The Minister of Labour and Productivity,Chief Emeka Wogu, who is a lawyer granted the Economic Confidential magazine an Interview on various issues including unemployment in Nigeria, negotiations with labour unions, new salaries for civil servants and maltreatment of Nigerian workers by expatriates among others. Before his appointment as a minister, he was a Federal Commissioner at the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC). He had held several positions in the past including Chairman of the Aba South Local Government Council and Political Adviser to the Governor of Abia State, Chief Orji Uzor Kalu.
EC: With your background as administrator and legal practitioner how do you describe your recent appointment as Minister of Labour and Productivity?
I will first of all note that one does not need to be a legal practitioner to be appointed as the Minister of Labour, but then I must confess that my legal background has been tremendously beneficial to me in my duties as Minister of Labour.
The Ministry of Labour and Productivity may not be compared with the big spending ministries with huge capital overlay, but in Labour we trade in intellectual property and I think my training as a lawyer has been very beneficial in that regards. Indeed, what I tell some people is that we may not have contracts to give them, but that if they are interested in helping us to harness the productive and intellectual deposits in the country’s human resources then they are welcome! I must also add that my preparation as a lawyer has equally been helpful in the series of negotiations that I have had to undertake with organized labour.
EC: Precisely what are the functions of your ministry?
The Ministry of Labour has the specific duty of overseeing issues relating to industrial relations, protection of wages, contracts of employment, terms and conditions of employment and harnessing the human resources of the country towards increased productivity.
EC: Can you list some of the agencies and parastatals under your supervision?
We have five parastatals under our purview in the Ministry of Labour and they include the National Directorate of Employment (NDE), the National Productivity Centre (NPC), the Industrial Arbitration Panel (IAP), the Michael Imodu National Institute for Labour Studies and the National Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF). These are the five agencies that are directly under the supervision of the Ministry of Labour and I am the Chairman of the board of the NDE.
EC: What are the challenges you met on the ground? We can recall that your assumption of office at the ministry coincided with the date of the planned strike action by federal civil servants across the country.
You are right. I was met with the threat of a strike action by workers in the core civil service who were protesting against the perceived disproportion or rather disparity in emoluments of the civil service. I must confess that it was not a particularly welcoming reception, but we braved the odds against us with gusto. I particularly had a plan of containing such insurrections and I quickly activated that plan which had at its foundation winning the confidence of labour. I did that through face to face meetings with union officials and with the particular exception of the crisis you referred to, I made it a commitment to meet with the labour unions even before the outbreak of any crisis.
EC: What of the disparity?
So on the issue of the disparity in the remuneration of the core civil service, I laid down my sincerity of purpose in the ministry before the union officials and pledged to address the issues. I had the confidence of Mr. President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan on this and for the first time the major problem that government had in going into the talks with the unions which was the issue of a mandate was given to me. And with that mandate I was able to negotiate and get the civil servants the result that they have now declared as satisfactory. The negotiations I must again confess were time testing and tough, but patience on all sides saw us through.
EC: How do you intend to address the problem of employment in Nigeria having said that you would launch a comprehensive census of unemployed in the country?
I must point out that the problem of unemployment is one that requires the involvement of all sectors of the economy. It is not as simplistic as government offering employment to all those that are unemployed and if it was something like that, I know the President would not mind doing that. As a government, ours is to create the conducive environment that will boost the productive base of the nation that will in turn boost employment generation. This government is taking this duty with every seriousness. You know to boost productivity we will have to improve our power base and the President has recently set concrete machinery on ground to boost power supply in the country. I believe that once the problem with power is settled that the economy would be fast-tracked as it would lessen the cost of doing business and lead to more Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs). Even our local artisans and business people will boost their efficiency as it would lessen the cost of production which impacts negatively on economic growth.
EC: Many private companies including those working for foreigners have continued to abuse their local workers. Is your ministry making attempt to caution them especially on the maltreatment, low wage and arbitrary terminations of appointment?
The infringement of the rights of workers is understandably vexatious. The rights of workers are covered generally by the Nigerian constitution and specifically by the Labour Act (2004) which makes provisions on the protection of the rights of workers and the responsibilities of employers. In the Ministry of Labour it is our duty to ensure that both the workers and their employers constructively fulfill their obligations to one another. Since I came on board last April I have been able to resolve a number of issues relating to such matters albeit quietly in some key sectors of the economy including the oil and gas sector. From time to time, however, such issues pertaining to perceived maltreatment and infringement on the right of workers arise and we have departments that handle such issues.
EC: What are you doing about the low and unrealistic wage?
On the matter of low wage the fact is that employers are bound to pay heed to the National Minimum Wage which is presently pegged at N5,500.00. employers who violate or pay below this even as poor as it is are unconscionable! The government in collaboration with stakeholders is presently reviewing the national minimum wage and work on the matter is almost concluded and the report would soon be submitted to government and we expect a White Paper on it as soon as possible. All things being equal the workers will be happy with the new package.
EC:How do you intend to improve the living condition of workers generally?
The welfare of all Nigerians is the primary duty of government and this government is not about relaxing on this its function. Government through its policies and programmes is daily fashioning out plans to improve the wellbeing of all Nigerians.
For its own workers, government is addressing welfare issues that have lingered and generally boosting the welfare of all Nigerians through the improvement of infrastructure that touch on the well being of the citizens.One specific issue at the heart of government is the matter of power, I mean electricity which affects workers.
The low level of power available in the country affects workers directly and indirectly. At work it affects their income levels and at home the comfort and ease they would ordinarily get at the end of a hard day’s work is curtailed. So, it is not surprising that the administration has committed much energy towards resolving the problem.
EC: Is the government through your ministry making efforts to bridge the wide gap and disparity between the salary of permanent secretaries in the service and the directors where a permanent secretary is said to be paid N1.4 million salary a month, while a director, next to him, is receiving N140,000 and also in other cadre? In addition, it is observed staffs in parastatals earn more salaries and allowances than those in their parent ministry like NNPC, NDIC, and NSITF etc.
Government has already addressed the issue of disparity within the core civil service through its adoption of the report of the Joint Public Service Negotiating Council which was constituted to address the matter. The Trade Union side of the council was appreciative of the quick response given the recommendations of the council by President Jonathan and they as much expressed that in a letter to the President.
EC: How soon will now salary increase for civil servants be implemented and what is going to be the minimum wage.
The new Minimum Wage would become effective once the White Paper on the report is issued by government. I was honoured to in the absence of the substantive chairman of the Committee on Minimum Wage, that is His Lordship, Justice Alfa Belgore to chair the last meeting of the committee which adopted the recommendations. The recommendations are to be passed on to the President and once the White Paper is issued as I told you, it would be implemented. I want to say that what will be approved by government would be realistic and sustainable.
EC: As the leader of Nigerian delegation to the ongoing 99th session of the International Labour Conference ILO you canvass the review of ILO Constitution. What is the need for the call and the benefit to Nigeria?
The call for the review of the ILO Constitution is an initiative of African Labour Ministers and Heads of State and Government who during the last AU-Labour and Social Affairs Commission (AU-LASC) meeting committed themselves to the need for the ILO to re-launch the 1986 amendment of the ILO Constitution.
This re-launch will help to realise a level playing ground within the organisation as it would eliminate the present dichotomy which currently exists, and which excludes the African States from the countries of Chief Industrial Importance.
As minister of Labour of Productivity, what are the legacies the current administration intends to leave on labour and productivity related issues?
The first legacy which has generally been lauded by all and sundry is the abatement of industrial crises since the advent of the present administration. I want to say that we have been able to achieve this through the proactive efforts we took.
And off course, there is the general confidence and goodwill which President Goodluck Jonathan has which has been rubbing off on me as his Minister. Even more than that, the President’s promptness to deal with matters relating to labour has also been of great advantage. More than industrial harmony, it is also my intention to set programmes including the establishment of a National Data Base of the Unemployed which will be a reference point for data on human resources in the country.
It is also my intention to leave as a legacy, a vastly improved productive base for the country.
Thanks for giving us the audience.