Tuesday Column By VICTORIA NGOZI IKEANO
[email protected] | 08033077519
The “indefinite” strike action declared by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) in Nasarawa State has now entered its fourth week. This is a rather strange strike from the average Nigeria’s point of view in that it is not about sack of workers or nonpayment of salaries – the two core issues that are at the heart of any labour organization. Rather it is about auxiliary issues such as promotions and full implementation of the minimum wage. For a fact, the issues Labour is protesting against predate current administration in Nasarawa state. For example, the issues of promotion date as far back as 2008. The Abdullahi Sule administration which is just two years old, on assumption of office pledged to look into all outstanding labour issues, to be labour-friendly and this it has done to a very large extent. For instance, the issue of percentage payment and salary arrears that once dogged the last administration and for which Labour itself once embarked on a very long strike action is now history. In fact it was learnt that until not long ago salaries were usually paid by 23rd and 24th of each month. Pensioners who suffered similar fate and who at height of their ‘fight’ with the previous administration filed a suit against it at the Industrial Court in Makurdi are now smiling as their pensions are now paid as and when due. One of them confirmed to me that they no longer have any issues with government. What about the local government councils? It is noteworthy that staff of all 13 local government areas have been carrying on with their duties, not participating in the strike, even though they are members of the NLC. This speaks volumes about the industrial action by Labour in Nasarawa state.
Concerning the matter of promotions, it was gathered that Labour had agreed sometime ago that they should be notational, that is, that those promoted would get their due ranks without monetary attachment. However, the government made plans to clear the 2016 promotion arrears in three installments. The first two installments had been paid, remaining the third/final one when the effects of COVID caught up with its finances. This was a global pandemic that hit economic fortunes of all countries big and small, not least Nigeria. Consequently, its revenue from the federation account dipped, affecting its ability to pay. Nonetheless, the government maintains that it would pay up as soon as its finances improve. On the minimum wage the government started implementing it in June for staff on Grade Level One to six. Backed by law, government is legally bound to implement the minimum wage. For the consequential adjustments, the government says it would also implement this when it has adequate funds. Nasarawa is one of the two states that get the least amount from the federation account.
Labour argues, though, that, ‘’If the government has the funds to buy brand new jeeps for traditional rulers, then it can pay us’’. On a lighter note this may be seen as a case of ‘bad belle’ (envy).
Although the government states that the strike-action is not illegal, it nevertheless avers that the process is wrong. Attorney-General and Commissioner of Justice, Associate Professor Abdulkarim Abubakar Kana maintains that the NLC has no right to prevent those that are not its members such as members of the Senior Staff Association of Civil Servants and political appointees, from going to work. In the first few days of the strike, an NLC monitoring group forcibly debarred all employees from entering their offices. Nasarawa State NLC president Comrade Yusuf Iya argued that they have the right under labour laws to picket any organization to “persuade” workers to join their cause.
In the first week of the strike action, the state government set up a high-powered committee headed by Deputy Governor Emmanuel Akabe to interface with Labour. It comprised of the Emir of Lafia, retired Supreme Court Justice Sidi Bage who also doubles as Chairman of the State’s Council of Chiefs and Emirs, two other First Class traditional rulers, viz, the Andoma of Doma and the Osu Ajiri as well as the Secretary to the State Government. Other members are, the Commissioner of Justice/Attorney-General, Head of Service, Commissioner of Health, Special Adviser on Labour, Permanent Secretary Ministry of Information and Permanent Secretary Establishment. At end of their meetings, it was gathered, both Government and Labour agreed that the government would start paying up its outstanding commitments to Labour when its monthly receipt from the federation account exceeds 4.5 billion naira but would withhold payment if it falls below that figure. This columnist further learnt that both parties were about to sign the agreement when Labour came up with a new clause to be added which is that should what the state received in any month be less than the stated amount, the shortfall should be made up from the executive’s security vote. This brought about a stalemate.
Experts assert that the way out of the issue of insufficient funds is for the state to greatly increase its internally generated revenue (IGR). All hands (those of Labour and other stakeholders) should be on deck to achieve this. But is going on strike the best option? As it is, the strike action is hurting the general public. Are there no other ways by which the labour movement in Nigeria can call attention to its concerns without harming the citizens in general? I learnt that frustration is setting in among the workers, that they are getting tired of the strike. Moreover, Sallah is approaching. Surely, Labour in Nasarawa State does not wish its members to mark the forthcoming festival on an empty stomach due to empty pocket because workers are on strike and so cannot process salary vouchers/pay slips.