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Politics of Living Wage: The 1964 Lesson
The Vanguard
Owei Lakemfa

November 17, 2010
View the Original Article

A WEEK ago, the country was in the throes of an avoidable warning strike. It centered around a six-month agreement to pay N18,000 as the new minimum wage in the country.

That agreement was unique as all stakeholders agreed on the new wage; small and medium scale entrepreneurs, the Manufacturers Association, Chambers of Commerce, the employers association, Labour, Federal and state governments.

In fact, the 13 state governments which made written memoranda to the Tripartite Committee of the National Minimum Wage made an average proposal to set the new minimum wage at N22,500.

But in a turn of events, some state governors decided that N18,000 is too much for a worker to earn in offices employing a minimum of 50 workers. This is despite the explanation in the report by retired Chief Justice of the Federation Alfa Belgore who had taken the pain to explain that:

“The purpose of the national minimum wage is to give wage earners the lowest legally permissible level of wage payable in the specified period by their employers for their social satisfaction and the need of their families”.

The position of these governors is reminiscent of that taken by some regional premiers in the First Republic which led to a devastating general strike in 1964. Back then, there was a general consensus that workers take home was too low to sustain life, so a seven- person commission headed by Justice Adeyinka Morgan, the Chief Justice of the then Western Region was established to consult all stakeholders . It became known as the Morgan Commission.

By the time it ended its sittings in April 1964, it had received memoranda from 258 persons and organisations and took oral evidence from 55 individuals. The Commission had public sittings in Lagos, Enugu, Kaduna and Ibadan.

An argument at that stage in the country was that a worker at the bottom of the ladder had no business getting married and raising a family because he has no means of taking care of them.

But a fundamental submission by the Commission was that the worker is a full citizen and that “… even if a man is not ‘his brother’s keeper’ in so far as his extended family is concerned, he is very much the provider for his family, that is his wife or wives and children.

And it must be borne in mind that the fact that a man has no education or special training to enable him to undertake employment other than at the bottom of the ladder does not and should not debar him from getting married and raising family”.

On this recommendation, T. M. Yesufu, a member of the Morgan Commission wrote later: “Even within the African context, Nigeria was late to wake up to this reality. In the Sudan, an independent commission of inquiry emphasized as far back as 1948 that it was unable to accept the contention that men on the lowest wage level are, or ought to be, unmarried.

Therefore the basic wage must be such as will suffice to keep a home. … Basic wages in Kenya were fixed on similar lines. In the Francophone Africa surrounding Nigeria, a system of family allowances to workers was instituted even at the height of the colonial era”.

Based on this stated principle, the Morgan Commission recommended that workers in the country should earn between N22 and N33.60 depending on what part of the country they live. This is in contrast to the then going rates of between N7.80 and NI5.17.

Yesufu’ a analysis of this was that”… this wide extent of the difference between the actual low prevailing wages and the determined desirable social minimum wages, represented the degree of exploitation that had been built into the Nigeria wage structure over the years since the economic depression of the 1930s”.

The government threw out this recommendation, arguing that by recommending a living wage, the Commission went outside its terms. The Report, it said, had hiked wages by between 58 and 100 per cent, whereas the cost of living index dictates that increases should be between 15 and 20 per cent. It therefore slashed the recommended salaries.

It also threw out the recommendation that the new wages should take effect from October 1, 1963. A nine­month salary arrears, government said, would disrupt its six-year development programme. So the new wages would take effect from April 1 , 1964.

The White Paper also tore the recommendation that the new wages be made applicable to the private sector. The government’s logic was that it did not consider it necessary to enforce minimum rates without due consideration of the peculiar circumstances within each industry and the ability of the employer to pay.

It also dismissed suggestions that appropriate measures be taken to enable junior employees negotiate with their employers on the new wages issue. This, argued the White Paper, would amount to “state intervention” in collective bargaining.

The rejection of the Commission’s main submissions and delay in implementing the minimum wage led to a general strike.

M. A. Tokunboh who was Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Labour at the time lamented that the strike, “.. .lasted 13 gruesome days. It was the most serious confrontation ever experienced by a Nigerian government.

Demonstrations were organised in Lagos and other parts of the country against the Federal Government; there were confrontations with the police in the efforts to break up demonstrations and prevent pickets at factory gates.

Political party activists and thugs terrorized people and opponents; waves of violence were reported in many parts of the country …Life became generally unsafe and people became frightened by the prospect of a prolonged strike. Every working activity within the country was brought to a standstill”

The negotiations began on the first working day after the strike. Workers won all their major demands. The 1964 strike, like last week’s was avoidable; we should learn from the past by doing what is right, cheaper and unavoidable by paying the N18,000 minimum wage which itself is a starvation wage.