Senator Chris Ngige, former Minister of Labour and Employment, midwifed the N30,000 Minimum Wage. He has conciliated many Labour disputes with government. He recently had a disagreement with Organised Labour on the choice of Chairman of the board of Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund, NSITF. But Ngige whose stint ended on May 29, 2019, says he has done his best for the Labour Ministry. He also speaks on other Labour issues.
By Johnbosco Agbakwuru
On his achievements as Labour Minister and the magic wand he used to manage industrial relations within the past four years.
There is no real magic about it. The proactive stand of the Ministry under my care and bringing to bear my experience in life as a worker with the Federal Ministry of Health helped me. I worked in the clinic before coming to the headquarters to manage the federal staff clinic in the states under the Department of Hospital Services.
So I gained some experience of what the expectations of a worker could be in managing his emoluments to satisfy his monthly needs. I managed a zone for my party and also acquired some experience there as Assistant Secretary of the party. By the grace of God, I became governor of Anambra State when there was turbulence and serious labour crisis between the unions in the state and the outgoing governor then, Dr Chinwoke Mbadinuju and decided to learn how to manage labour disputes from there.
I came to the Senate and became a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Power, Metallurgy and Steel Development, Science and Technology and for a while, Committee on Education. These are areas where you have potential labour crisis. In the Senate Committee on Health, we were managing labour issues especially with the NMA, Resident Doctors and other health workers and finally, I found myself as Minister of Labour and Employment.
His achievements as Labour minister
I have always known that whatever I do or wherever I find myself as a public officer, I should do my best because history can be kind to you when you do your best and when you don’t do well, it will be unkind to you, record you badly and in most cases, you won’t even have the opportunity to defend yourself.
Summarising our achievements will be difficult. When I came, the economy of the country had nose-dived. The President inherited a broken economy. Oil prices moved from over $90 to about $30.
There was insecurity in the Niger-Delta and the production of oil fell from 2.2 million barrels per day to about 1.2 million. It took the intervention of the Vice-President and the Minister of State for Petroleum, Ibe Kachikwu to run to the Niger- Delta and start speaking to them and calming frayed nerves because Goodluck Jonathan had just lost an election and there was the feeling among Niger Delta youths that ‘our brother has been pushed out’.
He moved to introduce the Treasury Single Account. I was one of those who supported the introduction of the Treasury Single Account, having been in the Senate and seen the pillage and wastage of funds that was going on among the MDAs in the country.
We also had our obligation to workers in the private sector and we had to dialogue with our social partners, NECA. Those who are not within the ambit of NECA like the oil companies, we brought them here and the then Minister of State, the late James Ocholi (SAN) and myself, addressed them and worked out a format of what could be done.
There was the issue of shortfall in salaries and other allowances. One or two hospitals went on strike and we applied the principle of ‘no work, no pay’ and some doctors in Jos and FMC, Owerri became casualties and till today, we have not refunded their pay. After them came the JOHESU.
They went on strike and we negotiated with them in the first instance and in 2018, they went on another round of strike and we had to invoke the ‘no work, no pay’ principle on them after two months. We had to do so because, after two months, the ILO permits you to invoke it. In fact, the ILO permits you to invoke it immediately anybody on essential services embarks on strike.
A government that inherited a battered economy tried to do its best.
Don’t forget that this Ministry is called Ministry of Labour and Employment and even though there was no money and the personnel cost kept increasing, we said we must give employment to Nigerians.
So, we did a double barrel approach to it. Government established the N-Power programme which was domiciled in the Vice-President’s office. We employed 200,000 in the first batch in 2016/2017 and in 2017/2018, we employed another batch of 300,000 and placed them on a monthly pay of N30,000. We also had an N-power built for those without university degree, who needed to learn some craft in various fields.
We categorised them into the northern and southern zones and employed about 80,000 persons. We trained them for about nine months and empowered them with work tools. We also increased recruitment in all sectors of government who were allowed to replace those leaving and promote others.
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We did not place embargo on employment and so, many Nigerians were employed. We might not have been able to satisfy everybody in terms of white collar jobs. But in terms of blue collar jobs, we did a lot there.
We revitalised skills acquisition centres through the NDE and the Ministry. We had special skills acquisition centres being manned by the Department of Skills Acquisitions in Lagos, Kaduna, Calabar, Bauchi, Kano and Warri among other places. We did not achieve all that we needed to achieve in that area because our original thinking was to be funded enough to revive all the skills acquisition programmes including those belonging to state governments and do a national programme for continuous training of people in these areas.
One of the achievements is the minimum wage…
Well, it is a big one. Minimum wage was one of the products of the technical committee that worked on the palliatives as a result of the increase in pump price of PMS. Here, we were the anchor ministry and I led the government delegation comprising about seven ministers, the Salaries and Wages Commission and the state government.
It was a tortuous and excruciating discussion because of where we found ourselves and where we were coming from. About 27 states were unable to pay the existing minimum wage of N18,000 and now, there is a demand, a genuine demand necessitated by the increase in pump price of PMS and the fact that inflation has eaten deep into the N18,000 and also by the fact that there was a big depreciation of the dollar, even though we were not computing everything about wages with the dollar.
But we know that 40 to 50 per cent of the needs of every worker is foreign-based. The minimum wage encompasses transport and housing needs. The last minimum wage was last negotiated and passed into law in 2011 and so, six, seven years down the line, there was need to touch it because even the constitution prescribes that you must adjust pension every five years or you adjust pay wages before the five years.
You said it was a tortuous negotiation and now, there are governors who say they cannot pay the N30,000 agreed upon
No, it is a national law and no governor can say he will not pay. Issue of national minimum wage is item 34 on the Exclusive Legislative list of the Third Schedule of the Nigerian Constitution. Issue of labour is also there and not on the concurrent list. If it is on the concurrent list, then they can make their own state Assembly laws on that.
Every state government is now owing workers if they have not started paying N30,000. They are owing workers effective from April 18, a new minimum wage. We are now in a committee working out a new template with which we will adjust upward the consequential adjustment for those already earning above N30,000.
The minimum wage is for the most vulnerable down the ladder
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Hope that could work out
They will pay it whether they like it or not.