From Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
In the last few weeks, the House of Representatives has been on the spot over a bill seeking to move the minimum wage from the Exclusive Legislative list to the Concurrent List.
The organised labour, which considers the proposed legislation anti-workers, has threatened to bring down the roof, if the bill is not thrown out.
However, the sponsor, Hon. Garba Datti Muhammad, an All Progressives Congress (APC) member from Kaduna State, says he has no regret sponsoring the bill.
According to him, the bill is necessary considering the many issues surrounding the payment of a national minimum wage by state governments. Excerpts:
The Organised Labour has been protesting against the bill to move minimum wage to the Concurrent List, which you sponsored. How would you react to this?
The NLC has a right to peaceful demonstration. But in the House we have our own processes. The (NLC) National President has written a letter to me, which I replied that this issue is now beyond me. It has been debated in the House and voted for. It is now the issue of the House. If they are against the bill, like every other bill, there is always public hearing. They can come and state their position. If they have superior argument with facts and figures, nothing stops the House from withdrawing it. But they should not resort to insults, abuses, intimidation, smear campaign. That will not advance their case.
In every democracy in the world, there is opportunity for lobbying, within the National Assembly. Why are they afraid of constructive engagement. They should come for constructive engagement. Let them present their case. Even more controversial cases have come to this House; people come to present their own position and not through abusing other people. You cannot fight for democracy and at the same time, you reject democratic processes and democratic values. These are the beauty of democracy. Everybody should not be on the same page. The most important thing, all of us are looking for solution for our workers, for our country. Our approaches may defer. We may have some disagreement. But the way the NLC is going about it, campaigning, pouring abuses in social media; smear campaign, I think it will not help. It is better for them to come for serious engagement. There will be public hearing. That public hearing is not like it is going to be done in secret. It will be open. Everybody will be there. Everybody will see the position being canvassed by each group. And this is an issue, you cannot just wish away through insults. Prominent legal luminaries like Chief Afe Babalola can come out strongly to support this bill with a very strong article in Tribune. The Punch came up with an editorial in support of our position. The position of Progressives Governors Forum is very clear on this, and many other interest groups. Even the silent majority. So, this thing cannot just be wished away through insults. It has to be debated
What motivated you into sponsoring this bill?
If you will recall there is a committee that was established by the APC, when this issue of restructuring/true federalism came up. It was a committee up of nine governors, some members of the National Assembly, party members. They brought some far reaching recommendations, which was adopted by the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC). I am also a member of NEC of APC. We adopted this report. It is not a report you just take and put under the carpet. Being a member of that committee, being a member of NEC, being a member of National Assembly, I have a right to present it to the National Assembly for national debate. And we have triggered a national debate on this issue. It is now in the front burner of national discourse. So, I will only advise labour that that old system of intimidation and abuses, smear campaign will not work. Let them engage the National Assembly.
The issue is even beyond me. If it has no merit, it wouldn’t have passed through second reading. The day it was debated, there was a robust debate for almost two and half hours. You could see that almost 80 per cent of people who contributed were for the bill with convincing reasons. Let them come for public hearing whenever the ad hoc committee on Constitution Review calls for memorandum. They can come and canvass their own position.
One of the arguments is that why the bill wants to decentralize minimum wage, the wages of state governors and other government functionaries at the state are fixed at the centre. The bill is believed to be targeted at the workers?
No. It is not targeted at the workers. If you look at the bill critically, you will see that the bill is devoid of any form of sentiments or emotions. It is based on facts. What is the essence of making a law that is not implementable? We have seen that even the N18,000, up to this moment some of the states cannot pay. Now, that it is N30,000, almost more than three quarter of the states cannot afford to pay. And there is no penalty for not paying. Even when this government came, when they negotiated with labour, it is good. But states could not pay, they were given bailouts to pay. But the bailouts are not sustainable. It is just for a period of time. It is just a transitional arrangement. It is no more there. So, how do you pay? So, most of the states are saying they cannot pay unless they reduce their workers by 60 to 70 per cent. So, in that scenario how do you solve your problem? All of us are looking for a way out. Do you agree, okay we agree, retrench 60 to 70 per cent of your workers, then you can pay the remaining that are there? Is that how you want it to be? And the fear of Labour is that we are advocating for decentralization of Labour. No.
Nobody is shutting the door for Labour to negotiate on behalf of states; the way they have been doing it. After every minimum wage issue, they still go back to negotiate with individual states. Like we saw in the case of Kano, that they went there to negotiate with the government again. So, instead doing that, why not negotiate before you even do the minimum wage. That is what we are saying.
Do you have any regrets sponsoring this bill?
I don’t have any regrets. We have triggered a national debate. As I said, there are a lot of people, very prominent Nigerians, that are in support and you cannot wish such people away. I am not saying it is the best thing that will happen, but let them come for public hearing, if they are able to convince Nigerians fine. There are people who are in support and there are people who are against. We will invite everybody. So, I don’t think, it is anything that I have to regret. I don’t regret anything about it. I am exercising my right as a federal lawmaker. I listened to them saying I don’t even have the right to bring a private member bill on minimum wage. So, why am I here? You are telling me that I don’t have the right to bring private member bill. I can sponsor any bill that is of national interest. Labour is not the only one that owns Nigeria. Every Nigerian has a right. If they are opposed to what we did, they should come to the House during public hearing and state their case. Not through abuses. Not through blackmail. No.
The Deputy Speaker the day the bill was passed for second reading kicked against it. And he is the Chairman of the Constitution Review Committee, where this bill has been committed to, does that not mean that the bill is dead on arrival?
Well, the Deputy Speaker has a right as a member of National Assembly. He has the right to contribute to any bill as an individual. So, he is not representing the leadership. He is representing his personal views, which he has the right. But his personal view does not reflect the views of the House as was seen during the debate and the voting pattern. Even at the committee level, each state is represented. Each interest group is represented. So, he is just a presiding officer to preside. But he cannot dictate to the committee, this is democracy. So, the committee will decide. If the majority votes for, there is nothing he can do. If they vote against, there is nothing he can do.