A former President of National Union of Textile and Garment Workers of Nigeria (NUTGWN), Oladele Hunsu, in this interview with SUNDAY OJEME, speaks on the brewing controversy between organised labour and Federal Government on a new minimum wage and sundry issues
Labour has threatened to go on strike again over breakdown in minimum wage negotiation. Do you think the action is necessary?
In the contest of the issue at hand, I want to say the strike is necessary, because you recall there is what we call a breakdown in negotiation for a new minimum wage, and of course, since government is not willing to negotiate with workers by refusing to accede in the spirit of negotiation, which they entered. You recall that before the negotiation, it was a tripartite issue between the government, the employers on one hand and the trade union. They all had their proposals and they all met but there is this argument as to which is the appropriate minimum wage to be paid to workers. That is why the threat of strike to be embarked upon is being issued by the trade union. So if you look at it in that context, it is justified.
What in your view should be the appropriate minimum wage?
This minimum wage is becoming an outdated phrase; it should have been living wage. Living wage encompasses everything to take care of an average worker. However, if you look at government, the current minimum wage and the one that is on the table, you discover that from the time the first minimum wage was signed to this time, five years have lapsed. Ordinarily, there should have been a second review of the minimum wage now. The minimum wage of N18,000 should have been reviewed twice, but, however, it is better late than never. So if you look at the proposal, it was initially N65,000, later they brought it down to N56,000, but at the end of the day, labour agreed for N30,000, yet Federal Government is saying they can’t pay N30,000.
I even heard the Minister of Labour saying that an employee cannot determine the amount of wage to be paid. To me, it doesn’t make sense because it was a tripartite agreement among the three groups earlier mentioned. If you look at the N30,000 as compared with the cost of living, you will discover that the N30,000 is nothing. What is N30,000, giving the exchange rate of N360 to a dollar, that is less than $100.. If someone works for 22 days, if you divide that, how much does he go home with on a daily basis. So you discover it is grossly inadequate. However, now that they have met and agreed on N30,000, well, it is manageable, at least better than N18,000. But government should not just say no, that they can’t pay up to that amount.
How about state governors who can’t even pay N18,000 conveniently?
The states are the worst. You see, what the state governors are doing, in terms of denying workers of their wages, is a sin. Those governors that have refused to pay workers their salaries promptly as and when due are sinners. I say this because the two holy books that we all subscribe to, the two religious books condemn non-payment of wages. The Quran says don’t allow the sweat of a labourer dry up before you pay his wage, and the Bible says, before sun set, pay a labourer his wages. So those governors are sinners for not paying workers their wages. And based on sheer wickedness, there are some governors that owe up to 30 months, 15 months, and these governors are still there, doing what. Have you seen the convoy of a governor? About 16 vehicles in the convoy of a governor; these vehicles have to be fuelled, the drivers and the aides have to be paid all sorts of allowances. Why don’t they reduce those things? Governance is too expensive in Nigeria.
So any governor who says he cannot pay minimum wage has no business being a governor; and there are many of those governors, who are just comfortably seated and workers are not paid. Even when the president gave them bailout, they didn’t pay workers. They diverted it. When that bailout was given I even frowned at it because when there is recession and you want to bailout, you don’t bailout for expenditure, you don’t bailout to pay salaries. Bailout should be to aid productivity, to keep people on their jobs, to create more jobs, to allow for job security.
Bailout should be on things that will add value to the economy, not salaries. I frowned at it. Well, fine it was given, but most of these governors did not even pay. Now, the Paris Club Refund, you know what happened to that too. The governors collected this money and they pocketed it. So it is sheer wickedness. So labour has a monumental job on their hands, and this is the right time to really roll up their sleeve and begin to engage these people.
Apart from this constant demand for minimum wage, what else do you think labour should do to make government improve on welfare of Nigerians?
If you look at welfare, you agree with me that Nigerian workers are the worst. What do they get? I would have suggested that we change our methodology, our strategy> I have this advice for the labour movement because by the time you want to concentrate on embarking on strike to demand for a new minimum wage, most people will argue and say, afterall, they are not captured by it because they are not in paid employment. So labour should have agitating for improved welfare packages for workers. Before now, they are supposed to weep up sentiments, get people’s sympathy on their side before embarking on any of these strikes.
For instance, if labour had been canvassing for reduction in government expenses, like the president made a pledge before he became president that the presidential fleet would be reduced drastically because he doesn’t need those things; but they are still there, consuming billions of naira on maintenance, and nothing has happened. Better still, engage government on utility bills being paid by workers. Labour should insist that the cost of governance be reduced, the allowances of lawmakers be cut down, the industry policy of government be more liberal to allow for investment as the cost of doing business in the country is too high.
These are the issues they should be engaging government on. If they had done that up to this period and the government refused to yield, they now have room to agitate that workers’ salaries be increased to certain amount, and you discover that every Nigerian including even the unemployed would support them because it is long overdue because labour had demanded for this and that, and nothing was done. There are many ways we can do that. We have to be more proactive. Now let me now shock you. If eventually labour succeeds in making government to agree to pay N30,000 minimum wage, there will be change of batons in most states, I want to tell you that governors who cannot pay N18,000 would say they were not part of the negotiation, therefore they will not pay. Mark my word. That is if labour succeeds in achieving what they are doing now. That is why I said, it should be a process, demanding for other welfare packages that will culminate to demanding new minimum wage or increment in salaries.
We often hear labour threatening to report government to International Labour Organisation. Are there really punitive measures this regard?
You see, every country is sovereign and there are statutes, there are conventions, and these conventions are ratified by all members of ILO. Whereby any country refuses to ratify or violates some of these conventions, it can be reported to ILO. It is not as ILO is coming to shut down the country but searchlight would be beamed on such country, and the image of that country in the international community will be dented. It is not only labour that has the right to report to ILO, even government can also report labour to ILO, the employers have the right to report to ILO on issues. So it is not only labour. Each of the bodies represented at ILO are given fair hearing at ILO if the issue gets there.
In all these conventions, you have the right to maternity, right to safety, and even right to strike. You can’t beat a child and ask him not to cry. That takes me back to this issue of ‘no work no pay.’ Labour should equally invoke ‘no pay no work.’ In fact, they should demand that the one that have been worked and have not been paid should be paid for, because it is a social contract. That is why I said these governors, whoever has not paid salaries is a sinner, and sinners will go to hell.
What are your views as regards states that have failed to tap into their resources to boost internally generated revenue?
If I have to be frank with you, most of these state governors are just lazy. There are ways you can generate money if you actually look inward. God has so blessed this country. All the 36 states of the federation, there is no one that is not endowed with one resources or the other.
Some of these resources are in the Exclusive List. Will it not amount to lawlessness if they decide to explore them independently?
You see, when some resources are in the Exclusive or Concurrent, whichever way, if you can mobilise to explore some of these resources in your domain, then you can negotiate with Federal government; just like the oil producing areas. Forget about which list they are. If you can look inward and add value to the resources then you can begin to negotiate. After all, there is derivation because the resources are from your domain. Once you do that, your reliance on allocation from government would have been minimised.
If you ask me, most of these candidates aspiring to be governors should be engaged. They should be asked the efforts they would make to ensure resources in their domains are well explored to boost their IGR. Most of these governors don’t even have idea about the number of resources in their states. Even if they do, it is just to project the image of their states. The large bitumen in Ondo is even oozing out. Nobody is looking at that.
How would you rate the administration of President Mohammadu Buhari as regards job creation in the last three year?
People have different ways of assessing the administration of President Buhari, but as far as I am concerned, looking at it from the constituency where I come from in terms of job creation, job opportunities, protection of industries, I would say the government has not performed at all. Take for instance, before the coming on board of the administration of President Buhari he made a lot of promises. For instance, take textiles for example because that is my constituency. Before coming onboard, the president made promises that the revival of the sector would be paramount. My humble self and members of the union even met with the vice president but up till now, there are more industrial obituaries in the textile sector than it was three, four years ago. At least, if we cannot add more, the existing ones should be made to survive. They should not be killed. Workers are losing their jobs in droves, in thousands, in hundred.
What’s actually the problem with the textile industry? Is it raw materials, machineries or policy?
The number one problem is government policy. The second is smuggling and faking of products. The third one is unfavourable business climate and the fourth one is exchange rate. Nigeria has the capacity to produce, we have the market. About 19 states in Nigeria can produce cotton. In fact, they used to be cotton producers. In those days, textile industry did not source their raw material, which is mainly cotton, from outside. They were all sourced within. Infact, there are ginneries everywhere but go there now.
What are they planting? They are planting soya beans. Nobody is planting cotton any longer because of course, one, nobody is buying because the value chain, from the factory to the textile up to the fashion designer, the entire value chain has been disrupted. So the death of the textile industry automatically meant the death of cotton growers. During the last administration when Olusegun Aganga was the Minister of Trade and Investment, there was a textile policy.
I want to advise government to fish out that policy. If that policy is implemented, the textile policy will be back because it captures from the farm to the shop. The entire value chain is captured in that policy. So you can see insincerity on the part of the government, and I want to say this too, we can’t be apolitical, we must start demanding from some of these leaders, some of these political parties, just like in South Africa, no party wins election in South Africa if they don’t listen to what COSATU (Confederation of South Africa Trade Union) says.
They submit their own proposal to the ruling party because workers have input. I am looking forward to the day that labour will present their demands as workers to any of the parties in Nigeria before any of them emerges as the ruling party. Whoever is ready among these political parties to implement all of these things, Nigerian workers will overwhelmingly vote for that person. I think the time has come for us to start engaging them.