CHRIS NGIGE: How I Foiled Fuel Subsidy Strike in 2016

0
CHRIS NGIGE

The immediate past Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, recently held a valedictory session marking the end of his tenure in the ministry. In this interview with Onyebuchi Ezigbo,  the former governor of Anambra State talked about the expectations, achievements and challenges that had characterised his tenure

How can you rate the Ministry of Labour and Employment under your leadership?

Summarising it will be difficult and using the word little is also difficult because the things we did here in three and half years are numerous. When I came, the economy of the country had nosedived. The President moved to institute certain measures which, even though the immediate past government knew about it and talked about it, they were unable to do it. He moved to introduce the Treasury Single Account. I was one of those who supported the introduction of the Treasury Single Account, having being in the Senate and seeing the pillage and wastage of funds that was going on among the MDAs in the country. This brought the funds of the federal government to the glare of everybody and all the monies that could be stolen under the table without anyone knowing were now placed on top of the table. Everyone knows what has been paid into that account. Also, the President decided and got the support of the Federal Executive Council to take the bull by the horn and address the issue of inappropriate pricing of petroleum product. Kerosine and diesel had been deregulated, leaving petrol. So, he removed subsidy on PMS by telling NNPC to recover their cost and they tried to do an appropriate sale so that the landing cost will be equivalent to what petrol will sell. These two situation made the polity overheated and we had to grapple with it and more work was created for the Labour Ministry because the Labour movement and workers said they are the conscience of the nation went up in arms. We tried to explain to them, we tried to assuage them, yet they went on strike. There was restiveness in the financial system because there was no cheap money anymore and the grounds were not financially wet. Contractors were also crying and everybody was in a war mood against the government. We tried and broke the strike and so, it could not fly in 2016. We made some palliative overture to the workers. I led the technical team that discussed it. One of the fallout of that overture was that we agreed to review the national minimum wage. This was outside payment of other allowances owed to workers of federal ministries and agencies. The office of the Head of Service was encouraged to do the FIHS programme (Federal Integrated Housing Scheme). The Federal Mortgage Bank was revitalised to start building low cost housing for workers outside the Federal government low-cost housing being built by the Federal Housing Authority. We also had our obligation to workers in the private sector and we had to dialogue with our social partners NECA. Those who are not within the ambit of NECA like the oil companies, we brought them here and the then Minister of state, late James Ocholi (SAN) and myself, we addressed them and worked out a format of what could be done. 

One of the actions that brought you in collision with the labour movement was the  ‘no work, no pay’ directive. Why was it necessary?

After the bank issue, there were other disputes, the major one being that with the National Association of Resident Doctors. They went on strike and when we told them we will invoke the principle of no work, no pay, they had to buckle and take what the government could pay at that time. There was the issue of shortfall of salaries and other allowances. One or two hospitals went on separate strike and we applied the principle of no work, no pay and some doctors in Jos and Federal Medical Centre, Owerri became casualties and up till today, we did not refund their pay. After them came the JOHESU(The Joint Health Sector Union). They went on strike and we negotiated with them in the first instance and in 2018, they went on another round of strike and we had to invoke the no work, no pay on them after two months. We had to do so because after two months, the ILO permits you to invoke it. In fact, the ILO permits you to invoke it immediately anybody on essential services embark on strike. Essential service as defined by the ILO is any service by worker in which if he withdraws his service, there could be loss of life. So, health workers are number one in that classification, followed by electricity workers and then gas supply company workers because all these could cause death if the services are withdrawn.  JOHESU strike was one of the sore points of the conciliation we did because they had to be called back by the National Industrial Court. As I was preparing my instrument to refer the matter to the National Industrial Court, because they were very recalcitrant, some other civil rights body took them to that body and got an injunction against them to go back to court. The matter is still in court that referred it to its Alternative Dispute Resolution section. There was also the ASUU strike. They did the first one and we met them half way and the strike lasted six weeks. In 2018, they went on strike again and this time, the choose their time very well. It was around the election period and they started in November and we had to approach it with a carrot and stick approach. They had about 16-point needs and by the time we met majority of them, they called off the strike. But one thing stands out in these strikes and that is the fact that a lot of them needed to be paid outstanding allowances that were accumulated over the years, not by this government, but the previous government, who entered into an agreement with them in 2009 and another one in 2013. It is those agreements that they are now calling up for us to pay. A government that inherited a battered economy tried to do its best. The President, as a very understanding person, authorise money whenever such request came.

Don’t forget that this ministry is called Ministry of Labour and Employment and the government, even though there is no money and the personnel cost kept increasing. In spite of that, we said we must give employment  to Nigerians. So, we did a double barrel approach to it. Government established the N-Power programme, which was domiciled in the Vice President’s office. We employed 200,000 in the first batch in 2016/2017 and in 2017/2018, we employed another batch of 300,000 and placed them on a monthly pay of N30,000. We also had an N-power built for those without university degree who needed to learn some craft in various fields. We categorised them into the northern and southern zone and employed about 80,000 persons. We trained them for about nine months and empower them with work tools. We also increased recruitment in all sectors of government who were allowed to replace those leaving and promote others. We did not place embargo on employment and so, many Nigerians were employed. We might not have been able to satisfy everybody in terms of the white collar jobs. But in terms of the blue collar jobs, we did a lot there. 

We revitalised skills acquisition centres through the NDE and the ministry. We had special skill acquisition centres being manned by the department of skill in Lagos, Kaduna, Calabar, Bauchi, Kano and Warri among other places. We did not achieve all that we needed to achieve in that area because our original thinking was to be funded enough to revive all the skills acquisition programmes including those belonging to state government and do a national programme for continuous training of people in these areas. But funds was our limitation and so, could not do that. If we go to the other areas, we got approval of the Federal Executive Council for some regulations to protect workers. We had boiler equipment regulations, we got divers regulations for those who dive to go under water to do their work. There were other regulations for those who use lifts and cranes to work and there are regulations to ensure their safety. We had an employment policy in place as well as occupational safety and health policy and some other policies aimed at protecting the industry.

One of your major achievements is the successful negotiation of the new minimum wage. How did it happen?

Well, it is a big one. minimum wage was one of the products of the technical committee that worked on the palliatives as a result of the increase in pump price of PMS. Here, we were the anchor ministry and I led the government delegation comprising about seven ministers, the Salaries and Wages Commission and the state government. It was a tortuous and excruciating discussion because of where we found ourselves and where we were coming from. About 27 states were unable to pay the existing minimum wage of N18,000 and now, there is a demand, a genuine demand necessitated by the increase in pump price of PMS and the fact that inflation has eaten deep into the N18,000 and also by the fact that there was a big depreciation of the dollar, even though we were not computing everything about wages with the dollar. But we know that 40 to 50 per cent about the needs of every worker is foreign based. The minimum wage encompasses transport, housing needs. The last minimum wage was last negotiated and passed into law in 2011 and so, six, seven years down the line, there was no need not to touch it because even the constitution proscribes that you must adjust pension every five years or if you adjust any wages before the five years. 

You said it was a tortuous negotiation and now, there are governors who say they cannot pay the new wage.

No, it is a national law and no governor can say he will not pay. Issue of national minimum wage is item 34 on the exclusive legislative list of the third schedule of the Nigerian constitution. Issue of labour is also there and not on the concurrent list. If it is on the concurrent list, then they can make their own state assembly laws on that. Every state government is now owing workers if they have not started paying N30,000. They are owing workers effective from 18th of April, a new minimum wage. We are now in a committee working out a new template with which we will adjust upward the consequential adjustment upstairs for those already earning above N30,000. The minimum wage is for the most vulnerable down the ladder and that is the man on grade level one step one. So, you must consequentially adjust for the man on grade level two, grade level three, grade level four and five, because that man on GL 1 step 1 has overtaken them with his new payment. That is what we refer to as consequential adjustment. This consequential adjustment touches more on the people on the lower ladder and we are working it out. The negotiation is going to be with the Joint Negotiating Council in both the federal and at the state level. What we are trying to do now with the Salaries and Wages Commission is that we have a technical committee working out what the federal government will do for their workers and advice the state government appropriately. In 2011, there was a mistake in the consequential adjustment in some states when they applied the principle of percentage increase across board and they ran into trouble and were able to pay. What this N30,000 translates into is that there is a 67 per cent increase. If a state government applies the same 67 per cent increase across board, there will be serious trouble, the same with the federal government and when there is that trouble, there will be trade dispute because the principle of ability to pay will come in and ILO encourages us to apply those principle in our discussion. If I am unable to pay and my workers know that I am unable to pay, we will sit down and agree on what I am able to pay. So, there is a baseline now as no worker in Nigeria should earn anything less than N30,000 provided that the establishment has more than 25 workers.

When will workers begin to enjoy the new minimum wage?

They will enjoy it. In fact, they have started enjoying it. Employers in the private sector adjusted immediately because it is easier for them to do. In the government sector, the bureaucracy and bottleneck of government is responsible for the delay. You know that you must budget for it. That is what is causing the delay. But whenever the encumbrances are removed, they will pay arrears with effect from 18th April, 2019. So, the sooner an establishment start paying, the better for you so that you don’t take a huge backlog that you cannot take. If you pay in piecemeal and start going, the better. So, I advice all employers of labour in Nigeria, including state government to immediately set up their Joint Negotiating Councils so that whatever we get from here, we give it to them and they will look at it based on their peculiarities. There are no two states that are the same in terms of the revenues coming from the federations account and internally generated revenue. So, when the template from the federal level is given to you, you put it on the table with the joint negotiating council and discuss how it suits you and cue into it as much as possible with the finances available to you. Luckily, today, finances of states are known. Everybody know what the state is coming from FAAC with. The IGR of most state government are also known now. So, it is a pleasant situation that we are all in now.

One of the things that has often led to unrest and strike action in the country especially among government workers is the inability of government to implement signed agreements with unions. Right now, ASUU are spoiling for another round of strike…

You started by asking what is my major magic. The major magic is that I have forced government establishments to keep to agreements especially the ones that we entered into now. Where we have difficulties is the 2009 and 2013 agreements that the then government made. But nobody wants to know that. They will tell you that government is a continuum. So, as much as possible, we try to renegotiate some of these agreements to make them realistic. The ILO principles permits that CBAs that are not feasible can be renegotiated. That is the luck we have and in this ministry, we have used it to the best of the advantage of the government. That is why today, if you go to the Industrial Arbitration Panel, they are complaining that cases no longer come. We are taking the bullets here and not putting some there. I have read through cases that goes there and discovered that when cases goes there, employers are not satisfied and still go to the National Industrial Court and to Court of Appeal. As they are doing that, you have spate of industrial actions because once the worker finds out that you are trying to frustrate them from getting what they believe is theirs, they will find ways of declaring new dispute. So, now that we are here, we have told government the truth. I insist and bring government officials here for negotiation. I don’t take officers for negotiation. 

The best we can do is for a minister to come for the first two meetings and then delegate his permanent secretary and this has worked. Ministers are chief executives of the ministries and are the ones who will take the major decisions and do a memo to Mr. President saying we need this and that. When they do that I collaborate it and they get the necessary funds.

Recently, the ministry had a running battle with labour especially regarding the issue of NSITF Board. Some have accused you of having personal issues with Frank Kokori and the NLC President. How do you react to this ?

I have nothing personal against Comrade Frank Kokori, who I respect very much because of the role he played during the June 12 struggle. I was in Lagos and I know the role he played as the General Secretary of NUPENG. He was an employed officer of NUPENG, but stayed there long enough and made those sacrifices. Many people made sacrifices for June 12. So, I don’t have anything personal against him. If anything, we hold him in high esteem. The same goes for Comrade Wabba, whom I met here as NLC President, even though it was a factionalised NLC. There were two factions when I came. But for the NLC president, I don’t  like his style of administration and I have told him that many times. He operates a system of divide and rule, which I don’t like. He operates a system whereby if he doesn’t like anybody, he wants everybody else to dislike that person. 

Cuts in : Then the NSITF…

I will continue to explain the issue of NSITF because the Act that sets up the place is clear. There are two Labour representatives and there are two employers representatives. When the act was written, the labour representatives are to come from the NLC because it was a 1993 decree that was converted to an Act in 2004. Nobody has right to dictate to them who they should be and immediately they submit those names, I pass them down. The only thing I can do is to send them down for SSS screening to show that they don’t have criminal records and that they are proper Nigerians. The four executive directors come from government side and I also pass them for security screening. Then the chairman have a special paragraph, which says that the minister of labour will nominate a neutral and competent person to Mr. President for appointment as chairman. This is so done because it is a tripartite board. The person who should wear the cap as chairman is not supposed to be among the tripartite. He cannot be an employer association member, he should not be a trade unionist and should not be a government official. So, when Ayuba Wabba came here along with the NECA DG at that time to tell me that they have made a nomination to the Vice President, I told him it was wrong and that they don’t have the right to nominate. It is the minister of labour that has the right to do so and I have not done so. I wrote to the vice president who was then acting as president to point out this anomaly if it ever happens. Where the mixed up came was that there was a committee in the SGF office working on board membership of over 500 boards of government agencies. 

But some specialised board were taken away from the basket. I had written to the then SGF informing him that NSITF was one of the specialised board and so, it was taken away from the basket. The same applies to some aviation boards whose membership was mandatory for you to have an aviation certificate. But somehow, we do not know how it happens because a lot of things happen in government, some people took back those boards that were taken away from the general basket and the NLC President and his supporters managed to go and do a nomination of Kokori for the board. When I discovered it, I wrote and luckily, the president had come back and nominated somebody who, in my opinion and in the opinion of those who nominated him at the National Insurance Commission was a fit and proper person without any colouration to chair the place. If you look at his CV, you will know that for a place that has been pillaged, a place that been butchered and battered and left with huge monies nobody can account for and EFCC trying to see what they can recover, you will know that he was the person with the requisite pedigree to run the place. More so, when the accounts of the place has not been rendered for more than eight years. So, I needed this kind of a person with his experience. I never knew the man, but when I saw the CV, I sent for him for an interview and was certain that the past National Commissioner for Insurance has given me a good deal. So, I have nothing against Kokori as a person, I have nothing against Ayuba Wabba. Wabba is the one to explain to you how he nominated Comrade Kokori. How did he do it and why was he very desperate to have Comrade Kokori on that Board and also have him chair another board of a sister company of NSITF called Trustfund pensions. Whoever is Chairman of NSITF also chair the board of Trustfund pensions. Why is he blocking NSITF from having board members on Trustfund pensions until a Kokori led Board comes into place. What is he covering up? He said I am the one trying to cover up. What am I covering up? The board is there now and labour people are there. Let them expose whatever Ngige has done there and not making wild allegations. 

The NLC declared you persona non grata and say workers should attack you where ever they see you What’s your reaction?

After invading my house, they claimed some people assaulted them. Do you picket a private house? If you read the definition of picket, it is an English word which comes from factory hands who will be clapping against the foreman at work, singing and saying certain things they want him to do for them. It is not for the whole day, but has a time span and it is during working hours in the factory. In recent time, it has been extended to public offices where that boss is operating from. Picketing does not mean you declaring that anywhere you see Ngige, attack him, a kind of fatua on my head. Am I a Muslim? Unfortunately for him, when I came to the airport, all the airport workers were singing for me, calling me Mr. Minimum Wage. Yet, he is asking them to attack me. But instead of attacking me, they are acclaiming me and singing songs of praise for me for assisting them to get N30,000.

There were claims that you wanted to proscribe NUPENG…

NUPENG leadership used to be a very good leadership with PENGASSAN. I have told you how we worked with them during the 2016 strike. Naturally, I am a human being and I have soft spot for them. Their new president who took over from Achese, Williams, I regard him as my son because he speaks like one of my sons. He doesn’t speak too much, he goes straight to his point, says what he wants and listens. Immediately you make a striking point, he calls his members out, discuss with them and come back to the conciliation table. So, I liked him a lot. When they had a running battle with the minister of state for petroleum, they call here and I conciliated it. 

He was a very respectful boy. But that he came with tankers to my house still beats my imaginations. Maybe Comrade Ayuba talked him into it because Comrade Ayuba is a demagogue from what I have seen and such people leads his followers to perdition in most cases because they will say things that are not real and things to whip up sentiments. 

During the minimum wage negotiation, Ayuba goes and calls his Central Working Committee and will accuse me of being a stumbling block to getting the N56,000 they wanted because I am leader of government delegation. He does not know that as leader of government delegation, I had the responsibility of delivering the economic situation of government. He also did not know that when the governors don’t come, they call me and tell me what to canvass for them. So, after canvassing that of the federal government, I canvass their own because their commissioners and permanent secretaries sitting there will not talk. So, Ayuba takes it, go back and bad mouth me before his CWC and that was the same thing he did on the Kokori matter. He did not tell them the truth. But the CWC did not call me to hear from me as their father. So, Ayuba is running the NLC as a sole administrator and that is what I don’t want him to continue to do because he cannot use it for his personal purposes, which is what he is doing presently. Otherwise, what was the reason for his demonstration when I was busy inaugurating the board. He was busy on the street demonstrating against Ngige for not inaugurating, saying we are no longer talking about inauguration of board, but brutality to us. My initial investigation revealed that the thugs he brought were angry that he did not pay them for the previous jobs they did for him and that is why I am looking at their books now to see if there is any where money is budgeted for the hiring of thugs or even doing street rallies when it is not necessary. I am looking at the books. Did they make provision for investments of the check off dues. Some unions are building houses, hotels and factories like the food and beverages union. They are busy filtering away their monies on frivolities, buying unnecessary t-shirts and red caps.

For NUPENG, we have looked at their books and discovered that they have breached the Labour Act.  First, they breached section 18 of the Labour Act, which says that trade unions shall pay contributions agreed to by its members as enshrined in their constitution to a registered federating unit. So, it is for them to pay that percentage as per their constitution to a registered Labour federation. They have not done so since 2016 and so, they are guilty of an offence. Again, they are in default of annual return as enshrined in section 37, which requires that every registered body, before June 1 each year, sends an annual return in a prescribed form to the registrar of trade unions. That form would have been filled by a duly appointed auditor and will contain their assets and liabilities, their receipt from check off dues and expenditure, which should be budgeted for in any given year. They are also in breach of this section. TUC is in default of annual return for 2017 and 2018, but NUPENG is from 2016. What we have done here is that we have written them, pointing the lapses and gave them 72 hours to come and deliver their books in consonance with section 41, which says that if you look at their returns or they don’t make return and therefore you are not satisfied, you ask them to return the books for examination by an auditor appointed by this ministry. They are quoting section 40 which talks about 30 days. We are not talking about 30 days, but telling you that your annual returns have not come in, so, let us help you by giving us the books so that we appoint auditors for you. So, they must do it. They cannot play politics with it. They can go to Wabba to draft 1000 letters for them asking Nigerians to call Ngige to order or President Buhari to call me to order. The President will not ask me to break the law, but will be happy that I am applying the law on accountability of union funds. That is what I am doing. They know the consequences, which are prescribed in the laws.

Section 7 gives the registrar power, with my permission to proscribe and cancel the registration and section 47 gives us the power to gazette it and dissolve the union. More importantly,  I can get an injunction from the court further operations on the funds of those unions because they are in breach of the law. The TUC President came here physically with a letter of appeal that it was their auditors that is messing them up. They made an appeal for clemency and for us to look at their issue on compassionate ground.