As Uganda joined the rest of the world to celebrate the international Labour Day on Friday, it is amazing but also perturbing that the Minister in charge of labour said that it would take forty years before the minimum wage is set for Uganda’s workers. Whereas what Ugandan workers need is not the minimum wage but the living wage, a minimum wage would set a benchmark upon which workers would begin negotiations for the living wage.
It is not surprising though that Mr. Otaala has said that. He is re-echoing what the government position has always been. On May 1st 2007, the Daily Monitor quoted Hon James Kinobe as having said “there is no immediate plan for the minimum wage and that our people are not yet ready for it”. What he meant by our people is a paradox: did he mean employers -as if employees are not our people - or he meant Ugandans generally are opposed to the minimum wage?
Uganda has ratified 31 ILO Conventions among which is Convention 26 which is the Minimum Wage Fixing Machinery Convention ratified on 4th June 1967. The country also ratified Convention 122, Employment Policy Convention, on 23rd June 1963. The country has also ratified all the eight core conventions namely, C87: Freedom of Association and Protection of the right to organize, on 2nd June 2005, C98: Right to organize and Collective Bargaining, C29: Forced Labour Convention and C105: Abolition of Forced Labour ratified on 4th June 1963, ILO C100, C111: Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention ratified on 2nd June 2005, C 138: Minimum Age Convention ratified on 25th March 2003 and C 182: Worst Forms of Child Labour ratified on 21st June 2001.
By ratifying the aforementioned instruments, the country committed itself to respecting them. It is a principle in international law that treaties once ratified have to be observed, that is the principle of pacta sund servanda expressed in Article 26 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of treaties. What the Minister in charge of labour is quoted to have said is an antithesis of the government commitment in ratifying these vital instruments. Uganda is enjoined to observe the international labour instruments.
The government’s alibi that setting the minimum wage is untenable and will drive away investors is unscientific. Uganda does not top other countries that have the minimum wage in foreign direct investment. Uganda cannot claim to be a more liberal economy than Kenya for instance. It may be true that “investors” flock to this country because of lack of the minimum wage which means workers are paid peanuts and are at the mercy of the employers. But, do we want exploitation of our workers? It is common knowledge that many Ugandan workers fall into the category of the working poor.
The Philadelphia Declaration of 1944 states that poverty anywhere is a danger to prosperity everywhere and that Labour is not a commodity. Accordingly, the reward for labour which is a wage cannot be determined by the forces of demand and supply. We would only be heartless to be proponents of market forces in terms of wages. This is a clear message to the NRM government whose election manifesto was premised on Prosperity for All Catchword. It is not the skilled workers who need the minimum wage but the semiskilled and unskilled.
In the NRM Manifesto of 2006, it is explicitly stated on page 5 that “NRM shall support workers through organizations of workers and shall take all possible measures to create employment for all. The NRM shall ensure the protection of workers’ rights”. From the foregoing, I wish to stress two observations;
1. The use of the word shall means it is mandatory that the NRM government must do what it committed itself to do: create employment for all and ensure the protection of workers’ rights.
2. That workers’ rights were put in bold accentuates the value of these rights. The demand for the minimum wage is a matter of workers’ rights which the government vowed in black and white to protect, it is not a favour.
Human rights are not requested; they are demanded and asserted. Human rights are never given on a silver platter. I don’t think that workers’ representatives should only focus on easier wins like compulsory medical insurance, National Social Security Fund remittances and the establishment of courts to resolve labour disputes like the 1st May Daily Monitor editorial suggested. To me that is a very small fraction of what workers’ representatives should do. And it will be difficult for workers’ representatives to convince their constituents that they are relevant if they are fainthearted and sweep the demand for the minimum wage under the carpet. Negotiation for fair wages is one of the most important raison d’etre for the workers’ representatives and labour unions.
Wages are a very crucial ingredient in the workers’ welfare. In fact, the Uganda Human Rights Commission Report of 2003 stressed the importance of the minimum wage as a basis upon which negotiations for the living wage could be made. For the minister to tell workers to wait until 2050 for the minimum wage is a pointer that the government is obsessed with the protection of investors and not Ugandan workers! Workers’ rights ought not to be observed on a piecemeal basis but holistically.
By Vincent Nuwagaba
A human rights defender with keen interest in socio-economic rights. email@example.com +256772843552