THE move by the House of Representatives to amend the provisions of the 1999 Constitution by removing matters relating to wages from the Exclusive Legislative List to the Concurrent Legislative List is a welcome development and long overdue. The bill, when assented to by the President after its passage by the lawmakers, will ensure that the respective 36 states and 774 local government areas in the country will determine different wages for their workers.
Consequently, the Federal Government will lose its exclusive power to negotiate and determine the minimum wage for workers across the three tiers of government as obtained in other federal systems in the world. It will also rub off on the private sector positively and productively. This is most salutary.
The sponsor of the bill, Garba Muhammad (APC Kano), said, “Let every state pay according to what it has.”
Already, there is considerable pushback by labour. The Nigeria Labour Congress has indicated that it would embark on a nationwide strike to protest the move by the lawmakers to remove minimum wage legislation from the exclusive to the concurrent list. This proposed protest should be discarded as labour’s opposition to the bill is unfounded. Labour’s opposition should be disregarded by the lawmakers. It beggars belief that labour leaders give the impression that they are comfortable with a uniform national minimum wage template that binds all the 36 states to pay a wage solely determined by the centre irrespective of their individual economic capacity.
It is regrettable that labour always looks at the issue of minimum wage from a distorted perspective. Muhammad’s contention that both the federal and state governments should be allowed to freely negotiate minimum wage “with their workers in line with our federalism” is unimpeachable. That is the way it is in other federal systems. This progressive legislative move should be seen to its logical conclusion to yield a legal framework that will undergird a new minimum wage administration template in the country to align with federalism.
The uniform national minimum wage is at the root of the industrial disharmony and instability being witnessed in the health and education sectors, in particular, over the years. So far, no fewer than 25 out of the 36 states of the federation are unable to meet the December 31, 2019 deadline the same NLC gave them to conclude all negotiations on the consequential adjustment arising from the N30,000 new minimum wage or face industrial unrest. The current minimum wage was signed into law by the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), on April 18, 2019. State governors have variously stated their inability to pay doctors the wages agreed upon between the Nigerian Medical Association and the Federal Government. The same thing is applicable with the university lecturers under the aegis of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, where state governments complain of the added financial burden in paying wages agreed at the central level without their consideration.
The Nigeria Governors’ Forum should not back down in their support for the bill. If necessary, the governors are encouraged to approach the Supreme Court for final adjudication on the propriety of the Federal Government to unilaterally fix a minimum wage in a supposedly federal system. That patriotic effort will signpost a gradual positive review of the distorted federalism operating in the country over the years in the area of fixing wages for all workers at the various levels of government.
In the United States, an estimated 1.7 million workers are paid the federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour. About 30 states and more than 40 cities have set base pay floor above $7.25. In Canada, the various provinces and territories have differing minimum wages; from as low as the $11.45 per hour paid in Saskatchewan to the $16 paid in Nunavut. While Ontario pays $14.25, British Columbia pays $14.60, effective June 1, 2020 with a commitment to rise to $15.20 on June 1, 2021. The same is obtainable in Switzerland, as there is no uniform national minimum wage for the 26 federating units called cantons. In October 2020, voters in the Swiss canton of Geneva voted to introduce a minimum wage of 23 Swiss francs ($25) an hour making it the highest in the world. Business Insider says that the city of Geneva, the capital of the canton, has long been one of the most expensive in the world, where it was reported in 2020 that one kilogramme of bread cost an average of $5.62 and a woman’s haircut cost $93. According to Expatica.com, data from the Conference of Education Directors for German-speaking Switzerland published in October 2018 showed that primary school teachers in Geneva (CHF 97,000) earned significantly more than those in Nidwalden (CHF 85,000) and Ticino (CHF 66,000).
Given that the cost of living is not uniform across the country, there is no justification for all the states to be made to pay their workers uniform wages determined by an overbearing Federal Government. It negates the principles of federalism which Nigeria is practising. Financial capacity and ability to pay at the state level should determine wages. This way, states can be competitive in attracting talents and quality professionals to work for them and engender development.