BY VICTORIA N. IKEANO
The “indefinite” strike action declared by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) in Nasarawa State has just been called off after 21 days. This was a rather strange strike from the average Nigerian’s point of view in that it was not about sack of workers or nonpayment of salaries – the two core issues that are at the heart of any labour organization. Rather it was about auxiliary issues such as promotions and full implementation of the minimum wage. The issues Labour was protesting against predate current administration in Nasarawa state. 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 some years 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 maintained that it would pay up as soon as its finances improved. 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, it said that 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 argued, though, that, ‘’If the government has the funds to buy brand new jeeps for traditional rulers, then it has the money to pay us’’.
Although the government states that the strike-action was not illegal, it nevertheless averred that the process was wrong. Attorney-General and Commissioner of Justice, Associate Professor Abdulkarim Abubakar Kana explained that the NLC had 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. 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 who is a retired Supreme Court Justice and 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 were: 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 was 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.
Both sides later resumed discussions with apparent intervention of the traditional rulers, leading to signing of a new pact. Under the new agreement, according to the State’s NLC president, “all pending promotion, annual increment that are due up to 2017 should be implemented with effect from August 2021” while discussion on the minimum wage “consequential adjustment for levels 7 and above will continue”. Apparently both parties were under some kind of pressure to reach a compromise with the strike action already hurting the general public as well as the approach of Sallah. I guess none wanted Nasarawa State employees to mark the forthcoming festival on an empty stomach due to nonpayment of salaries and wages.
But is going on strike the best option? Are there no other means by which the Labour movement in Nigeria can call attention to its concerns without hurting the citizens? Experts assert that the way out of the quagmire 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.