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Remembering Tayo Olafioye’s Minimum Wage: Maximum Wahala. By Olushola Omogbehin

Remembering Tayo Olafioye’s Minimum Wage: Maximum Wahala

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.As poets are prophets who see the future ahead of others, the current minimum wage wahala that grounded the nation’s economy earlier this week for two days, has again brought to the fore, the re-examination of why minimum wage negotiation in Nigeria always result to maximum wahala which wrote Tayo Olafioye *Minimum Wage: Maximum Wahala*, a poem that forms part of a larger collection titles: The Parliament of Idiots, written in the early part of the fourth republic to expose and denounce political mind-set that situates the masses at a hazardous arena .

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The poem which expresses the anger of the poet on the economic slavery that the masses are subjected to by their elected leaders, have the thematic preoccupation of economic slavery, betrayal, corruption, lawlessness, helplessness of the helpless and others which are still much with us after two decades. It is sad that the demand for minimum wage always turn to trouble for every Nigerian and cost the nation so much because of the selfishness and wickedness of our government.

Historically, the first implementation of minimum wage was carried out by Awolowo in 1954 when he paid 5 shillings and 6 pence to Western Region workers contrary to what workers were paid in other regions such as the North with 2 shillings and 8 pence. Minimum wage was first inaugurated at the national level in 1981 when it was signed into law by Alhaji Shehu Shagari. It was then N125 naira per month with the exchange rate of US$1 to N0.61. This was followed in 2000 when it was jerked up to N5, 500 and later in 2011 to N18, 000 when President Jonathan again signed it into law. Reviewing the National Minimum wage in 2019, the union demanded N30, 000 and after much negotiation, it was finally approved by federal government thereby giving birth to the enactment of National Minimun Wage Act 2019 by President Muhammadu Buhari.

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As wage increase is globally recognized as the right of every worker who deserves to get and enjoy the reward of their labour, the Minimum Wage Act signed by Buhari stipulated the review of wages every five years. Therefore, there is no justification for government to have prolonged its review to the level where the economy of the nation would be grounded. This is the first wickedness that government must address because as the last wage increase in Nigeria was in 2019, there was enough time between then and now to have concluded the negotiation on the new one. Okay, as some may argue that this is a new regime, what has the 37-member tripartite committee on national minimum wage inaugurated early this year by federal government been doing? Tasked with the responsibility of recommending a new national minimum wage for workers, this is about the fifth month without any result. Besides, must government always wait to be dragooned before giving workers their right or doing what is right at all?

Without doubt, the negotiation is taking forever because it concerns the less privileged members of the society who government think do not matter or deserve wage increase but rather, to be working and always be subservient to the rich without commensurate pay for their work. Otherwise, how do you explain dragging the resolution of an important issue as wage increase but passed a frivolous national anthem with the speed of light and any wage that concerns them?

It is so sad to know that a senator’s basic salary in Nigeria goes beyond N2m per month and about N29m with other allowances. Sadly sad, is the fact that upon his state of the art cars, office and home that government pays for, he also enjoys what is called hardship allowance that is more than N1m. The question many Nigerians are asking now is the definition of the hardship our lawmakers are being paid for since everything they use including fueling their cars has been provided by tax payers’ money? Yet it becomes a war whenever workers that are going through real hardship everyday without hardship allowance ask for wage increase.

As Olafioye puts it, it is high level of betrayal of public trust because those elected into power were put there in order to represent them but it is a situation where these representatives will plunder our national wealth and refuse to give the only minimum wage that is the legal right of the masses to them. Is it true that governments at the local, state and federal levels have no money to pay the amount demanded by labour? No, it is simply to increase the fatness of what they steal as the poem puts it in lines 21, 22 and 23:

Bales of the ‘₦’ notes
Carried by midnight owls
Made pregnant the garments they wear

This simply means that if they should pay the correct minimum wage to workers, there won’t be enough for them to steal (pregnant garment at night). This poet used ‘night’ maybe there was still a kind of restrain then but today, it is daylight robbery.

The poet’s use of ‘Owl’ is an iconic satiric device. Apart from being a nocturnal animal, an ‘owl’ has a large and elongated eye tube with binocular vision that makes it a hunter with the ability to see an object with both eyes at the same times with flexible neck that can turn 360 degree. ‘Owl’ has very effective ear with feathers that can fly silently to steal anything with swivel toes that can be locked around anything like money without releasing it. It also has the ability to stay hidden from the public just as our politicians do.

As the poet laments in line 1-11, the same representatives that we trust to represent us well are the same that stabbed us in the back instead of representing us well:

They are cursed:
Reined in by those they chose
To lift them
No greater enemy
Than the one, in one’s household
The python with which one sleeps
At night on the same bed

The use of python here worries me because it is under this same republic that termites, snake and other animals were accused of ‘swallowing’ money. Definitely as this poem puts, it is ‘the python with which one sleeps at night on the same bed’ or the pythons that represents us that is doing this havoc because as the poem agrees with the holy book, man has no greater enemy than the one he lives with. Our leaders are the problems we have and not the N495, 000 minimum wage demand by labour.

Apt as the poem puts, the situation degenerates each day as:

The mekunnus are dying
Talakawas eye the moon for delivery

From daily rise in the cost of essential commodities such as rice, pepper, tomato, fish, meat, hike in transportation and others that now make life meaningless instead of meaningful, wage increase which should be the only consolation that the poet calls ‘delivery’ is suddenly becoming a no go area.

Now that negotiation is going on, it is expected that NLC makes it a holistic one by engaging every state government so as to avoid the next round of wahala where states will tell you they cannot afford it (in order to have enough to swallow) despite the humongous amount they now earn from national purse. At this negotiation stage therefore, NLC and TUC should carry local, state and the private sector along to avoid further round of wahala.

As minimum wage increase depends on many economic factors such as inflation as we currently have in Nigeria that makes life hard due to increase in the cost of living and the inability of workers to cope due to inadequate fund, increase minimum wage would therefore mean more money in the custody of workers to be able to cope with living condition in the society. As a result of this, our dear Minister of Finance, Wale Edun and the tripartite committee of the federal government should take these indices into consideration before recommending what is unrealistic to government thereby increasing the trouble of workers instead of addressing it.

In some countries of the world, minimum wage is paid hourly and weekly while in others, it is done by employee’s age whereas it is monthly in Nigeria. In January 2024 for instance, national minimum wage in Germany rose to EUR 12.41 per hour which in naira is N19, 889. Multiply this by numbers of working days in a month and see the magic. In Australia, it is currently AUD 882.80 weekly minimum wage which is N865, 405 in naira. Among the countries with the lowest minimum wage is Pakistan with PKR 32,000 per month which is about N169, 000. Ukraine minimum wage is UAH 6,700 which is N245, 859 per month. Even in Africa, some countries are doing better than Nigeria in spite of the sorry state of our economy.

In addition to this, government should improve on social services such as reversing electricity tariff, making our refineries work again (at least one) so that transportation fare can come down, implementing price control to cushion the effect of everyday rice in the price of commodities in our markets, making deliberate effort to reduce public spending and salaries of public officers and end this culture of needless taxes on ordinary Nigerians.

As the major problem with Nigeria is lack of preparation and the fire brigade approach to addressing issues, minimum wage increase should henceforth be an immunity to this war war approach to issues. Let’s be proactive like Germany that has gone ahead to proposed minimum wage increase of EUR 12.82 for June 2025.

Olushola Omogbehin a Public affair analyst writes from Abuja

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