Recent reports of a plan to remove the National Minimum Wage from the Exclusive Legislative List to the Concurrent Legislative List in keeping with the country’s federal structure have been generating diverse reactions from Nigerians. The National Assembly had last week reportedly approved the removal of wages from the Exclusive Legislative List which, in effect, would have scrapped the N18,000 National Minimum Wage, as part of its amendments to the extant 1999 Constitution.
The movement of the wages issue to the Concurrent Legislative List would have meant that each state government would have the power to fix its own Minimum Wage. The Deputy Senate President and Chairman of the Senate Constitution Review Committee, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, who had earlier justified the bid by the Senate to move the power to fix the Minimum Wage to the states, explained that it was not proper to fix equal Minimum Wage for all the states, when some could afford to pay higher than that.
Clarifying the matter, The Deputy Speaker of the House and Chairman, House Committee on Constitution Review, Chief Emeka Ihedioha, said that the National Assembly did not eventually remove the minimum wage from the Exclusive List. He explained that both the Senate and the House later retained labour on the Exclusive List when they passed the new amendments to the 1999 Constitution. According to him, it was the Senate that initially moved labour to the Concurrent List, while the House retained it on the Exclusive List, but a conference meeting of the two chambers ended in the adoption and passage of the House version, with the result that the National Minimum Wage will remain on the Exclusive List and be centrally determined by the Federal Government.
We welcome the decision to retain National Minimum Wage matters on the Exclusive List. It is the right position to take, in order to protect Nigerian workers from poor wages that would be their lot if individual states are to determine the minimum wages for their workers. This is, in fact, the practice in many developed countries where Minimum Wage is determined at the national level. This, of course, does not stop the constituent states or federating units from paying higher than the minimum wage set by the central government to their workers. The United Kingdom, for instance, not only has the compulsory National Minimum Wage, it also has a voluntary National Living Wage based on the amount needed to cover the basic costs of living. There is also a higher minimum wage for its capital city, London.
The decision by the National Assembly to leave the wages issue on the Exclusive List has saved Nigeria from labour unrest. This is because, based on the earlier report on the move to shift the responsibility to the states, organised labour, including the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC), had strongly condemned the resolution and vowed that their members would resist the move by embarking on nationwide industrial action. It is good that the matter has been resolved. A national industrial strike will not be in the best interest of the country.
The Nigeria Employers Consultative Association (NECA), which represents the private sector, had however applauded the move. NECA argued that since the country was operating a federal constitution, it should cede significant power and responsibilities to the federating states, including the right and power of the component units to determine the minimum wage of their workers.
We support the final decision to retain Labour matters and the National Minimum Wage on the Exclusive Legislative List. The Federal Government’s power to fix the Minimum Wage should, however, be exercised in consultation with the states on the ideal national minimum salary, to avoid the confusion that trailed its last review in the country. Allowing state governments to fix their own Minimum Wage will likely lead to confusion and industrial unrest because not all states can be relied on to fix a reasonable sum as Minimum Wage for their workers. Some may choose to pay slave wages, to the detriment of their employees. That is the danger of having the Minimum Wage on the Concurrent List.
The arbitrariness it will lead to will not augur well for industrial peace in the country. To avoid such industrial disharmony, there is the need to have a national minimum wage benchmark which every state should endeavour to pay. However, any state that thinks that it can pay its workers above the fixed N18,000 monthly is free to do so. But, on no account should any state pay lower than that sum that cannot even provide the basic necessities of life for any worker, in the first place.
Instead of tinkering with moving the responsibility for fixing the Minimum Wage to the states, the National Assembly should rather be thinking of extending the implementation of the law to the private sector, to make private sector employers adhere to the stipulated minimum salary for their workers. Workers in the private sector also need to be protected from their employers. All companies operating in the country should have a Minimum Wage benchmark to stop the undue exploitation of private sector workers by both indigenous and expatriate employers of labour operating in the country.
Let the Minimum Wage be binding on the private sector operators to end the slave wage regime among some operators in the sector. Indeed, workers’ welfare should concern the government and the Minimum Wage should be used to address the poor wages paid to Nigerian workers. Fixing of a National Minimum Wage that is binding on all employers, private or public, is the accepted practice in many parts of the developed world. Nigeria should not be different.