In the last couple of weeks, workers in Nasarawa, Imo and Benue have been engaged in a bitter war with the governors of their respective states over the slashing of their salaries. The struggle however took an ugly turn when some workers were shot dead by the police in Lafia, the Nasarawa state capital during a protest march by the workers. Michael Oche in this piece, takes a look at the intrigues around the issues.
Last June, Benue state governor, Samuel Ortom stirred controversy when he declared Friday of every week a work-free day to enable workers in the state to work on their farms.
What started like a joke was soon replicated in Imo state where under the emergency “Back to Land for Agriculture” by Governor Rochas Okorocha, the state announced the reduction of normal working days from five to three in a week.
Besides, the Imo State government also cut the monthly salary of civil servants in the state by 30 per cent, all in a bid to cut recurrent cost.
The Nasarawa governor, Tanko Al-Makura soon followed suit by cutting down workers’ pay by 50 per cent and also threatening to sack striking workers who rightly protested his wage cut and replace them with “fresh graduates.”
There were also rumours that the governors of Oyo and Niger were considering cutting down workers salaries. Though, the government of those states had to come out to deny the allegations.
Things took a turn for the worse when some workers who were protesting the slashing of their salaries by the Nasarawa state government were shot by armed policemen, leading to the death of two of the workers.
It it no news that organised labour has been at loggerhead with some state governors over the non payment of salaries, but the cutting of salaries by the governors brought a new twist to the imbroglio. Despite the agitation by the workers, the governors were defiant.
While defending the legality of its actions, the Chief Press Secretary to Governor Rochas Okorocha of Imo state, Mr. Sam Onwuemeodo, said Labour leaders, including the President, Ayuba Wabba, signed an agreement with the state government that whatever was the accruing income of the state each month, including IGR, Labour would take 70 per cent for salaries and pension, while 30 per cent would be given to the government for projects, so the government didn’t cut workers’ salaries.
On its part, the Special Adviser to the Benue Governor on Media and ICT, Mr. Tahav Agerzua, said the decision of the government was necessitated by the shortfall in revenue accruable to the state and the inability of the government to pay salaries as at when due.
Agerzua said: “We are certainly not among the states that are perceived to have contravened any law in that regard. What we did was to allow workers go to their farms between July and August to enable them cultivate to help feed their families.
“It’s not a permanent thing and I don’t think we have flouted the laws. We just want to create a situation where we would ensure that our economy is diversified in the face of inability to pay salaries as at when due so that they can produce to feed their families.
“We have not done it as a permanent feature, it is only going to last for two months. So we have not contravened any law as far as I know.”
The federal government was forced to wade into the issue after the NLC held a nationwide protest, which led to total shut-down of Government Houses in some states.
The minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige thereafter warned governors against reducing the remunerations and hours of work of workers. Ngige, who spoke on behalf of the government, said the action of the governors was illegal and asked them to reverse their decisions.
Ngige in a statement issued by Samuel Olowokere, Deputy Director Press in the ministry, said the warning was necessary to restore industrial harmony and forestall breakdown of law and order.
He said the warning followed protracted industrial crisis involving the Nigerian Labour Congress, NLC, Trade Union Congress, TUC, and Nasarawa State government, particularly, which led to the nationwide protests on Tuesday, as workers rallied in solidarity with their counterparts in Nasarawa.
The minister said the step was pursuant to the powers invested in him by Section 5(1) and (2) of the Trade Dispute Act, Laws of Nigeria, 2004. He said this was also predicated on a letter to him by Governor Tanko Al-Makura of Nasarawa State for the ministry to help resolve labour crisis in the state. Ngige said all parties were invited for a crucial meeting at the Ministry of Labour to resolve the issues.
He said: “Sequel to this, I hereby direct the unions to suspend the proposed picketing of government offices and demonstrations.
“I enjoin all parties to maintain the status quo ante, pending the outcome of the meeting intended to resolve the issues in dispute.
“Similarly, to avoid further escalation of disputes of this type all over the states of the federation, state governments are, hereby, advised to always negotiate any issue that touches on the salaries and wages of workers.
“This is in order to ensure that they obtain a Collective Bargaining Agreement, BCA, before these remunerations are tampered with.
“I wish to add, for the avoidance of doubt, that the issue of minimum wage flows from the Minimum Wage Act, 2011.”
Ngige said the law of the land must be respected by all in both public and private institutions.
He, however, said the issue of arbitrary reduction in the hours of work was against the International Labour Organisation, ILO, regulation; Convention 1, which had been adopted and domesticated by Nigeria.
He said the law prescribed eight hours of work in a day and not more than 40 hours in a week. Ngige added that the caution had become necessary to draw the attention of all concerned to these issues in order to avoid unnecessary industrial relations disputes that could be averted through proactive dialogue.
Though, the NLC and the federal government have condemned the actions of the governors, but the questions remains, “ will the governors reverse their decision? “
At N18, 000 minimum wages, Nigeria ranks alongside Vietnam, Lesotho, Sierra Leone and other low-income paying nations, according to Wikipedia, whereas countries such as Brazil pay $218 minimum wage per month, Egypt, $174 and South Africa $155.
On several occasions, governors have argued that the minimum wage be moved from Exclusive List and put in the Concurrent List which will allow the state government to dictate their own minimum wage.
Labour however has insisted that the minimum wage remains in the exclusive list.
Analysts say with what has happened with the slashing of the salaries, the labour stance has been justified as state governors would have enslaved their workers.