Sunday May 11 2014

Minimum wage is a workers’ right, not just a topic for discussion

By Harold Acemah

Former US president Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as government of the people, by the people and for the people; the corollary being that the primary duty and responsibility of a democratically elected government is to serve the interests of the people who elected that government as well as other citizens of the country it governs.

In many African countries, wananchi are now sadly stuck with what The EastAfrican’s columnist Jenerali Ulimwengu cynically, but accurately calls “BMW” i.e. a government of “Baba, Mama na Watoto” which will sound familiar to keen observers of Africa’s rugged and convoluted political landscape. One must surely pity those poor African countries which have degenerated to the level whereby national affairs are managed by BMW-type of governments!

On May 1, 2014, Ugandans celebrated Labour Day throughout the country; the national celebrations were held at Rubaare Town in Ntungamo District at which the chairman of the National Organisation of Trade Unions (NOTU), Mr Usher Wilson Owere, pleaded on behalf of the workers of Uganda for a minimum wage. In reply, the President of Uganda casually said he was ready to discuss the matter, but not in an emotional way. He added that the discussions must be guided by research.

I was frankly amazed by both the request Mr Owere made and the response he got from the President because as far as I know the quest for a minimum wage for the workers of Uganda was settled in the 1960s soon after a national minimum wage board was established; hence what remains is for government to determine and effect a new rate taking fully into consideration a variable called inflation. The NRM regime need not re-invent the wheel for goodness sake!

Minimum wage is a matter of social justice and the dignity of labour; most countries have enacted laws to provide for the same, including developed capitalist countries such as USA, Canada, UK, Japan and EU countries. In our region, all partner states of the East African Community (EAC) have enacted legislation to establish minimum wage; Uganda is the only country which does not have a minimum wage, just as Uganda is the only EAC country which does not have a two-term limit for the president of the country. What a disgrace!

The NRM government has argued that the absence of a minimum wage in Uganda is aimed at attracting foreign investment to our country. I wonder which countries would buy this spurious and totally unconvincing argument which in fact defies logic; certainly not our traditional development partners which all have minimum wage.

The only country which may appreciate the NRM regime’s position is perhaps North Korea which is today one of the regime’s closest allies. Only fake investors would be impressed by a country which boasts about the fact that its workers do not enjoy the protection guaranteed by a minimum wage and are left at the mercy of unscrupulous foreign and local investors.

The primary duty and responsibility of the government of a country which claims to be a democracy like Uganda is to serve the interests of its citizens, not those of foreign investors. To oppose NOTU’s legitimate demand for a minimum wage for Uganda’s workers is callous and unpatriotic because without well-remunerated workers the much talked about and sought after economic take-off which is to propel Uganda to a middle-income economy status by 2040 will remain a pipe dream. Instead of merely preaching patriotism and singing patriotic songs, the NRM regime should practise patriotism; a good starting point is to re-introduce a minimum wage for Ugandan workers now!

To deny Ugandan workers minimum wage is tantamount to committing economic suicide; it is, in addition, a violation of the human rights of Ugandan workers who are entitled to and who deserve protection from their government. Why should government place the selfish interests of foreign investors, many of whom are even bogus, over and above the interests of the citizens of Uganda? Why should government grant foreign investors five to ten years of tax relief and other overly generous incentives which local Ugandan investors and workers do not enjoy? It is truly mind boggling, to put it mildly.

Notu should not beg the NRM regime for a minimum wage which the workers of Uganda have been entitled to since 1964; the current minimum wage which is out of date was established in 1984 by a government which cared deeply about the welfare, vital interests and future of the workers and wananchi of Uganda and Africa.

The leaders of Notu must summon courage to speak boldly for and defend the vital interests of the workers of Uganda without fear or favour! Workers’ MPs together with all patriotic and progressive MPs and forces should support a private member’s Bill which seeks to re-establish a decent minimum wage for Ugandan workers so that Uganda ceases to be a pariah state in the EAC. Minimum wage is a right of the workers of Uganda and East Africa. Aluta continua!

Mr Acemah is a political scientist, consultant and a retired career diplomat.