These days most Nigerian families, Christian and non-Christian alike, are out Christmas shopping. Heavy traffic, crowded markets and busy city centres are normal sights. But this year, some Plateau State civil servants can't participate in the exhilarating hustle and bustle that comes with the holiday. It's not just that money is tight for these local government workers - it's that they're fighting a war on wages.
"This is going to be my first Christmas as a married man with my wife," says Bitrus Ladan, a 29-year-old clerk for Jos North local government council. "I would have loved to celebrate it colourfully, but the insensitive government we have today doesn't bother about how its people survive."
Ladan, whom I caught up with on Murtala Mohammed Way while he was buying a cup of rice (a quantity barely enough for an adult), tells me how the new 18,000 naira (90 euro) monthly minimum wage for local government workers has been passed into law. However, the Plateau State government has stubbornly refused to implement it fully, and these circumstances are hampering more than just his holiday.
"I can't describe how much my wife and I have suffered through these months without salaries. It is a miracle that we're alive because many times we had to go without food," he says.
Meanwhile, along Ahmadu Bello Way, the main commercial centre of Jos, I see some people out shopping. But traders around the Main Market area of Jos North lament that patronage is very low compared to previous years, a result of the impasse between local civil servants and the government. In fact, most of the shops here are empty.
Some of the shopkeepers I speak with along Murtala Mohammed Way say the current administration is being unnecessarily insensitive to the plight of suffering LG workers. In their view, compared to the salaries top government officials and appointees take home, the civil servants are asking for peanuts.
How it's come to this
Earlier this year, on behalf of local government workers, the Plateau State chapter of the Nigerian Labour Congress (an umbrella organization for trade unions known as the NLC) had taken up negotiations with the government. They agreed to accept 50 percent of the minimum wage, pending a shown improvement of local government (LG) revenue allocation.
And three months after the agreement, there was a marked increase in accrual funds for civil servants. The NLC consequently approached the government to request an upward review of salaries based on the prior agreement. But the government refused to honour the agreement, claiming the said increment was only temporary.
In reaction, this past June local government workers embarked on an industrial strike action. After several negotiations, the government decided to raise the salary from 50 to 55 percent of the minimum wage. The civil servants accepted the offer and were ready to resume work when the state government decided to invoke the 'No work, no pay' policy. This means the workers will not get arrears for the months they were on strike, from June to November.
According to the NLC Plateau State chairman, Comrade Jibrin Bancir, the current bone of contention is the 'No work, no pay' policy that the state government has invoked. "Once government agrees to pay our arrears, LG workers will resume work," says Bancir following a press conference at the Nigerian Union of Journalists Press Centre in Jos.
When I ask Ladan, the newlywed, how he plans to spend Christmas Day with no hope of money in sight, his answer is simple. "We'll go to church then come back home and sit down, that is all we can do," he says.