A sigh of relief escaped everyone’s lips in March, 2011 when the Minimum Wage Act was signed into law by the president. It came at a time when labour had vowed that without the passage of the bill into law, there would be no election. The development was seen as a panacea to the constant strife between the organized labour and the government over remuneration. The Act mandates a private or public employer with a workforce of at least 50 employees to pay his least-remunerated worker ₦18,000. Although some pundits and public commentators raised pertinent questions as to the modality and sustainability of the implementation, not many paid attention to their concerns. Other observers equally noted that the haste with which Mr. President signed the bill into law without installing any scheme for its successful implementation might have more to do with winning the April election than consciously seeking to improve the lot of the workers.
The implementation of the law has metamorphosed into one of the many kegs of gun powder the Nigerian nation is sitting on. Much controversy, accusations and counter-accusations have occurred between the organized labour and the state governments as much as between pro-labour and pro-government analysts and critics. State governments have cried out loudly of their inability to pay the minimum wages from their meagre share of the federal allocation and paltry revenue generated internally. Labour has in turn rewarded the government with strikes and public demonstrations. The imbroglio therefore requires a pragmatic, workable resolution.
Islam – being a holistic faith that caters for every aspects of life – regulates with admirable comprehensiveness, the relationship between the employer and the employee. One should hasten to add here that the ultimate goal of Islam in this respect is the establishment of justice.
The employee is entitled to a just wage for his contribution to output. This right cannot be lawfully taken away from him. The Prophet said three persons will face God's wrath on Judgement Day and these are: one who dies without fulfilling his promise to God, one who sells a free person into slavery and devours the proceeds and one who engages a labourer and denies him wages after his service. The gravity of infringing on an employee's right to just wages becomes conspicuous when one considers that the Prophet has placed such an act on equal criminal footing as the enslaving of a free man. This should make our leaders cautious and be true to their duty of promoting the welfare of the led. They would not only be cruel, self-centred and avaricious for denying labour the payment of wages, they would be criminally deserving of God’s punishment on the Day of Reckoning.
Just wages, by the definition of Islam, should be such that would, in the least, enable an employee to get a sufficient quantity of reasonably good food and clothing for himself and his family without overburdening himself. This was why the Prophet declared that "an employee is entitled to at least moderately good food and clothing and not being burdened with labour beyond what he can bear." The Prophet's companions deemed this the minimum level of earning needed to maintain the material, social and spiritual welfare of the society.
Following this principle, the third Caliph of Islam, Uthman, reportedly instructed thus: "Do not overburden your unskilled female employee in her pursuit of a living, because if you do so, she may resort to immorality; and do not overburden a male subordinate, for if you do so, he may resort to stealing. Be considerate with your employees and God will be considerate with you. It is incumbent upon you to provide them good and lawful food."
To make the wages an employee earns meaningful, Islam also preaches that the payment should not be unduly delayed. The Prophet said, “Pay the labourer his wages before his sweat dries up.” This fellow-feeling and graciousness would not only ensure that the gulf between the over-feeding employers and the poverty-stricken employees is bridged, it would greatly reduce crimes and the temptation to amass undeserved gains.
Since justice would be defeated if the employee gets standard welfare package from his job while failing in his duties to his employer, Islam equally places some moral obligations on the employee. One is to exercise utmost diligence and expertise in discharging his employment responsibilities for the benefit of his employer and the latter's customers. The Prophet assured that "an employee who excels in his devotion to God and also renders to his master what is due to him of duty, sincerity and obedience, for him there is double rewards (with God).” He equally said: “God likes one of you, if he does a job, to perfect it.” The lesson here for the workers is to avoid unethical work habits like absenteeism, lateness to work, maltreating customers and the public or unscrupulously receiving wages for work not done. Ghost workers and their accomplices should desist from such criminal practice.
Another duty is to be honest and refrain from deriving unlawful wealth from the employment. Says the Glorious Qur'an in chapter 28, verse 26: “Verily, the best of men for you to hire is the strong, the trustworthy.” In absolute corroboration, the Prophet said: "He whom we have appointed for a job and have provided with livelihood, then whatever he appropriates beyond this is ill-gotten."
As for the claim of the government that their purse is not so fat as to keep its promise, this is difficult to believe and grossly unacceptable. If the right things are done, there would be more than enough funds to pay the wages. Government should hunt down ghost workers to streamline the burden, make elective offices less lucrative to reduce the cost of governance, reduce its spending on meaningless projects and sincerely combat corruption.
Even after the minimum wage is implemented, there would still be a long way to go in guaranteeing an appreciable standard of living for the citizenry. Most Nigerians live on less than 1 dollar a day. At a minimum monthly wages of #18,000, an employee would earn only #216,000 a year. With a school like Caleb International School charging #720,000 and #1,170,000 per annum for its day and boarding secondary school respectively, the minimum wage-earner cannot but become despondent of his children schooling in private schools. If government ensures that Nigerians do not need to buy generators and suffer from its fumes, spend money on table water as an alternative to the available contaminated water, buy private education, private security, spend money on repairing roads by themselves, procure private medical service and devise feeding formula (1-0-1, for instance), then the minimum wage – when it is implemented – would make “a lot of senses”.
Islam recognizes that rights are dependent upon, and go in correspondence with, responsibilities. Thus has it balanced the scale of justice to both the employer and the employee in their relationship. Labour should not only ask for wages, but also serve the public diligently. And government should not only tap labour’s industry, but also give them their legitimate rights. It is only in such a harmonious economic atmosphere stressing mutual rights and responsibilities with full encouragement and installation of justice, fairness, moral rectitude and altruistic brotherhood that there can be hope of fleecing the employer-labour relations of industrial frictions and trade disputes. The vision 20:2020, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the dream of the poor masses of a better Nigeria for our children and grandchildren would be rendered a mirage if all parties involved do not become consciously true and completely faithful to their responsibilities.
Muhammed Abdullahi is an Ilorin-based Law student and freelance writer. He can be reached through his email: