•On provisional pay rise for state workers: Structure already on ground
•’ Pensioners captured under cash transfer’
On Monday, the Organized Labour suspended the proposed indefinite strike over the removal of petrol subsidy and disagreement with the government over palliatives to cushion the effect of the policy. The strike suspension triggered a backlash from some Nigerians who accused labour of selling out to the Tinubu administration.
In this interview, the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Joe Ajaero, dismisses the criticism, saying Labour got about 90% of its demands through negotiations that proceeded the strike suspension. Ajaero also explains how the NLC arrived at N200,000 it proposes as new minimum wage expected to be negotiated next year. He speaks on other national issues. Excerpts:
The essence of every negotiation is to reach an agreement that is enforceable and implementable. So when negotiations start, unless there is any stalemate, its whole essence is for an agreement. When we started, we had our demands, it’s not by force that demands must be met hundred percent. I know that we got ninety percent of our demands and there was nothing left for us than to sign an agreement. To negotiate without signing an agreement makes the agreement incomplete. So, that was it.
Explain what you mean by getting up to ninety percent of your demands…
We demanded for CNG as an alternative to petrol, we have plans towards attainment that because it can’t be achieved the following day or in one week. So, plans were laid down for it, we insisted that the refineries must work.
We are aware the refineries won’t work the following day, plans were on ground for us to even go and inspect what’s happening in the Port-Harcourt refinery to make sure that it is completed and come into stream by December. We asked for wage award, the President offered N25, 000 for the least-paid worker in Nigeria for just six months and we said no, we got for every person across board.
We got the six months ceiling removed and we equally moved the N25, 000 the President announced in a nationwide broadcast to N35, 000. That one has gone beyond what you may think is hundred percent and almost all other issues.
The other one is in the pipeline, the issue of interference with the National Union of Road Transport Workers, we opened discussion on the issue of tertiary institutions workers. And then for the first time in history, we suspended our strike for only 30 days. So, when a strike is suspended for that period to enable you do monitoring and evaluation, you know that it’s work in progress.
And then we got this whole agreement to be registered in court as a terms of settlement. Any breach of it, of course I don’t want to go into the legality of it but the intendment of the drafters of that agreement was clear on this.
You had described the government offers as promissory note. How sure are you that something concrete will be achieved?
They are promissory note in the sense that they are not converted to Naira and Kobo or to action immediately. Even as at today, as I am talking with you, it remains promissory note but there is time- frame attached to them now and there is time-frame attached to our MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) for which these things are supposed to take effect. You can see that this action is suspended for one month; now those are the signs to show you that it was not embraced fully, it was embraced with some elements of suspicion that it may or may not be completed by the end of 30 days, that was it.
Yes, it remains promissory note as we talk but some elements of benefit of doubt have to come in, but there was no way you will compel them to pay that wage award that day or the following day, it’s not possible, you have to look at the practical aspect of it.
Some critics alleged that the leadership of labour movement sold out and that was why they suspended the strike…
Well, you see people use some words because nobody is taking them to court. What is the meaning of sell out? Those critics were not there when we started and they are not the people that have our mandate.
What we have are people who have no business, and who are illiterate in terms of labour issues. In every labour issue, there is always a demand. When a demand is met, an agreement is signed. I have never heard where Labour continuing an action after agreements are signed.
Mention one critic there that is schooled in either labour or industrial relations practice anywhere in the world. So, when they say sellout, what did you sell out, how much did they buy it, who is the person that bought it? So, these are some of the careless statements that portray some people as illiterates on the subject matter.
How will states, local government areas and even the private sector benefit from this new arrangement?
Well, the Nigeria industrial relations climate stands on a tripod. When people bring this as a new question, it becomes laughable because states, local governments and the private sector have all been getting their wages not by an imposition from national negotiations, never. So, the same way they have been getting from the beginning of the earth is the way they will get now.
To a very large extent, negotiation is decentralized to such areas so that the benefit of democracy and peculiarity is enshrined in all that we are doing. Even in minimum wage negotiations, what we do is to get a framework for people to negotiate, that is what happens in states. Some states have even gone up to pay in the case of the minimum wage before now more than even the agreed minimum wage figure. So, that is the situation, it has been happening, this one won’t be an exception.
Workers in the private sector in most cases get more than what is agreed. Most organisations in the private sector pay better salaries than what was agreed as a minimum wage. So, when we get this framework, they go back, some banks operating in the private sector had always given hundred percent more than that of minimum wage. So, we can’t tie their hands and negotiate for them but we give them a framework to operate in most instances, looking at the issue of availability and affordability.
What is the position of the palliative committee headed by Kebbi State governor?
I think that question should be directed to the Governors Forum because there was no meeting point between the palliative committee, government and labour. So, to a very large extent, we may not be able to speak for them on what they did or what they are not able to do, the extent of the palliative committee set up by government and headed by one of the governors. Now, if they had called for a meeting for us to discuss with them or for the committee to be merged, maybe we have our own people there and then we can discuss what happens to the palliative committee.
But after our discussion, I discovered that the issue of palliative seems to have been domiciled in the Ministry of Humanitarian and Poverty Alleviation. That is why we made our observations clear to the ministry and the Minister at a meeting. So, if government has another committee headed by a governor, when they call for a meeting, we will discuss.
What are your thoughts on the new national minimum wage and why is it taking too long to have it in place as a viable solution to the pains of petrol subsidy withdrawal?
Well, I don’t think that the time for review of a new minimum wage has even elapsed. The minimum wage is supposed to expire by April 2024 and it’s a law of the National Assembly. But we have called for the committee to start negotiations early enough because experience has shown that it could take up to three months or more to finish negotiations on the new minimum wage, it’s not something that is done in a hurry.
All facets, the Bureau of Statistics, all ministries , the sub nationals, governors, everybody comes to the table when this is negotiated. We will look at the cost of living index, we look at inflationary trend, we look at all those issues and agree. So, we still have about six months and that is why the Federal Government was talking of six months when the provisional wage increment will expire but we still have about six months and I pray that we conclude all the matters within the next six months so that a new minimum wage will come into force.
What happens to pensioners in Labour negotiations with the Federal Government? Are they being carried along?
Let me get in full what they meant by being carried along because if I get it, that will enable me to respond because I do know that in the agreement signed, they were talking about palliative, and we were able to bring in pensioners that fall within certain brackets in the cash transfer process. That wasn’t in the calculation before when they were talking of the poorest of the poor.
Then it was from our own initiative, we then said that there are pensioners that fall within this bracket.
Two, we don’t go to negotiations and say pensioners will get this, those in the power sector will get this, those in the ministry will get this, those in the parastatals will get this. So, it is not in our character to negotiate. Pensioners know that if the wage is increased and a percentage is given to them, we can only be involved if that is not affected and, as one of our affiliates, they need to get us involved and they equally have been having their meetings with PTAD and other agencies of government where negotiation goes on and what happens to their wages.
I am not sure they have equally asked us to witness such a negotiation so that we know whether they are being taken care of by those agencies or not. So, one needs to find out what they are actually asking for because what we went for was wage negotiation and not pension negotiation. But each time you get a wage, the element of pension in the implementation process comes in, we didn’t go to this negotiation to now say people that retired people should get this or that, no. When you announce a figure like this, all the ministries, the Head of Service, and all other agencies will now know what happens, maybe state pensioners, federal pensioners, military pensioners, police pensioners, and all these other areas are looked into. If they are now saying we leave the negotiation thing to them, I think they have a forum to negotiate on the issue of relativity, and how it affects them.
We didn’t discuss the issue of relativity, how it will affect active and non-active whatever. When we had a forum with the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, we sent for them and there we urged them to get their own statistics and their own data on the people that fall within this bracket. And on the issue of being carried along, we want to know whether from the time the NLC came into effect, whether they are the people who negotiated for the NLC.
Some economists are telling President Tinubu that wage increase isn’t sustainable because of the country’s dire economic situation occasioned by huge debts and that he should not enter into any agreement with Labour on new minimum wage. What is your reaction?
Are you sure those people are economists? If you can give me their data and where they studied their own economics, I will find out whether they are economists or not because unless they are wicked economists, unless they are operating in another realm and not in the present day Nigeria… Any good and sound economists will tell you about the effect of purchasing power in an economy and that where there is no purchasing power, there is no economy that can grow, where workers salary is not enough for him to go to work, no economy can grow and then where the cost of living index is just wiped out and anybody says he is an economist, is he saying it as a punitive measure that it’s the worker that destroyed the economy? Now, in every society, even as we talk now, in America, all over the world, workers are paid per hour and it is based on productivity, based on what is sustainable for them, all these issues are put into place.
Now N30, 000 is about thirty dollars in a month, that is what an average worker or professional is getting. Some get fifteen dollars per hour and you see somebody who says he is an economist saying you should not pay wage.
Those people are not in this climate, those people are quacks and I challenge any of them to come out. And that is the same economists that advised that we should continue to import petroleum products, that we should sell all our crude and buy refined products; those economists are not as versed as my own grandmother who harvests cassava, sells part of it and keeps part that she will use with her children and grandchildren but these economists are the ones that will tell you to sell the whole cassava and buy garri at a high cost and then the problem that besieges Nigeria is how to get the difference between that cassava and the refined garri, and those economists are still opening their mouths to talk nonsense and misadvise this government. Even under primitive economy, nobody gives this type of advice. So they are not economists.