N494,000: Labour Open to Lower Terms, Says TUC President

President of the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC), Comrade Festus Osifo speaks with Ngozi Alaegbu on Arise News, where he talked about minimum wage, and the ongoing loggerhead with the Federal Government, among other issues. Lillian Edward brings  excerpts

What exactly happened at this meeting that has led to you (Labour) calling for an indefinite strike?

You remember that we had a meeting on Tuesday and it was deadlocked. So when that happened on Tuesday, we told them that until they renew their mandate, that is not okay for us to be on the table without each side moving, that they should go and renew their mandate and whenever they are ready, they should get back to us. Our thinking was that they were ready when they sent out an invite, that we should come to the meeting today (Saturday). So we got to the meeting today, it was all stories and stories. As it has the characteristics of the governors, six of them, were not there. Out of the three ministers that are members of that Tripartite committee, only one, the minister of state for Labour, was there, and she is a conciliator naturally, trying to bring both sides together. So there was nobody there from the federal side to make a substantive offer. So on the table today, there was no offer made at all.

When you said there was nobody on the government side, you expect that the minister of state for Lebour, Nkiruka Onyejeocha?

She was there, that is not true. The way the system normally works according to the law, the minister of State Labour is the vice chairman of the Tripartite Committee. So the minister of state Labour ought to be a conciliator, naturally. So it is, maybe the minister of finance or minister of economic planning, who are members of this committee are the ones who ought to make the offer. But irrespective, even if they had asked the minister of state for Labour to have made an offer, I think she would have been able to make an offer. But on the ground today, even when one kobo was not added. We now started asking them, we have asked you to go and do your analysis, where is the analysis, how will N60,000 take somebody home? Come and show us, they could not present anything. We also asked them, what was the value of N18,000 and the value of N30,000. Compare it to the present value. some formulas are used in doing that. They did not also do that. Okay, we have not told them at all that we will remain in this meeting, that as patriotic Nigerians, because our ultimatum aspires today, that we don’t want to leave this meeting without going back to our members and say, okay, the government has upped the offer. So what we will do is that, let us remain here, and you go and meet Mr President, if you don’t have anything to put on the table, even if it is midnight, we will remain here in this meeting. But they kept telling us that to get access to the President is difficult and that some of them don’t have access to the villa, so a lot of excuses were just coming up. We were persistent, we told them we would be patient, and we would wait till midnight today in that same venue, but they were not forthcoming, they were just being dismissed. So when we looked at it, we felt that no, they are not serious about this and we have to proceed on the indefinite strike action from Monday.

Are you saying that in going to the Tripartite meeting the government was not sincere in having this meeting to start with and when you as organised labour went into this meeting, did you have any idea of what figure to present at this meeting today Or did you stick to your 494,000 Naira?

Of course. Ngozi, when we go to meetings and we are asking the government, where were we when the minimum wage in 2011 was N18,000? Where were we when the minimum wage was N30,000? Let’s calculate the present value of that money. That shows sincerity on our part. That shows the fact that we want to negotiate based on principles. There are principles guiding negotiations. The reason why you do negotiations is that your earlier value has been eroded. So how do we bring it back to the previous state? It’s very simple. The government understood our language very well. I have come here several times and I have stated that we are not fixated on the value on the table today. But let us work through this based on principle. If we work through this based on principle, we will be able to arrive at what is fair and what is just for everybody. That has been our demand on the table. So let’s not be fixated about the N494,000. But both sides must agree on the principle that we are going to use to work through the data and arrive at what the minimum wage should be.

Besides the issue of the minimum wage, there are other demands that you made of the government such as the issue of the electricity tariff. Are you saying that the government has not ceded any kind of ground?

In terms of the electricity tariff, if you remember very well, on May 13, we had a protest to NEC and the DISCOs. So during that protest, we addressed them and sent them a letter. Until today, we have not been invited for any conversation. You don’t treat your social partners like that. It’s our responsibility to highlight what we think is affecting our members. Then it’s for the government or whosoever is responsible to also come to us and to say, these things that you have presented, these are the reasons why we did it. These are the data. We have not had any formal communication from the government. That is not how the system should work. Then, should anything shift? What are we after? There is a goal. That goal is the national minimum wage. We are ready for meetings at any time. Our team is here in Abuja. If they call us tonight for a meeting, rest assured that we attend that meeting. So if we can reach a comfortable landing between now and Sunday, nobody is happy to grant the economy. Nobody is happy to embark on industrial action. It takes a toll on everybody whenever you do so. So for us, we are not happy to get to that point on Monday. We still have Saturday and Sunday for us to have that conversation and reach a comfortable position.

Would it not be fair to say that the government to some extent ceded some ground from N48,000 to N58,000 and then N60,000? Is that not a demonstration of the fact that the government is willing to shift ground and meet you as organised labour halfway, considering the economic situation that Nigeria finds itself in now?

Labour also shifted ground from N615,000 to where we are today to N494,000. And we are still prepared to shift ground. But the government is no longer willing to move from where they are today. But all we have told them is that where we are today is simply $40. Where we were in 2011 was $120 in terms of the value of the currency. Same way, in 2019, where we were was somewhere around $92 to $95. So you cannot now be giving us this. You think that you have done good to us. No. So our problem is the value of what they are offering. It’s not the volume. I saw a release this evening where they said that they’ve offered a 100% increment. If your currency has eroded, even if you offer a 1000% increment, it’s still nothing. So that thing that you are offering, there is a way you calculate it to check what the value of what you are offering is.

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