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Nigerian Labor Leaders Call Strike Over Minimum Wage

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Nigerian labor leaders are calling for a three-day general strike next week to protest failures to pay a new, national minimum wage.

Negotiations on a new minimum wage for Nigerians began more than two years ago with labor unions proposing as much as $340 a month. Lawmakers eventually settled on about $118 a month, or 18,000 Naira.

But nearly three months after that bill became law, few of the lowest paid workers in the public and private sectors are earning that wage.

"Those ones who are on the high side they are making it, but the masses are not making it," said Anne Elijah who works in a stationery shop in the Ikoyi neighborhood of Lagos.  "There are so many people out there who are suffering. We still need the intervention of the government to make things perfect for us."

Elijah says many parents can no longer afford school fees, but are afraid to ask for more money because employers have an ample pool of job seekers from which to replace them.

"Year in, year out we still collect the same salary and things are not OK," added Elijah.  "But they just leave it they way you collect [your salary] then you can't shout. If you say it, they will not answer you. They believe that if you don't want to work you can go. People are out there looking for jobs."

At the St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, Father Paul Anyansi says much of his congregation is just getting by.

"It's very, very important that we have a minimum wage that can cater for the basic needs of people in this country where there is a lot of inflation," added Anyansi.  "Things like kerosene, basic things are getting out of hand. Rents are getting out of hand."

So labor leaders are calling a three-day general strike next week to force private sector employers as well as federal, state, and local governments to pay the legal minimum wage.

"I know Nigeria is not even among the poorest countries," said Ahmed Mai Sakala, chairman of the Nigerian Labor Congress for Gombe State.  "But what we are in need of is committed leaders who will oversee the affairs of people in this country. And that is why we are in this case."

Lawmakers trying to avert the strike are calling for labor leaders to be patient. Sakala says all levels of government have had months to prepare for higher wage bills.

"The president of this country has signed it into law and yet even the federal government could not implement," added Sakala.  "It is very unfortunate. The labor will stand and make everybody to follow the law of this land."

Some governors say they are already spending too much on petrol subsidies to pay a higher minimum wage.

"The governors who are saying that unless fuel is deregulated before they can pay they are only saying nonsense," said Akeem Kazeem, chairman of the Lagos State Council of the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria. "Because of the fact that this is the law. So anything short from 18,000 [Naira] minimum wage, it will not be taken."

Kazeem says the strike is meant to force private sector employers to comply with the law as well.

"Eighteen-thousand is minute from what is expected," Kazeem added.  "And if they fail to implement, we will not hesitate to go on strike. The idea of private sector employing casual labor with 5,000 Naira is out of the way."

Even if the strike is successful, there are many Nigerians who will not earn the higher wage. Economists estimate that as much as 80 percent of people here in Lagos work in the informal economy. Registered businesses with fewer than 50 employees are exempt from the minimum wage requirement.

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