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Employers owing staff are committing crime –Ngige, Labour Minister

Bimbola Oyesola

It is no longer news that some states are owing workers backlog of salaries running into several months. But reflecting on the issue recently, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, without any apology, said anybody, in both the private or public sector, owing workers is committing a crime.

The Minister, who noted that governors have no excuse for owing workers, believes that they ought to look inward to generate more funds rather than going cap in hand to Abuja for federal allocation.

Speaking on the Federal Government’s disposition to the new minimum wage demanded by workers, the Minister noted that the tripartite committee would ensure that all the parties involved arrived at a fair wage that would be binding on all stakeholders in the economy.

He also explains why casualisation of workers has continued to be on the increase despite the intervention by his Ministry and the organised labour.

Senator Ngige equally speaks on the efforts of his Ministry at ensuring industrial harmony in the country, Nigeria’s international ties and other sundry issues.

Excerpts:

Multinationals’ infringement

The maxim of this government is that if you cannot create more jobs, we should hold on to the one we have. That is the maxim! If we are not able to create as much jobs as we believed Nigerians will need during the electioneering campaign, we should be able to hold on to the one we have and then do the little we can to compensate for the shortfall. Since we came in, it has not been easy or rosy with the economy. First, we have the oil price slump and volatility in global market and then the issue of insurgency in the oil producing areas. The platforms were broken down, the pipelines were vandalised and we could not even meet our OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) output quota of 2.2 million barrels per day. At some point, we had 1.2 million by this time of 2016 and I thought that was something Nigerians should also know. Our revenue went down drastically and we couldn’t even as much as pay salaries. We had to borrow to pay salary. But we said our maxim is to keep the job, not eliminate jobs, even if we cannot create exactly as we promised. In this regard, government led by example in our public service; we did not retrench people. We maintained the balance and if anything, some of our agencies were allowed to do what they called replacement. The Nigeria Police has got about 10,000, same for the Army, the Navy, the Airforce; they have also got sizeable numbers this year, which is about 30,000. The Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) has made some replacements and some other government agencies.

We took a cue from this and then when we discussed with the multinational companies, we told them that we know that these are not very good times, that they were not able to explore new oil fields because of low oil price, the platforms being vandalised, and not being able to do much in the area of new investments because of the arears and outstanding. We, however, assured them that we are going to make efforts to remedy some of these situations. We also engaged the people who were destroying the pipelines in the Niger Delta region. We then told the oil companies not to retrench, but to rather shed the fat that you have at the top. The chief executives,  executive directors, general managers, those who have seven cars, spend more time abroad should cut down and use what they get from here to take care of the middle and the lower cadre so that there would not be any need to sack. They agreed and we also talked to the union to do some sacrifices too.

Casualisation

The Ministry is doing what it can in the interim and because of our ability. We don’t support casualisation, but those casuals won’t come out open to report, because they believe that half bread is better than none; that if they are not casulas, there would be no work for them. They are not making issues at all; they are not coming forward to report. On the question of unionisation, it is the right of any worker, it’s entrenched in the Nigeria constitution, it allows people freedom of association up to the extent of unionising of people of common interests or even people forming political parties. To the best of our ability, we’ve always waded in when employers try to stop any group of people that want to unionise, even government agencies. We have told these agencies categorically that it is the right of the workers to unionise and nobody can stop this. We don’t hesitate to rebuke any Ministry that flouts this and should they continue, that Ministry can be charged to court and can be charged with contempt of court. That is where we are. We have no apology to anybody. If you are an owner of an hotel, and you are a Minister or lawmaker, we have no apology to you. Once you decide to employ somebody to work for you, that person and group of people working under you have the right to unionise. There are various categories of unionisation. The senior people unionise under Trade Union Congress (TUC), the junior staff there will unionise under Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC). In fact, when the Hotel Owners Association approached us to register them, we decided to register them because it is their right too. Employers have rights to register their hotels, especially if they are offering the same kind of services so that they can also speak with one voice, just as the workers speak with one voice and government would stay on its own. That is what we call tripatism as it is made clear by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). So tripatism is the flagship of ILO standard.

Industrial accident

Accusing Ministry on the issue of industrial accident is unfair. I do not believe that the unions can say that. If anything, we have been trying to execute the law and that is why the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) was established by the government to oversee the implementation of Employment Compensation Act (ECA). The ECA instituted by the government is for the protection of workers,  to give them insurance in the course of work. In the course of work include going to work, during work and going back home from work. At workplace, a worker can sufffer an accident, industrial disease due to accumulation of hazardous materials over the years, and can even suffer death. These three items are covered under the ECA 2010 and it is for the worker to evoke them by making such claim, provided their employers are making contributions. It is the duty of the unions to make sure that the employers make the contributions to NSITF. They should not leave NSITF alone. Again, on the side of my Ministry and safety of workers at work, we have in the Ministry, an Occupational and Safety Health Department manned by a consultant medical doctor. Their job is to inspect factories and workplaces and make sure that conducive climatic condition exists for workers. The NSITF also has a safety deparment, which also visits the factories to ensure that the claims made are factual. It is also expedient upon the union to ensure that things are done right. But the unions are not interested, they are interested only in check-off dues. But the check-off dues should be deployed into making sure that they monitor these agencies to ensure they are doing their work. They should be proactive and make sure those agencies are doing their function and if not, report them to the highest authority. I am one of the authorities they can report to. The unions should sit up and protect their workers fully.

I’ve also told NSITF to sit up and make sure that all companies are covered. I’ve also instructed them to take defaulters to court. It’s just like someone who is not paying his tax. That’s why Internal Revenue Service has given notices of taking companies and individuals to court. It’s something that should be done because it’s a law already. There is a clause that anybody who employs more than three persons must pay ECA funds to the coffers of NSITF.  

States owing salary and new minimum wage

Anybody who is not paying his or her workers is committing a crime because it is there, that you don’t employ people you cannot pay. Payment of workers’ emolument is legitimate and any worker who demands for his wages is doing the right thing. It’s in compliant with the law. It’s in compliance with the conventions of ILO. That’s why I found it strange when it was reported that some state governments are not paying their workers. Even the Bible, which is our own spiritual document says that a workman is entitled to his wages and those who work in a vineyard eat from the vineyard. Therefore, I was really flabbergasted when I heard it. Though a lot of them inherited the workforce and we as the Federal Government, through the Federal Executive Council (FEC), have also impressed it on them that as far as the Federal Government has not downsized our workforce, they also should carry on in the same vein because we are all the same government of the federation. Government at the state, local national level, that is what we call government of Nigeria. It’s not government of Ghana, or government of Togo or Sudan, we are all responsible to the people, including these workers. They have to pay and that means they have to look for resources from other sources excluding the federation account. Coming to the federation account every month and complaining that what you receive is not enough to pay workers is a lazy man’s attitude. You should be able to look elsewhere and augment whatever you get. In Anambra State, while I was there, I evoked the Executive Order of the governor. The law is there for both the president and the governors to make the executive order. I evoked the Executive Order to push workers’ salary in Anambra State and it stays like that. Workers in the executive, in the judiciary and the legislature. That’s what I did and I was able to pay. So anything that comes from the federation account, they get their payment first. Whereas the political appointees and every other person, we look at our internally generated revenue. So all governors should be able to do that.

On the issue of minimum wage, that’s why we constituted the tripartite committee. The issue of minimum wage is a national law that has universal application in Nigeria. The government side includes, the local government, states and the federal. The workers are represented by their federations,  NLC and TUC. While the employers’ side is represented by NECA and others from who we have six representatives. The discussion would be on what all the committee members agree after which it would be sent to FEC, the president and then the National Assembly. It is this bill that will be the new minimum wage that the National Assembly would pass into law. It would now have five years’ life span.

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