Nigerian workers begin struggle for a new minimum wage

The Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) yesterday suspended its general strike on its fourth day, after the government agreed to meet the unions on October 4-5 to discuss an increase in the minimum wage. The call for the strike had surprised the union leaders themselves, who had not expected such a massive response. Now they are doing everything to demobilise.

The Nigerian workers had been called to mobilise again to fight for a new minimum wage. Despite the trade union leadership’s refusal to carry out serious and determined mobilisation, with their call for a stay-at-home instead of calling for rallies and street protests, because of the pent-up anger in the land and desperate desire of the workers to publicly express their disapproval of the state of things, the support among the workers and the public for this strike was significant. The demand this time is for a ₦66,500.00 minimum wage, (about US$217 based on the Central Bank of Nigeria’s exchange rate of ₦306.35 to US$1US). The private employers and some state governors have only offered so far a measly ₦25,000!

Faced with calls for an increase in the minimum wage, the government had responded by setting up a Tripartite Committee, made up of representatives of labour, federal and state governments, and private employers of labour. This body was created by the government with a view to working out the how much the new national minimum wage should be. This committee, however, is clearly a ploy by the government to divert the attention of the labour leadership from struggling for the new minimum wage and also a way of delaying everything until after the 2019 general election. The committee had been adjourned indefinitely by the Minister of Labour, hence the reason for this current strike action.

This legitimate demand of the workers has generated a lot of reactions from different quarters. The apologists of the bourgeois have come out in their characteristic manner to assert that an increment in salary will lead to inflation and worsen the unemployment situation. They also stated that an increment in salary will also be detrimental for the proper functioning of the economy. Most of the state governors have also come out to say that the demand for the new minimum wage is unrealistic, as they were not elected to solely pay the salaries of workers! This article aims at examining the authenticity of these assertions.

Does increment in salary lead to inflation?

This argument is not new. We have repeatedly heard the apologists of the capitalist system and bourgeois commentators stating how increases in workers’ salaries automatically lead to inflation. Curiously, when the salaries of Senators, House of Representative Members, House of Assembly Members, Personal Assistants, all people that produce nothing in society, are increased, it does not lead to inflation!

In actual fact, any real increment in salaries rather than leading to inflation actually stimulates the economy by increasing the purchasing power of the working class. The problem for the capitalists is that it also eats into their profits. But let us not forget that the profits of the capitalist class are nothing but the unpaid labour of the working class, and an increase of wages for the workers, would only mean a minimal cut in the exorbitant profits of the capitalists. What is really causing inflation is the enormous amount of money presently being pumped into the unproductive sectors of the economy, (including the huge amounts of money being paid to many personal assistants to political office holders, people that practically produce nothing and contribute nothing to society,) together with the huge speculation, debt and massive increase in credit, and the devaluation of the Naira due to the weakness of the economy in relation to other capitalist countries. The money that is invested – for speculative reasons – is not based on the productive activities of society as a whole, hence the undermining of the currency, and high inflation rate. Workers are not demanding the printing of more money in circulation; all they are asking for is a minimal redistribution of the money presently in circulation. The present situation whereby the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer needs to stop.

If we are to go by the argument that increments in salaries automatically lead to inflation, one would have thought that the inflation rate ought to have remained the same since 2011, since the current minimum wage of ₦18,000 was ratified last in the year 2011. But inflation, according to Central Bank of Nigeria report, since 2011 till date reveals the contrary. In 2011, inflation was 12.8%. It reduced in 2012 to 12.1%, and then started falling further, and it reduced sharply in 2013 to 8.6%, and in 2014 to 7.8%, and then it started to increase again, reaching 8.5% by 2015, suddenly jumping to 12.77% in 2016, and 17.26% in 2017, despite the fact that there was no increment in wages. So how can they argue that inflation is caused by wage increases? The truth is that the continuous increases in petrol prices, coupled with incessant devaluation of the Naira, have been a major force pushing up inflation. It is just an attempt to blackmail workers and we should therefore not be cajoled by this false argument. Workers should be ready to fight this injustice to the end. In actual fact, even the 18,000 Naira minimum wage demand falls far short of what an average worker needs to survive within the current economic realities in Nigeria

Can Nigeria afford a ₦66,500 minimum wage?

Nigeria has more than enough resources to pay even more than the ₦66,500 minimum wage being demanded by workers, but gross inequality, callous and inhuman distribution of the national wealth, have always been the huge obstacles. Specifically, data compiled from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), show that Nigeria earned ₦77.348 trillion from the oil and gas industry between 1999 and 2016. Thus, analysis of the various oil and gas earnings show that the country recorded gross oil revenues of over ₦77trillion over that 17-year period, and after various deductions, net oil revenues over the same period stood at ₦41.038 trillion. To what extent did this income benefit the workers? The only class of people who have benefitted from this has been the ruling elite. The period has produced the richest man in Africa and a couple of private-jet-flying fat cats. The IMF recently revealed that 85% of the nation’s oil income goes to a mere 1% of the population. Therefore, we should not be intimidated. What is good for the goose is also good for the gander.

nigerian flagMembers of Nigeria Labour congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) .PHOTO: LADIDI LUCY ELUKPO

How to fight and win

The Campaign for a Workers and Youth Alternative (the IMT in Nigeria) wholeheartedly supports the Nigerian workers in this struggle. We insist that this struggle is not only legitimate but long overdue. It is also important to recognise the fact that this struggle can only be won through persistent and protracted mobilisations on the part of the workers. It should be recalled that the minimum wage of ₦18,000 minimum wage approved in 2011 was not given to the workers on a platter of gold, but achieved through consistent and persistent struggle by the workers. The workers should therefore be prepared for a long drawn battle this time round. No serious hope should be placed in the Tripartite Committee set up by the government. Our capacity to transform our working and living conditions depends on our capacity to struggle. Our rights will not be given to us unless and until we are ready to fight for them.

There is also the urgent need to connect the struggle for an increment in salaries to the struggle against unemployment. The ruling class has no other option under capitalism than to further pauperize the Nigerian workers and the poor masses. Unemployment levels in Nigeria are already among the highest in the world, with youth unemployment at 60%. It is also important to link the demand for the new minimum wage to the struggle for the payment of the backlog of salaries and pensions owed to the Nigerian workers.

Way forward

The real living wage that will be commensurate with the rate of inflation can only be achieved when the Nigerian workers themselves decide to chase out the charlatans that have mismanaged the resources of the country for decades. No matter the level of the minimum wage conceded by the Nigerian ruling class, as long as capitalism still remains and power is still firmly in the hands of the present capitalist class, they will always find ways of taking back whatever we may win today. What can make the gains of a wage increase sustainable for long is for the Nigerian workers to take power from the present crop of degenerate ruling elite that has held the country down for decades. This can only be achieved by first and foremost having our own political party that will effectively challenge all the present bourgeois parties.

For a genuine workers' party

The envisaged party is certainly not the present Labour Party where the only link with Labour is that the party's registration certificate is in the kitty of the NLC, while it is used and abused by faild bourgeois politicians to promote their own careers.

The envisaged party must be trade union based, where workers are mobilised from the work places and the communities and where they participate in the day to day running of the internal affairs of the party. Thus, we look forward to a party with socialist policies, where party officials and representatives are directly elected by members and can be subjected to democratic removal from their positions if their interests run counter to those of the rank and file members of the party. This is what has been lacking in the Nigeria political terrain, and until this is created, the Nigerian workers and poor will be left with no option than jumping from pillar to post, queuing behind one wing of the ruling elite or the other.

Now that the strike has been suspended

Nigerian trade unionThe heart of the problem lies within the very leadership of the NLC. It is they who have done nothing to promote the s-called Labour Party, and it is they who have backed this or that bourgeois politician, leaving the working class with no way of organising politically as a class. And the “suspension” of the strike by the labour leadership – to create a "conducive atmosphere" for the talks to reach a satisfactory conclusion! – reflects the whole approach of the trade union leaders.

Let us not forget that the government has agreed that the Tripartite Committee should resume sitting by October 4th, only because of the huge mobilisations around the general strike. It is only mass mobilisation that has forced the government to come back to the negotiating table, but for the unions to suspend the strike action is to play into the hands of the bosses. If they wanted to negotiate from a position of strength, they should not have suspended the general strike. But this approach on the part of the trade union leaders is not surprising at all.

As we stated in the opening paragraphs of this article, the labour leadership went into this struggle half-heartedly. And yet, despite the lack of serious mobilisation on their part, there was massive compliance on the part of the rank and file of the workers. The reason for this is that the workers are seriously looking for a way of expressing their dissatisfaction with the current state of things. But there is certainly no hiding place for the golden fish, the issue in question can never be resolved at the negotiation table. The government is playing for time, hoping the union leaders can successfully demobilise.

However, no amount of manoeuvring, both on the part of the government and the trade union leaders, will be able to hold back the workers for ever. The massive response from below during the four days of the strike has shown that it is just a matter of time; the struggle will once again spill out onto the streets.

The two urgent tasks facing the Nigerian workers are to take back control of the NLC and elect leaders who are prepared to struggle all the way without compromise, and to launch a genuine party of the workers that will finally give voice to the only class that can really change Nigeria, the working class.