Sparks Fly In Benue Over Workers Salary Arrears

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The issue of non-payment of workers’ salaries has come to a head in Benue State as long-drawn exchange of brickbats between the government and labour leaders in the state and at national level has followed the seven-day warning strike, embarked by workers in the state. HEMBADOON ORSAR writes

Following the lingering crises between the Benue State government and organised labour in the state over default in payment of salaries to the state’s civil servants, the national secretariat of the Nigeria Labour Congress waded in with a view to finding a common ground on the problem.

There has a cold war between labour in the state and the state government which started when the government directed all civil servants to submit their statement of account for a reason which was not explained. It was a directive that came after the workers just resumed from a seven-day warning strike in protest of the non-payment of their salaries and entitlements by the state government.

The government directive was turned down following a counter directive by organized labour in the state.

Explaining why he called on his members to disregard the bank statement circular, chairman of NLC in the state, Comrade Godwin Anya said, “salaries are not paid for a long time and you cannot go into the bank and do this things free and in a midst of people who are not paid for considerable time you simply ask people to go and obtained bank statement where workers were queuing in banks suffering,  those things are done when things are normal.

“The representatives of labour are in this committee which the deputy governor is heading we expected that if there was any need for such a document to be presented, he would have called a meeting or even told us through the permanent secretary who is the secretary of the committee that this is what is going to be done but a situation where the deputy governor just rose and  send a circular directing workers to bring their bank statement, we were not aware, we even told the governor that it is not correct and that was the reason why we told workers not to comply with that directive.”

The workers who last Thursday blocked Makurdi- Otukpo Road around the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) office, said they were protesting to drive home their grievances over the non-payment of their salaries which amounted to several months.

The workers, who also set bonfire on the road leaving the commuters stranded for several hours also accused the leadership of the NLC of compromising, saying the congress leaders did not have the workers interest at heart.

But Anya claimed that those protesting were not Benue State government workers, noting that the real workers were still negotiating with the state government and cannot be part of that protest.

Anya explained that the national leadership of the NLC had held a meeting with State Executive Council, SEC and agreed to step in and interface with the state government with the view to resolving the impasse over the issue of salaries.

“SEC after the warning strike by worker in the state had a meeting with national leadership of the NLC and accepted the decision of the national body to step into our problem and interface with the Benue state government with the view to resolving the matter.

Those people protesting on the road are not our members because the workers are not irresponsible people and they cannot go and do bonfire and block road in the name of protest,” Anya said.

Governor, Samuel Ortom had revealed that much as he appreciated the financial interventio­ns from the federal government they have not been enough to clear the salary arr­ears which he said, he inheri­ted from the past administrati­on.

Ortom expla­ined that he inherit­ed salary, pension and gratuity arrears of N69 billion which he offset substanti­ally with the interv­entions that includ­ed the bailout and Paris Club refunds po­inting out that shortfalls from the monthly allocati­ons have made it imp­ossible to clear the arrears.

He stated that at the time he took over the monthly wage bill of the state inclu­ding pensions, overh­eads and gratuity was N8. 2 billion with­out the implementati­on of the minimum wa­ge for teachers which when implemented further increased the bill to about N8. 5 billion.

According to him aft­er series of screeni­ng exercises the bill had been reduced to about N7. 8 billion which still remain­ed one of the highest alongside industri­alised states like Kano, Kaduna, and Ogun while the total mo­nthly allocation to the state stands at an average of N6 billio­n.

He said following the development the st­ate government reach­ed an understanding with the state worke­rs whose leaders have been involved in the disbursement of state funds that two months allocations would be combined to pay one month’s full salary which he has kept since 2015 add­ing that sometimes more is paid with the interventions.

Following these, the National President of Nigerian Labour Congress, NLC, Ayuba Wabba  on Monday September 25, 2017 led members of his national executive to the state where he criticised the state government for not making proper use of the federal government financial interventions to offset the salary arrears of the workers.

The NLC president who said this Makurdi while speaking with newsmen after meeting with the State Executive Council of the union  lamented the long period of time workers in the state are being owed by the state government, noting that civil servants are owed for seven months, teachers 11, while pensioners have not received their pay for over 13 months.

He described the non-payment of salary by the state government as an act of corruption and violation of labour law.

“The law states clearly that a worker deserves to be paid after 30 days and if he is not paid,  then it is an infringement of the law and such person should be punished,” Wabba said.

Wabba criticised the governor for an alleged poor utilization of the bailout funds and the two tranches of Paris Club refund which accrued to the state from the presidency, noting that such interventions were enough to liquidate the state’s workers salary.

 

“Benue and Plateau states had similar situation but today with transparent utilisation of the bailout and Paris Club refund, Plateau has liquidated all salary arrears. There should be no contestation on payment of salary.  Salary should be prioritized by any government. No worker can continue to go to work on empty stomach, it is an impossibility.

 

How do you expect a teacher who has not been paid for over 11 months to teach. What will he teach?  He will only be thinking about the well-being of his family. The situation is precarious and not appealing. Imagine where senior citizens could go without pay for 13 months, then what message are we sending to the younger generation. This is already sending a wrong signal to those still in service that on retirement they will be abandoned. Pensioners pay must be prioritized,” Wabba said.

He averred that if the situation is not sorted out now,  in 2018 politics will commence and  attention and resources will be diverted, adding that the governor must account for the utilization of the bailout funds and Paris Club refund before any further intervention from the presidency to the state.

“We have written to the Presidency demanding that governors account for the utilization of bailout and two tranches of Paris Club refund before any further intervention.  This non-payment of salary amounts to corruption and the governor must be accountable and have respect for due process and the rule of law”

In a swift reaction, Benue state government described the comments made Wabba as most unfortunate and unfair to the Ortom’s administration.

Special adviser to the governor on Media and ICT  Tahav Agerzua in a statement said, “From the comments, it is obvious that Comrade Wabba does not have the facts, as far as the issue of salaries in Benue State is concerned. He saved himself a lot of embarrassment by not quoting any figures which in itself reveals that he did not stand on solid ground. If he made a simple inquiry, he would have discovered the absurdity of the comparison between Benue and Plateau States with regard to the wage bill because they are poles apart. Plateau State monthly wage bill is about N1.5 billion while that of Benue is N4.1 billion at the state, N3.7 billion at the local government, including overheads and pensions”

According to Agerzua, Benue State receives an average of N6 billion federal allocation at both the state and local levels. The deficit experienced monthly as a result of the high wage bill of N7.8 billion in the face of N6 billion allocation every month make it possible for Benue to pay salaries as at when due.

He emphasized that the NLC President failed to reckon with the fact that Governor Ortom inherited salary, pension and gratuity arrears of N69 billion which his Plateau State counterpart did not.

Mr Agerzua enumerated major federal  government financial interventions in the state to include N28 billion bailout, first and second tranches of the Paris Club refunds of N12.7 billion and N6.5 billion respectively.

“Much as these have been appreciated they could not offset N69 billion arrears in the face of a monthly shortfall of about N2 billion.

Comrade Wabba obviously is not aware that Benue pays one of the highest wage bills in the country. The comrade could not give an accurate number of months Benue workers are being owed, but again, that only goes to point the fact that he was not properly briefed about the salary situation in the state.”

It could be recalled that despite several appeals, by the Benue State government to the organized Labour not to  embarked on industrial action,  civil servants, in the state went  tough with the government as they embarked on  a one week warning strike to demand home their monthly salaries, arrears and pension which according to them has accumulated for several months leaving untold hardship on them.

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