer. Yes, we have passed the era of banging tables, and that is why we are having intellectual discussion with them. Let them put what they have on the table and let us look at their analysis. We all heard when the minister said they have 1.3 million workers in the civil service; and immediately we responded that we only have 933. These are intellectual discussions we have been having with them. So, if a minister is saying 1.3 million and the actual figure is 933, it means the provision they made for 1.3 million is actually enough for 933.

We all know the budget for social interventions. It runs into billions of Naira, but we are complaining about N582 million to pay consequential effect of salaries. So, what social intervention programme would be is paying people’s salaries that are commensurate with their work. What should have been the priority of government in its social intervention programme should have been to satisfy the workers first and makes them happy. Then the workers will assist the government in blocking loopholes. We have frauds, leakages all over. It is only the civil servants, the workers that can help government to achieve this and you must make them happy.

You are going to a meeting on Tuesday with the Federal Government. What different thing will you take to the meeting, or will you insist on your present position?

The mandate still remains the same. One of our complaints even to the Negotiation Council is that Tuesday is not feasible because our deadline is Wednesday. So how can you have a meeting on Tuesday. When are you going to have a repeat meeting if there is a need to do that? Maybe the system must have listened to us and from the information I had with me, the meeting had been shifted to Monday for them to be able to consult well. But I can tell you, if by Monday or whenever, the mandate is not met, we will go on strike; because that is the mandate from our members. We as leaders cannot change it.

 

Are you surprised that the government put the meeting on Tuesday?

Not really. That has been the gimmick of government over the years. When Labour declares strike, they wait till the eve of the deadline given before they fix a meeting. It is their style, and a gimmick, but that will fail this time.

 

But if government at the meeting shifts its position a little and adds additional three or five per cent to what they it offered before, what will be your position?

We have gone beyond that. Yes, as requested by the government, we are ready for consultations and discussions before 16th of October, but immediately it is 16th of October, our discussion should be on the media. And I think the media should cover whatever we want to discuss so that the populace, because we all joined hands to elect this government, should be part of it. So, it should not be a judgement between the government and workers to know who is at fault and who is right. It is going to be an open discussion and I am sure government will not wait till that 16th before the issue is resolved.

 

At this point, what kind of preparations are you telling your members, the workers, to make?

We have told them what we needed to tell them. We are well mobilised, but we will continue to review our strategies until the deal date; which I don’t want to expose now. A Yoruba proverb says the name you will give to your child, you don’t reveal it until the eighth day. We have mobilised in all sectors and we are sound. We are ready for it. However, we will continue to review our strategies until we standardise and perfect the strategy and method we are using in organising our people. They will not try it, I tell you.

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