Lagos — Workers of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) and the federal government are currently in battle over workers' entitlements in the eventual transfer of the assets of the power company to its new owners which is expected to come up in few months.
Both parties in the dispute have vehemently disagreed over what should be the quantum of entitlements due to the workers who had earlier protested the take over of the PHCN Headquarters in Abuja by soldiers.
A new dimension was however added to the crisis when the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) gave the federal government one-week ultimatum to settle the labour issues in the power company before new owners take over.
Specifically, NLC wants government to pay PHCN workers 25 percent contribution to their superannuation scheme as terminal benefits as well as withdraw security from PHCN installations.
No one can actually tell what will happen if government fails to shift ground after the expiration of the ultimatum. But Minister of Power Prof. Bart Nnaji has curiously asked NLC to help government trace the whereabouts of PHCN workers' contributions which the congress asked government to pay within seven days.
One of the agreements between the federal government and the electricity workers was the payment of their entitlements before the assets of the power company are disposed to new investors.
Government also promised that employees of the power company will not be sacked and anyone who intends to work with the new owners of PHCN will be gladly accepted.
The federal government proposed that a percentage of gratuity and pensions will be paid in the severance package as it contended that gratuity is merged with pensions in the new Pensions Reform Act of 2004.
Government said it will pay the pensions into Retirement Savings Account to be opened by all staff and it will be calculated in accordance with the workers' superannuation up to June, 2004 which recognizes 25 percent of workers' salaries for that purpose.
Effective June 2004, government will calculate only 15percent which is the minimum percentage granted by the Pension Act.
At a joint press conference in Lagos recently, the Senior Staff Association of Electricity and Allied Companies (SSAEAC) and the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) objected to the merger of gratuity and pensions.
According to them, gratuity payment is exclusive of pensions in the new Pensions Act. Gratuits, they said is a one-stop payment at the end of service which the Pension Reform Act never contemplated or bordered with as it has nothing to do with pensions.
They contended that their pensions should be calculated based on the practice of their superannuation fund by calculating all pensions to date on 25 percent deducted from staff salaries for that purpose.
They said the request for payment of 53.36 percent salary increase availed public servants in 2009 when government freezed salary increase in PHCN was turned down on the premise that government claimed it had no money to pay.
"It will be foolhardy for government to claim that it has no money to finance its privatization programme by paying its labour liabilities. The same government that has enough money to mount media campaign and attack on the unions at the onset of its programme is now claiming that it has no money to pay our benefits thereby attempting to short-change us on all our requests," the workers lamented.
Last Wednesday, workers at the PHCN headquarters, Abuja alleged that they were forced to sign their pension fund and severance documents at gunpoint.
NUEE zonal coordinating secretary for north-central Comrade Temple Iworima explained that trouble started sequel to a federal government's directive for the deduction of 7.5 percent from their salaries to be remitted to Retirement Savings Accounts (RSA) against their consent even as they had not opened any.
"This morning [Wednesday] we came and we saw...soldiers inside and outside the building and learnt that the permanent secretary, Mrs. Dere Awosika came around 7:00 this morning with Ghana-must-go. Whether she was bringing severance package for people or something, we did not agree to that and she cannot force people at gunpoint to sign and collect their severance package."
Vice president of the union in charge of Lagos and Ogun, Mbang Etietie disclosed that workers from across the country were invited to Abuja for a promotion exercise only to find out that government wanted to force severance pay on them.
At the end of NLC's National Executive Council (NEC) meeting last week in Benin, it gave government one week to resolve the labour impasse in PHCN.
Its President, Abdulwaheed Omar reiterated NLC's earlier position that the new Pension Act did not abolish gratuity. He said the 25 percent contributions by the workers should be paid up to date.
But the Minister of Power Bart Nnaji expressed the readiness of government to promptly pay the 25 percent contributions as soon as all parties are able to establish the whereabouts of the funds so far contributed by workers of PHCN.
He said the retirement verification exercise was aimed at distributing letters to the workers as well as advising them on their retirement benefits in view of the impending privatisation of PHCN and not to molest the workers as alleged.
He noted that the letters stipulate the pension and gratuity, among other benefit, of every employee.
According to him, workers are to study the contents of every form and look out for critical issues like possible computational errors and then return them not later than August 10, 2012 with appropriate remarks to the PHCN management.
He said, "A look at the computations shows that some PHCN executives will earn as much as N38 million each as retirement benefits on account of the generous offers which government has made to the PHCN staff in recent months. This considerably huge retirement figure stands in sharp contrast to the N2 million which NUEE officials have been alleging will be the maximum amount of money any PHCN employee will receive on retirement."
He said that the entire severance benefit, calculated at N80billion, will come from the government treasury because the unions had insisted that they would rather stay with their Superannuation Scheme which requires a monthly deduction of 25 percent of their salary. However, both the union and the management (as joint trustees of the fund) have not been able to account for the deductions.
"In the absence of funds to implement the superannuation scheme, government has magnanimously agreed to pay for the PHCN and its 50,000 workforce the outstanding 15 percent of its pension premiums under the PRA from July 1, 2004 to June 30, 2012. This decision represents the payment of N80 billion to the staff as pension to which they did not contribute a kobo," the minister explained.
As it appears, the final phase of the privatization may be in limbo if the raging labour issue in the power company persists.