Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The NLC rallies

On Wednesday last week, the first in the series of nationwide rallies planned by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) held in Lagos. The protest marches are designed to pressure government into paying a new minimum wage, rescind its decision to withdraw subsidy on petroleum products, and implement wholesale recommendations of the Muhammed Uwais committee on electoral reforms.

Despite fears by the police and leadership of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which cried wolf where there was none, the rally in Lagos was conducted with utmost civility and decorum, a fact attested to by the governor, Mr. Babatunde Raji Fashola (SAN), when he received the protesting workers.

The three issues at the centre of the protest rallies are quite germane to us as a nation. In fact, they have been at the centre of national discourse for some time now, and the fact that the labour movement has taken them up shows an organization alive to the yearnings and desires of the people.

Minimum wage at the federal level currently stands at N7,500. A good number of states pay a lot lower. Labour, however, wants N52,000 as new minimum wage. Outrageous? By no means.

We believe that the extant minimum wage of N7,500 is grossly ridiculous, and indeed a travesty of anything called living wage, with the current economic realities in the country. And the economic downturn, we daresay, preceded the current global meltdown. Asking for better pay, therefore, is the legitimate right of the Nigerian worker, who is daily buffeted by the harsh financial climate.

It is gratifying that after the protest march last week, government announced the setting up of a committee, which will work with representatives of the labour unions, to arrive at an acceptable minimum wage. We urge the body to adopt a scientific approach to determine what is the true minimum living wage in the current economic environment.

The deregulation policy of the Federal Government in the downstream sector of the petroleum industry has led to the withdrawal of subsidy, signposting greater hardship ahead as petrol prices will naturally go up. This was another cause for the protest rally.

As we have regularly maintained, removal of subsidy on petroleum products may make a lot of economic sense, but scant social sense. It is a good economic argument which holds no water when juxtaposed with the concomitant havoc it may wreak on the social fabric. The worker who is paid starvation wages is compelled to pay through his nose for transportation, prices of foodstuff and other essential commodities will go astronomically high, and there will be anger and resentment against government. Meanwhile, economics is meant to serve man and enhance his well-being, not the other way round.

There are certain questions government must answer before the deregulation policy becomes a fait accompli. How are we sure money saved from subsidy removal will be judiciously spent on other sectors that will directly touch the lives of the people? What happened to palliatives recommended in the past during the hike of petrol prices? What safety net has been put in place to protect the citizens? What can we say the Nigerian citizen benefits from government, when he generates his own electricity, provides his own water, builds his own road? These are questions begging for answers.

On the recommendations for political reforms by the Uwais committee, the rejection of vital aspects by government has generated widespread condemnation. These include the mode of appointing the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the scrapping of State Independent Electoral Commission (SIECs) among others. We urge the National Assembly to look at these again as it considers the bills that have been forwarded to it in that respect.

Government is meant for the people, particularly in a democratic setting. It must listen to the voices of the people, and consider their demands and requests. The cautions raised by the PDP, and the Minister for Labour, Prince Adetokunbo Kayode, who said the rallies could undermine national security, were nothing but false alarms. They were indeed a carry over of military rule mentality.

Labour has the right to embark on peaceful rallies. We support such. The one in Lagos has shown that we are capable of showing our grievances in a decent, civilised manner. The onus is on government to listen, and have a rethink where necessary.