It's been seven months since local government workers under the auspices of the National Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE) in Plateau State began an industrial action to press home demand that the state government implement the 18, 000 naira national minimum wage.
The strike has snowballed into a wider conflict pitting the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) against the government. Economic activities have been paralysed, adding a worrying dimension to the lingering communal crisis that has bedevilled the state for many years now. Adding fuel to fire, the national body of NLC has threatened to make the state 'ungovernable', and prospect that must be avoided.
Emotions run high. Last Thursday, some of the striking workers attacked a couple of the state government's top officers in the premises of the State House of Assembly as Governor Jonah David Jang prepared to present the state's 2013 budget proposals.
Implementing the minimum wage has been a contentious issue in a number of states; most of them have found it a challenge to implement since last year when it became law. Others have conceded and are paying while a few, including Plateau, have not, citing insufficient funds. The Plateau government noted that its expenditure on security was eating deep into its finances. Worse affected by the Plateau workers' crisis are primary school pupils, who have been out of school since May.
The state government said it can pay only 55 percent of the wage and promised to begin full payment at some unspecified future date. The state branch of NULGE rejected the arrangement, insisting that government must not only begin full implementation, but also pay the six months' outstanding salaries.
The government's focus on ensuring security cannot be faulted, but it still can look into ways to cut wastage and bolster its finances. Resolving the current crisis should be part of addressing the security challenges that the state is faced with. There is need for serious commitment to engage the labour leaders and other stakeholders in dialogue to resolve the problem. The state government should not shy at laying its cards on the table at any negotiation to enable workers, who may not be well-informed, have a glimpse of the state finances, even if it is to clear suspicion they may have of government in this regard.
The workers and their leaders should also show some sensitivity to the challenges of the times, and be considerate in their demands. The NLC and Association of Local Governments of Nigeria (ALGON) should be active in lending support in resolving all outstanding issues, not contribute to aggravate them. Demanding and getting higher emoluments should not be and end; it should be a means to an end, which is more commitment to their responsibilities and higher productivity. Despite increases in the earning capacity of the average civil servant, his productivity has consistently been on the decline, especially at the local government level. This should not be allowed to continue.
To begin to address that, the Plateau State Government should consider borrowing a leaf from its counterparts by carrying out a comprehensive audit of its workforce at all levels. This would achieve two aims, ascertaining accurately the number of its workers, and making accurate planning for their welfare. The government should also look into more areas from which it can increase its current revenue base and reduce dependence on the monthly allocation from the federation account. Spending on security should not be an open-ended undertaking; areas of waste in this should be checked. If the government does its bit in a transparent manner, it would begin to gain the confidence of the workers and other sectors of the state, thereby with their full cooperation, address the current challenges.