NO idiom quite captures the complexity and multifaceted nature of an agreement as the reason Nigeria’s organised labour gave for shelving its proposed strike last week. Organised labour had resolved some two weeks ago to go on strike by November 6, 2018 if the federal and state governments did not take concrete steps to agree and implement a new minimum wage of N30,000. But in a flurry of activities and negotiations, the federal government catalysed the tripartite plus committee, which had been negotiating for about a year, to reach a deal and make recommendations to the government. On November 5, 2018, the Amal Pepple-led committee eked out an ambiguous deal and passed it on to the president the following day.

Depending on who was asked to expatiate on the deal — whether representatives of the federal government, or Ms Pepple, or representatives of organised labour — it was reported that the committee had recommended N30,000, the figure suggested by the labour unions, or something else suggested by representatives of government. Labour minister, Chris Ngige, however, agreed that while N30,000 was actually indicated in the agreement, complete with a draft executive bill to be forwarded to the National Assembly for legislative action, the deal also indicated N24,000, the figure embraced by the federal government. And so while Ms Pepple appeared to believe that the real agreement was for N30,000, Dr Ngige believed that the inclusion of a lower figure enabled the government he serves to avoid being straitjacketed or railroaded.

However, before the ambiguity assumed poignancy, President Muhammadu Buhari had last Tuesday, while receiving the report, waffled gloriously about the unions’ patriotic decision not to plunge the nation into a crisis, and commended both the committee and patient workers. He then swore his commitment to a new minimum wage and gave a pledge to forward an executive bill on the agreement reached by the nearly one-year old committee. He was smart enough not to indicate explicitly what figure of minimum wage he was going to recommend. But on Wednesday, the media were so thoroughly flummoxed by the president’s waffle that they headlined their stories on the subject as presidential assent. It took the Information minister, Lai Mohamed, only one day to put the lie to the popular misconception. Neither the president nor the government had agreed a definite figure, he wailed.

Appalled that it seemed to have been suckered, and warning the government not to play any hanky-panky with the agreement reached, organised labour disclosed to the media that as far as they were concerned an agreement to pay N30,000 had been reached and any indication to the contrary would be catastrophic for labour peace. But the unions also knew that the process of legitimising and legislating the deal is a bit long and tortuous. Indeed, as explained by the Labour minister last week, the final proposal would weave its serpentine way through the Federal Executive Council, National Council of State, before being transmitted to the parliament. There are no guarantees what would happen at any of the stages. And except the unions can somehow find a way to expedite the process, each of the stages, particularly the legislative stage, can really be time-consuming.

It is suspected that after a lot of rigmarole, the federal government might actually raise the figure a little to about N26,000 or N27,000. No one, except the unions, sees the government at the federal and state levels paying N30,000. Certainly the states will decline to pay, regardless of the threats to vote out dissenting governors. It will be left to the unions to go on strike again should the government offer N26,000 or N27,000. But the dilemma faced by the unions will in no way match the quandary faced by the government in making a final proposal. The organised labour strategically chose an election year to squeeze a deal through the palms of the government; the government will in turn be wary of proposing a final deal that will see labour returning to the barricades weeks to the elections. One way or the other something will have to give, perhaps, as some analysts say, with the government agreeing a deal they know no state can hope to pay.

from The Nation Nigeria