Why the House is treating minimum wage bill with alacrity

By Yakubu Dogara

I am greatly delighted to address you at the opening of this Public Hearing on the National Minimum Wage Bill by the Ad-Hoc Committee set up by the House during our last Plenary on Thursday, 24th January, 2019.  I want to welcome all stakeholders present here and profusely thank you for honouring the invitation of the Ad-Hoc Committee. The fact that you made it here at short notice, bears eloquent testimony to your recognition of the importance of this Bill and the urgency that its consideration requires.

There are obvious reasons why the House has to give accelerated consideration to this very crucial Bill.  It is a Bill that is long overdue, as the current National Minimum Wage, which was fixed in 2011, has become unrealistic due to supervening developments in the nation.

As most of us here must be aware, the National Assembly will need to go on a short recess for the purpose of the General Elections, which is less than three weeks from now.  We must, therefore, conclude this Public Hearing as quickly as possible today to enable the House proceed with further legislative actions on it at its plenary tomorrow as already resolved in our last sitting.

More importantly, the consideration and passage of this Bill is equally exigent because our country is at the brink of a national industrial crisis that we can least afford at this time.  Passions are extremely high within the entire Organised Labour on this issue.  Even before the consideration of the Bill by Parliament, the Labour leaders have rejected the 27,000 Naira recommended to us by the Executive Arm as National Minimum Wage.  At the slightest opportunity, the entire workforce in the country could be called out by Labour leaders to resume the strike action that was recently put on hold without any further notice.  The effect that such scenario can have on the ongoing electioneering process is better imagined than experienced.  There is no doubt, therefore, that the entire nation is awaiting and looking up to the National Assembly to do the needful with the promptitude it deserves.

In view of the foregoing, the House is approaching this exercise with a very high sense of duty, responsibility and loyalty to our nation.

Let me assure the Nigerian workers, that the National Assembly is aware of and shares in your pains, patience and sacrifices as regards the issue of the National Minimum Wage.  Majority of our Members are on your side as you can judge from their contributions to the debate on the Bill on the floor of the House last Thursday.  Armed with these sentiments and taking into cognizance the decision of the tripartite committee that provided the initial ingredients for this Bill, we should have no difficulty taking a decision that is in the best interest of our workers and the nation.

While we are not oblivious of the current economic downturn and the dwindling revenue of Government, we cannot also be blind to the fact that all economic indices indicate that even the 30,000 Naira Minimum Wage that Labour is asking for is not enough to sustain a small family unit.  The nation may not have enough to satisfy the minimum demands of the Nigerian worker, but as a nation, we need to set our economic priorities right and ensure that we dignify our workers by making allowance for their minimum comfort.  I know of no alternative if we hope to up the productivity level of our workforce.

It is said that the promise of democracy is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. According to Thomas Jefferson, these are God given rights. Therefore, it is not enough to merely be alive and free, one must also be engaged in the pursuit of happiness in order to enjoy the promise of democracy.  If that is the case, can we say that Nigerian workers are enjoying the promise of democracy? Can we say that millions of our youth who roam the streets daily in search of non existing jobs are enjoying the promise of democracy? Absolutely, No. This is because, although they are alive and free, they lack the means with which to pursue happiness. While the workers are underemployed, the later are unemployed. So as a country, we are battling twin evils, namely: underemployment, which is as grave a problem, as unemployment. Dr. King Jnr aptly summed it up when he said, while talking about underemployment in America, that “most of the poverty-stricken people of America are persons who are working every day, and they end up getting part-time wages for full-time work.” Of course America has moved on since Dr. King’s time. We must make Nigeria move on in our time.

I have said before that poverty is the greatest threat to our democracy. Those who doubted me have seen that threat manifest itself in vote buying and in the use of money to compromise electoral and security officials during elections. On account of the sense of despondency and powerlessness that poverty breeds amongst the poor, the poor have and will always remain ever ready tools in the hands of tyrants and demagogues, who in the course of history, have always found it easy to mobilize for the purposes of subverting democratic Institutions. Since underemployment and unemployment are bedmates of poverty, eliminating them must be the focal point of government’s policies.

The next evil is corruption. It is not in doubt that corruption fundamentally undermines democratic institutions and values. Corruption affects the poor most because they depend more on government for support. How then do we fight corruption from the roots rather than dealing with its symptoms as is currently the case? The answer is for us to begin to pay workers living wage not minimum wage.

When we do not pay living wage, we cannot tame corruption. When workers take home is not enough to take them home, the temptation for them to cut corners in order to get home will always be there.

Workers keep and process our national wealth and the only way to insulate them from the temptation to want to help themselves to it, is to ensure they are well remunerated. It is not in contention that it is a mean job to muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain. Leaving workers to their temptations is dangerous unless we can show that they are greater than Oscar Wilde, who in his vintage wicked wit, proclaimed, “I can resist everything except temptation”.

That we cannot pay living wage in a nation that represents a major promise for economic prosperity in the world speaks to the bane of our leadership. In order to reverse this tragic narratives, we must invest in proactive and innovative leadership not the reactive leadership model that we practiced all this while.  Reality is, I am not a believer in minimum wage although it is a constitutional issue and the practice in many nations. I believe in living wage and wish the framers of our Constitution had provided for a living wage instead. No wonder the UN Covenant on Economic, social and cultural rights speaks to rights to a living wage in Article 7(A)2 as incorporated in International labour Organisation document. Therefore, I cannot wait for that Nigeria to emerge wherein workers are paid wages that would not only take them home but have a portion to spare in savings in order to pursue happiness and  give their children the training that they could ever dream of. That should be our national goal going forward if we hope to ever make it to the club of elite nations. If we do not ever make it to the point where we can have a conversation about Economic justice, it would not be because it’s impossible to achieve but because we lack the right leadership. We have talked about ending so many things in Nigeria, now is the time to talk about creating wealth and ending poverty; and those who bear the burden of the nation must be the first beneficiaries.

I should like to encourage that the views I have expressed here are genuinely intended to stimulate deliberations. Let me therefore implore all stakeholders to be candid and concise in their presentations, so that this Public Hearing can be concluded in good time today to enable the Ad-hoc Committee work on its report, which, as I said earlier, must be laid before the House tomorrow.

While commending the Ad-hoc Committee for being expeditious in putting together this hearing, I urge us all to pull through by working assiduously to complete this legislative exercise within the stipulated time.  I wish us Godspeed in this assignment.

At this juncture, it is my pleasure to declare this Public Hearing open.

God bless you and God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

 

Dogara, Speaker of the House of Reps, delivered this remark at the public hearing of the minimum wage bill on Monday, January 28, 2019.

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