Recently I spoke with a retired company executive who upon retirement decided to go back to work in the public sector in order to join the labour movement. This man would intrigue me because this is a time in his life when he could easily retire to comfort in his home, buy and run a farm, but he chose to go back to work in order to advocate for worker’s rights.
Why will he do this? I discovered it is for a simple, yet noble reason – to bridge the divide between high-earning management and the lowly-paid workers in terms of compensation. He told me that his experience from the corporation where he worked for 40 years, made him realise that everyone is equally important to making the system work; in other words, no role is less important than the other. The men who replace the tissue paper in the washrooms are as important as the company CEO who rushes to use the washroom in the middle of a boardroom meeting. If these folks aren’t there, the system will go awry. So, my friend decided to work in the public sector, become a steward in the worker’s union and advocate for the right of workers to earn decent wage, grieve and be treated fair and just. Two of his grown-up kids, he tells me are business owners and he can’t be more proud of how they treat their employees – awesome.
This brings us to the impasse on worker’s remuneration in Nigeria; the civil service has progressive levels as they call the hierarchy structure and as you progress through the ranks, your income swells, you earn more. That is logical in the sense that to hold a higher position, you had either worked longer in the establishment or spent more years getting qualifications – although sometimes this isn’t so – as a son of a permanent secretary in Nigeria civil service may not necessarily start at the same level in government establishments as his peers (don’t quote me; but it is true). The minimum wage was recently pegged by a recent legislation to N18,000 or US$115 for government workers. Despite this, government at all level had complained that they cannot pay this amount because the economy will not sustain it.
But, maybe we need to consider this – what is income distribution in the public sector like? Is it fair the way it is? A look at the income for political office holders shows that it is a mess and inequitable. Professor Sola Adeyeye, a senator of the Federal Republic wrote of how legislators got money for stationery every two months – in amounts that could last four years of service. During this period he says, each legislator could have received up to N12million naira for stationaries. The obscene remuneration being paid higher level officers and elected officials does not justify the inability of government to pay N18,000. Maybe N18,000 is the route by which we will eventually achieve some measure of equity in income distribution, but it is appalling that government claim they are unable to pay an amount that can barely purchase a one-way domestic economy flight ticket as worker salary in a month – in many cases, these workers have families. Like I said, probably N18,000 could be the route by which we get to fair remunerations, as the Lagos State Governor recently said that the state government will have to cut down costs in order to pay the amount. Lagos State austerity measures will include cutting money spent on frills and jamborees such as government officials’ television sets and decoder subscriptions.
We certainly know that Nigeria isn’t as rich as many western countries (yet); until we block the wastes. Why is it important to bridge the income divide – reduce money spent on top cadre officers and elected officials and increase for lower cadres? The reason is simple, while it is said that in animal farm, some are more equal than others – but, we are not animals. Gone are the days of slavery and slave labour – what we have are people putting their skills to work to earn a wage – a living wage. But how does one spend N18,000 in a typical Nigerian economy? A bag of 50kg rice – the staple food eaten in Nigeria – costs N7500; with money to be spent on transportation, medical care, school fees, accommodation, security, fuel, and so on – no worker on such wage as N18,000 will dare spend almost half of his salary to buy a bag of rice in our cash driven economy. With this unreasonably low income at the lower levels of the Nigerian civil service; what is the state of the service?
As will be expected; Nigerian workers are very low on motivation, they have no love for their job and are usually there until (or if) they get a better job. Eventually, many of them spend their years on the job
bemoaning their fate and wondering if life could have treated them better. What organisation makes progress with these kinds of workers? This is perhaps why clients and citizens seeking service at government organisations have always complained of being served poorly by rude government staff and the only time these workers smile at you is if you are going to “settle” them afterward – settle as in give them money for doing their paid job! This might be after you have been charged inflated amount well above the official price. For instance, go to the court of law to prepare an affidavit and you will always pay N500-N1000 for the affidavit which officially costs N50 to stamp.
The eminent novelist Chinua Achebe had opined that there is nothing wrong with the Nigerian people, climate or air; but the trouble with Nigeria is that of leadership – other school of thoughts believe the citizens also share a blame in the ugly situation. However, since it is the leadership that has been responsible for income distribution; the current inequitable system is their creation. Hence, they should be responsible for its correction in a way as to giving every citizen/worker a sense of belonging in the system. But as there is usually no guarantee the leadership will do it; the workers themselves need to make the demand. This is the onus of the constant agitation for wage rise by labour union. Perhaps the long stay of the military is responsible for the present mess because in the past, citizens were unable to negotiate how they should be treated by their government. The current democratic government of Nigeria should realise that we cannot continue to do things the same way and expect things to be different. To restructure and refocus the civil service, to make the public sector effective again, to remake the economy, to meet our millennium development goals – government must learn what successful corporations world over have learnt and practised – that when you respect and support the people and workers who make your country function – in health sector, education sector, transport sector, judiciary, etc – you reap the reward of a progressive and functional country through their loyalty and respect for the system.
N18, 000 minimum wage in the present economy is not the answer – government should pay more and redistribute accordingly. This is the transformation we need.