18 November 2012

Nigeria: Jang, LG Workers in Game of Wits Over Strike

Jos — The Plateau State Government issued a fresh ultimatum Thursday on its striking local government workers to resume work tomorrow. It was the second ultimatum in two weeks. The Commissioner of Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, Dr Paul Samani Wai who handed down this latest ultimatum issued the first one penultimate Friday, November 9, asking the workers to be back at work the following Monday, November 12, but mainly because the state House of Assembly intervened, the government played the order down.

The House of Assembly Speaker, John Clark Dabwan, made a statement early that fateful Monday asking both the executive arm of the government and the organized labour not to act on the ultimatum but to give him time to explore an agreeable end to the strike.

The speaker knew that something unpleasant could happen over the ultimatum. The speculation was spreading that many of the workers were planning not to return to work but to match out that day to the various council secretariats to ensure that no worker complied with the ultimatum. Some workers gathered at some of the council secretariats but the speaker's intervention, more than anything else, calmed nerves and everyone returned home and government stood down any action against noncompliance.

Non-compliance to the ultimatum was expected. Both government and the striking workers were up to that time still far from reaching an agreement.

No work, no pay:

The last straw for both the workers and the government was the no-work-no-pay policy of the government. The sharp disagreement over it first caused a decisive bottleneck last month when an otherwise highly regarded body, Plateau Elders Committee, which was constituted to mediate between the government and organised labour, got both sides to agree to a 55 percent interim salary for the workers.

The understanding was this: although the workers were pressing for full 100 per cent national minimum wage and the government was paying 50 per cent of it, both parties would shift grounds and the workers would for the meantime take 55 per cent. Both agreed on this but differed irreconcilably on controversial no-work-no-pay policy.

The state government, implementing a no-work-no-pay policy, has been withholding the council workers' salary since June this year when the workers started the strike. Governor Jonah Jang has seized many opportunities to rationalize the policy. To him, logic alone supports it. He has often asked: "If you stop work by your own decision, why should your salary not stop?" He wondered on one occasion why the teachers, for example, should be asking to be paid for the period they did not work if they knew they were not going to be able to reverse the losses of pupils who had not been taught for the many months that the teachers had been on strike. Primary school teachers began their own strike in April and were joined by other council workers in June.

Governor Jang and officials of his government have also made references to the law to justify the no-work-no-pay rule. The local government commissioner located it in the Trade Dispute Act of Nigeria on November 9 while handing down government's first order on the workers to return to work. He said, "For the avoidance of doubt, the applicable law in Section 43 subsection I (a) of the Trade Dispute Act T.8 of the Federation of Nigeria (LFN) reads, 'Where any worker takes part in a strike, he shall not be entitled to any wage or other remuneration for the period of the strike, and any such period shall not count for the purpose of reckoning the period of continuous employment and all rights dependent on the continuity of period of employment shall be prejudicially affected accordingly'."

Why would state civil servants be receiving 100% while we are not?:

An angry council worker stated: "They say we can only have 50 per cent. Why? The state civil servants have been receiving 100%. Do we not buy things from the same market?"

Such is the anger commonly expressed by the striking local council workers who have around them the full-wage receiving people whose only 'luck' is that they work in ministries, agencies and departments of the state government. For that privilege, state government workers receive exactly double what council workers get.

Government has frequently asserted that while funds accruing monthly to local council areas stand at between N1.7 and N1.9 billion, government would need N3.1 billion to pay the full minimum wage to the workers. But the workers contend that the N3.1 billion wage bill bandied by government is a figure inflated to justify government's claim that the workers could not have full minimum wage. While government rejects the suggestion that N3.1 billion is a cooked figure, it admits that ghost workers exist without whom the wage bill would be less than N3.1 billion.

No pay, no-work:

Governor Jang emphasised, on November 7 when receiving members of the State Elders Committee who called on him with a report of their study of the strike, that he did not intend to go back on the adoption of no-work-no-pay policy on the local government workers who had made payment of their withheld salary for June to October 2012 a condition for returning to work. He said the workers had no right to insist on being paid arrears of withheld salaries because they could not repair the damage their strike had caused.

Irked by that stance, union leaders called a press briefing the next day, November 8, and declared that if the government had so decided to remain on its no-work-no-pay high horse, they had their own high horse.

"We agreed before to take interim 55 per cent of minimum wage; now we will not take it. It is 100 per cent and payment of the withheld salaries or we will not return to work," the workers vowed.

They said the state governor had no legal basis to apply the no-work-no-pay stick on them. They elaborated: "It is not an established policy but a convention with no force of law. Besides, we followed due process in embarking on this strike. It is not an illegal strike." They stressed that although they agreed during the labour-government negotiations in October to accept interim 55 per cent, they would now no longer take anything less than the full minimum wage unless the governor reversed his no-work-no-pay option.

A Monday, November 12, that never was:

It was in what thus became a war of words between government and the organised labour that the state commissioner of Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs addressed the press briefing at the Governor's Lodge and Office in Jishe, Jos, that Friday, November 9, saying, "Following refusal of the union leaders to call off the strike after accepting the 55 per cent wage increase, it has become necessary for government to take appropriate steps to salvage the local government system and primary education in the state from total collapse...Local government workers are to report and resume work at 8.00 a.m. on Monday, 12th November, 2012."

That announcement, made that Friday and giving the workers just the weekend to chew on it, created uncertainty in the state. Everyone waited to see what would happen, considering the possibility of the workers not heeding the order, knowing very well how sharply government and organised labour had disagreed.

What promised to be a rancorous confrontation between striking local government workers and the Plateau State Government was averted that fateful Monday, however, by the intervention of the speaker of the State House of Assembly.

What next?:

The state Chairman of the Congress, Jibril Bancir, sounded optimistic when he spoke on Thursday with Sunday Trust. He said, "The speaker and some commissioners have intervened. We've been with them from Sunday till today and in consultation with NLC headquarters. We expect positive outcome from all the efforts by people of goodwill. We continue meeting to see how this thing could be resolved quickly because we have suffered enough."

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