The Member representing the Sabon Gari Federal Constituency of Kaduna State in the House of Representatives, Mr Garba Muhammad, is the sponsor of the controversial bill that seeks to amend the constitution and move national minimum wage from the Exclusive Legislative List to the Concurrent List, thereby allowing each of the states to determine suitable wages. The lawmaker talks about the issues that have trailed the proposal
You sponsored a bill that seeks to decentralise the national minimum wage and allow each state to determine their wages based on their socio-economic factors. What inspired the proposal?
Many things were responsible for my bringing up this bill. As I said during the presentation (on the floor of the House), the agitation has always been very high for a decentralised minimum wage in order to have a true federalism because the centre is over burdened. People are advocating that some of these things on the Exclusive Legislative List should be devolved to the states; let the state (Houses of) Assembly have a say, and that is exactly what we did. Secondly, we are talking about true federalism. When there was a strong call on the present government to implement the ‘Jonathan report’ on national confab (report of the 2014 confab held under the administration of ex-President Goodluck Jonathan), the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress, as the party in government, in its wisdom constituted a committee with nine governors, many members of the National Assembly, and many others to come up with a position on restructuring and devolution of power. This report was submitted to the National Executive Council of the APC of which I am a member, and it was ratified. Being a member of NEC and a member of the National Assembly, it falls within my jurisdiction to bring it to the National Assembly. And that is what I did.
Does our law support this?
Prescribing the national minimum wage falls within the jurisdiction of the National Assembly by virtue of Section 4(2)&(3) of the Constitution. We are the only ones that are saddled with the responsibility of prescribing the national minimum wage. Whenever a new minimum wage is introduced, there is usually controversy among the federal, state and local governments. Even the old N18,000 minimum wage that was earlier agreed at a time the price of oil was over $100 per barrel, most states still couldn’t pay it. When this current N30,000 was introduced as the new minimum wage, the price of oil has gone down and the revenue of most of the states has dwindled. At the initial stage, the Federal Government was giving states bailouts to pay (salaries) but now, there is no bailout and the states cannot pay. So, in essence, what we are saying is that there is no need in having a law that is not implementable and there are no consequences or penalties for not implementing it.
Again, the Federal Government collects 52 per cent (52.68 per cent) of the national revenue while the totality of the 36 states collect about 30 per cent (26.72 per cent) and the 774 local governments about 20 per cent (20.60 per cent). And for the derivation, oil producing states collect 13 per cent. So, you will find out that their strengths are not the same; the resources are not the same. The time the minimum wage was increased to N18,000, it only affected the Federal Government by just one per cent but it affected the states by about 40 to 50 per cent, of their revenues.
Apart from that disparity between the federal and state governments, the revenues are not the same even among the states. What states like Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa will collect in a month, will take about six to seven months for states like Yobe, Zamfara, Taraba, Ebonyi and all these ‘small small’ states to get. Also, we said there are local peculiarities; there are several socioeconomic indices that you have to look at. For instance, the cost of living is not the same in Lagos, Abuja, Benue and Ekiti; it is not the same. Chief Afe Babalola, the prominent legal luminary who is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, has supported this argument– I am happy that he even wrote a very powerful article in support of this bill. According to him, what a worker will spend on rent in Abuja, maybe between N2m and N3m per annum, is enough to build a house in other places. Cost of living and transportation in a place like Lagos is not the same in other places: the same goes for the cost of school fees, feeding and many other things. Even at the local government level, they are not the same when it comes to their revenues.
How would you assess state governments in terms of their payment of the national minimum wage currently?
You will find out that since this new National Minimum Wage Act was introduced, most of the states are not paying (N30,000). At a time, Kano State (Government) wanted to rationalise its workers and the NLC had to go to Kano and renegotiate. We are not trying to shut up the NLC; the NLC is our partner in progress. All of us are working for Nigeria and we are looking for solutions. How do we approach this thing? It has always been a problem. The NLC can negotiate with every state according to the resources available to that state. They know; there is nothing that is hidden these days. They know the revenue profile, the number of workers and many other things. Then, they can arrive at a practicable formula that is implementable, not one that will be done and after some time, the whole states cannot implement and nobody is saying anything.
Are these reasons enough to decentralise minimum wage negotiation?
Another thing is that it is even more egalitarian when we allow the state Houses of Assembly to determine (the wage) because the budgets of states do not come to the National Assembly. They process it within the state; they know the strength of the state; they know what the state generates and what it has, and they design the budget based on it. It will be cumbersome for us to take their (state legislatures’) job and tell them ‘this is what will be paid’ when their budget is not under our view. They have their budgets, so they are the ones who can determine it. When you are negotiating, you have to look at the cost of living and which minimum wage will allow a worker to live a decent life. Meanwhile, this minimum wage (proposal) does not say that states whose standard of living is very high to even raise their own. Like in Lagos, the workers can agitate for a minimum of, say, N100,000 or more. Lagos is a very rich state and apart from being rich, the cost of living is extremely high. So, the workers will now have the leverage to negotiate based on what is on ground.
But some people have said there is no basis to move wage from Exclusive List to the Concurrent List When you look at the Republican Constitution and the Independence Constitution of 1963, the issue of minimum wage was domiciled in the Concurrent List, not in the Exclusive List.
One of the arguments against this bill at the second reading is that if we don’t allow an umbrella wage that seems to protect workers in both the rich and poor states, a governor may reduce the minimum wage to as low as N2,000. Is this not scary?
The question is whether governors want to do something that is sustainable or not. The issue of minimum wage in other places is a very serious issue; it is even a campaign issue. In the US, we can see that it has become a campaign issue. You will find out that out of the 50 states, 29 pay higher than what the federal civil servants earn. That can be replicated in Nigeria; it depends on the strength. And it will even ginger the states to now look for revenue. Here, in most of the local governments that I know, once they pay salaries, they will not even have N1m to do any other work: they cannot provide drugs in the hospital, rehabilitate schools or anything. So, in essence, they are in existence just to pay salaries at the end of the month and that is all, and that is their only work. What we are saying is that when you allow them to go and have these negotiations, they are the ones to come up with something that is mutually acceptable. But for us to sit here in Abuja and say that we will make a uniform wage that is acceptable across the states will be difficult? In most instances, what is happening in the states is say ‘okay, we will implement (a new national wage) but we are going to downsize our workforce by 60 per cent; we will retrench.’ And that is what is causing the problem. And how do you solve it? But when you (labour) negotiate; ‘don’t retrench our workers, let us see how you (government) are going to pay based on your revenue, we can see that your revenue then and now are not the same.’
Like one of your colleagues argued, there are governors who are wasteful and prioritise their elephant projects more than payment of wages. Will the state labour unions be able to bend such a governor?
That is why I said it is a campaign issue. That is the beauty of democracy. Whenever there is an election, make it a campaign issue. Whoever is contesting, labour can organise and say ‘we will support you but tell us what you have for workers.’ Make him to make a promise the way (Joe) Biden did; he promised workers that he was going to raise the minimum wage from $10.5c to $15; he made it a campaign issue and he was voted based on that. This can be replicated in Nigeria across the states. ‘We will support you. We are workers. What do you have for us? If you don’t have anything for workers, we will go against you.’ You can even sign agreements. If it is not complied with, you can demonstrate; you can protest. That is what we are saying. All of us are looking for ways (to resolve wage issues). I think it was only four members who spoke against it. If you look at the contributions, I think more than 80 per cent of members who made contributions were in support of this bill.
Were you surprised that more of the four dissenting voices were from the leadership of the House?
No. The Deputy Speaker (Ahmed Wase) is a member like any other member. We are 360, so his opinion is not the opinion of the 360; it is the opinion of his alone when it comes to debates. He made his opinion as a former labour leader. If you look at those who contributed (against the bill), they are former labour members. He can only debate. Being a leader does not confer a superior argument to any other member; he can only argue on his own and other people have argued strongly for the bill. And the most annoying aspect is that even the National President of the Nigeria Labour Congress, Comrade Ayuba Wabba, wrote a letter to me – a five-page letter – and in the letter he was saying that I should have gone to labour to sit with them before bringing up the bill. I said no, it is a misconception to think that I have to approach the labour (first). As a legislator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, I have that right to bring any bill or motion on the floor of the House. The only point where labour can come in is that there will always be public hearing, and at the hearing you are at liberty to come and state your position (on a bill or an issue). If you have a superior and convincing argument, you can convince everybody. We are not rigid; we will agree with you. But if other interest groups that are for the bill come with a better argument, it is left for the House to decide. The thing has even gone beyond me. As you can see in the reports, it was voted (for second reading) by the House, not Garba Datti. I told them that you are to come for public hearing, not to resort to smear campaign as they are doing on the (social media) platform of labour. I have seen a lot of smear campaigns going on against me. People – eminent people, legal luminaries like Chief Afe Babalola and prominent papers like PUNCH, one of the leading newspapers in the country – and many other interest groups like the Director-General of the Progressive Governors Forum have come out powerfully to support this bill. So, this is not a bill you can just wish away by way of insult, smear campaign, intimidation, blackmail; no. Where are they? They should come for constructive engagement, not abuses.
Why do you think the organised labour is agitated by your bill?
You should find out from them; that this is a bill, why can’t they come forward and argue it? And in every part of the world, if there are such issues and you feel that your interest is threatened, you lobby. In the United States, they have professional lobbyists that will come and lobby. But you don’t have to resort to blackmail, smear campaign, intimidation, insult; it cannot solve any problem. We are all Nigerians. We are partners in progress. If they come, we can sit and look at it. This teething problem has been on for quite some time, how are we going to solve it?
Do you see this bill dying eventually considering the fact that the Deputy Speaker who has openly condemned your bill is the Chairman of the House Committee on Constitution Review to which the bill has been referred?
As I told you, he has his own opinion but his personal opinion cannot override the committee. We have representatives of all the states and different interest groups in that committee. We are practising democracy, we are not in dictatorship. It is at the committee that the issue will now be determined by members, not by the Deputy Speaker as chairman of that committee. It has to be determined by members. Even on that day, if the majority are against it, the simple thing I can do it to go to the Speaker (Femi Gbajabiamila) to say I want to withdraw it for further consultation. When the public hearing will take place, the media will be there; it is not going to be a secret public hearing. You are the ones to judge; it will be before the court of public opinion. The labour, apart from the NLC, has other affiliate bodies; they are free to come. Any stakeholder can come. All of us are looking for solution for our country. The approaches may be different but when they come we will understand each other. We are all comrades in this struggle. Nobody is against them, and nobody is trying to weaken the central labour (union). What we are saying is that the central labour (union) will exist but the chapters will negotiate on behalf of labour in each state. Even after the declaration of a new minimum wage, they still go back to negotiate with individual state. I cited the example of Kano that they had to still renegotiate (the N30,000). They are used to this.