CHRIS NGIGE: It’s Pathetic for Lecturers to Go on Strike When They Should Be Researching Cure for COVID-19

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CHRIS NGIGE

Minister of Labour and Employment and member, Presidential Committee on Review of salaries and Wages, Senator Chris Ngige said personnel cost would consume two-third of 2020 budget and that the committee has been mandated to align personnel cost of various agencies and parastatal and possibly review their operations to save cost. In this interview with Onyebuchi Ezigbo, the minister also spoke on IPPIS, impact of Covid-19 on workers and how to resolve the lingering dispute with ASUU. Excerpts:

One of the issues currently generating public concern is the federal government’s move to implement the Oronsaye report. Some sections of the organised labour are saying the report was an agenda of the IMF and that government has been under pressure to execute it. Is that correct?

The president set up a committee called the presidential committee on salaries and wages last year of which I am a co-chair. It is being chaired by the Minister of Finance and Planning with the Head of Service as member for us to see how we can address the rising cost of personnel in the budget of the federation, because if you look at the 2020 budget, about one-third and put it with the running cost, we are talking of about two-third of the budget being consumed by what you call recurrent expenditure.

That committee has been inaugurated and has been having meetings and we held discussions on things like recruitment and replacement as some people call it. It made the government to fuse some parastatals that are doing the same job. We also sent to the government our opinion on the staggered disparity in payment of salaries and wages of people, who do the same quantum of work and for people, who have the same qualification but one has found himself in the ministry and another has seen himself in an agency or parastatal.

Some are in the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, (NNPC) and take humongous pay that is 10 times of their classmates. Some are in Central Bank of Nigeria, (CBN) and some are in other parastatals in Aviation and the differential is much compared to the person in the ministry. So, these are the broad terms of references of our work. So, part of the work is that we are going to talk about and recommend collapsing or fusion of some agencies that are doing identical works and scrapping of some agencies that are already dead.

Something like NEFUND is no longer alive. There is no need keeping it; no need sending running cost in there. We are looking at something that is like the work Oronsaye did. But in Oronsaye’s committee report, there are some good aspects of it and there are many things that are not good there. Even if you take the White paper, it disagreed with about one-third of Oronsaye’s recommendation – about 40 per cent of the recommendation and another 20 – 25 per cent of the recommendation.

The white paper committee never supported the recommendation or said no to the recommendation; they just said noted. So, there is no way one can use it for a very essential report, because the white paper committee didn’t do a good work. So, what I am telling you in essence is the kind of reference of the Oronsaye committee is okay, so, if our government sets up our own committee like we are doing now, what the presidential committee on salary and wages are going to do now is to put our recommendation into the economics of the committees.

Luckily the finance minister is a member and I am also a member of the Economic Sustainability Committee (ESC). So, the unions have no need to cry and shout. When such a thing is done it isn’t done with a view to creating job losses. Two things can happen. First benefit to government is that if you scrap an agency or fuse an agency with another one, the running cost will be saved, because people don’t think about money being given as salary and wages, no.

You also talk about the running cost of the agency, which is sometimes 50-50 with the personnel cost. So, if you remove that running cost, the recurrent expenditure would have gone down too. If you have staff, you have two directors of finance and two directors of this and that, you can move staff from those agencies and go to ministers, where there is need for such officers and redeploy them.

For example, we created a new ministry of humanitarian affairs, disaster management and social development and most of the members of staff in this new ministry were sourced from other ministries and agencies of government. So, this is the kind of scenario that will play out, when you have this merger and fusion.

So, loss of job wouldn’t be on the front burner but even if there must be loss of job, it will be done in a way that the redundancy law of the country, which is in the trade union act will be applied, because the people will have to see why they all have to go and some will be offered the opportunity to go away from the job and take upfront benefits like payment of salaries up till the day they go and stuffs like that. The mechanism will be done in such a way that there would be no pain. So, the unions and workers have nothing to fear. President Buhari has been a worker all his life as an army man and has also relied on government wages to do most of the things he has done in his life.

How is your ministry grappling with the ASUU dispute, which had paralysed academic works in all the federal universities even before the coming of the Covid-19 pandemic?
On the 9th of February, ASSU declared a warning strike and I, as the chief labour officer of the federation and labour reconciliator, invited them for a meeting, which means that I had apprehended the strike by labour laws. If the minister or any conciliator, Industrial Arbitration Panel (IAP) or National Industrial court apprehends the strike, the workers will go and then subject themselves to reconciliation process.

So, ASUU came for a reconciliation process at my place on the 14th but still persisted and continued their strike. We did negotiations with their employers, because I am not their direct employer. Their direct employer is the minister of education and the man, who pays them, is the chief treasurer of the federation, the Minister of Finance and the Accountant General.

We looked at their complains and we discovered that out of their nine demands, six of them had been treated and so, there were those issues that were treated and PENCOM, which is their vehicle for pension in which the federal government assisted them through provisional approval from PENCOM since last year, so we agree they should apply for extension, because there is no PENCOM board to give them full final license.

We agreed at the reconciliation panel that the president has approved it. It was just a question of ascertaining they were shown evidence of approval. We agreed after the issue of state universities and underfunding of various state governments, that the matter would be reverted to the economic council in which all state governors are members and that when it is done, their state representatives would be reformed so that there can be a bilateral council.

On the issue of their 2019 agreement, they agreed that it is progressing. Virtually all the points they raised were taken care of. The issue that remained were, firstly, revitalisation fund for the universities; secondly, non-academic allowances since we had a programme for payment, which we had already commenced. On these two issues of money, the federal government has honoured the agreement and paid the first two tranches of N50 billion – N25 billion each tranche.

The next trench was to be paid late last year, but you know as well as everyone knows that we were well embroidered on the issue of minimum wage and after the national minimum wage was agreed upon, next level of discussion became the consequential adjustment of all the salary structure of the federal government including ASUU structure, which was also affected by the consequential adjustment. So, more money went into everybody’s hands therefore there was an agreement that said let’s finish with that before the second tranche of that agreement was to be paid.

After all these were understood, we now asked federal ministry of finance to give them an offer and after a lot of back and forth, federal ministry of finance agreed to bring N15 billion in this difficult times for revitalization and N15 billion Earned Academic allowance but because we now knew that the Earned Academic allowances will involve other unions in the universities, they made a special request for 20 billion and I had to intervene and asked the federal government side to go and look for 20 billion to pay for revitalization and end academic allowance. We didn’t only do that but we did a financial payment plan.

The first tranche of this money was supposed to be paid in the first week of April and by the end of May, the entire amount would have been liquidated. To my understanding, that was an offer that was given to them. Then it reached this payment of integration system, because before the negotiation, they had claimed that they needed University Transparent Accounting System (UTAS), a platform which they claimed is indigenous and home made, a platform which they claimed took care of all their peculiarities like this end academic allowances, those on sabbatical leave, those who act as adjunct teachers or lecturers, lecturers in one or more universities and of course provision for their union dues.

We agreed that they should present the UTAS to the government side for them to test and look at the integrity of the system but heaven was let loose when they said they were not ready with UTAS and in very discordant tune, they claimed that it will take them four months to fully develop it. Another section of the group said it would take them three months. I was very embarrassed as the chief facilitator, because when we visited Mr. President, I think sometime early this year, I had counselled that if they had UTAS, we could marry them with IPPIS more so with the issue they have raised with IPPIS that it is foreign-based and it is paid for in dollars for its management.

So, I asked them to bring me a letter after consulting with their members and their researchers because they said their researchers were the ones who set the actual time so they did me a letter I think about the 16th and said that they would come up with the letters, 18 months broken down as six months for software development, another six months for programming and test and another three months to sort out the remaining things.

So, they asked for one and a half years and we had told them clearly that no one can give them one and a half years and we said let’s adopt NUPENCO style, they said they have NUPENCO but government assisted them, set up a committee and they got NUPENCO both them and other unions in the university. They own it together, formed a company, directors were appointed by ASUU, NASU, NATS and SSANU but before their pension vehicle was ready, they were in the same vehicle with other union managed by PENCOM.

Immediately they got their license, they migrated back to NUPENCO. So, I proposed it and I got the government side to do an undertaking and I took it on. They said they wanted to go and consult with their constituency, that they have a method of doing their national executive committee (NEC) and then going to the universities to do congresses and they left and promised to come back to us after the weekend, which was on the 21st.

Surprisingly, when their two weeks strike was supposed to end, they declared a full and total strike without going to their congresses. Of course, they didn’t come back to me as the conciliator to say these are our stand. It is just like going to court and you are still taking action on what you are doing. Government found it very embarrassing. However, after a week, the Covid-19 lockdown started. I kept in touch with them. By the time I called them and said even in lockdown we can meet, their president said they couldn’t met with us because they are in scattered places.

I and the Minister of Finance and Accountant General put our heads together and our ministries and decided to get them through zoom and we asked the president for a meeting so we could break the issues. He promised to communicate with me after consulting his members but he didn’t. I later heard from another source that the zoom meeting would not achieve its purpose. He said he wants to be looking at us face to face but we shall look at each other face to face with our mask but the mask may make it difficult for us to know who is who again but I am waiting for that.

In-between, I discussed with the Minister of finance and Minister of state for education and we felt that government is trying to do everything to elevate the effect of the lockdown in every city especially, the vulnerable and those who are on daily pay and in that meeting, a case was made that these people are not feeding themselves alone, they have families which include their direct family, their children and some of them, their parents.

So, based on that, we asked the president for a special dispensation for these people to be paid February salary for the period they worked and pay them for March. They started their strike on March 9th so for 21 days in March they didn’t work and based on the principles of the Labour Act, Section 43, which states no work, no pay continues, they were not due for monies for 21 days of March. So on compassionate grounds, President Buhari said ‘pay them’ and work out a special arrangement to pay them and then discuss with the accountant.

What they (Accountant General’s Office) said is that the platform, which ASUU is asking for to be used to pay them under special arrangement is no longer working, therefore, they would want a situation where they would get their BVN and they would fill forms. I am not an accountant, I don’t know why they raised doubts to this but one of the reasons I know is that between January and the April, we were talking about a lot of lecturers have retired; they had left the service. If they were on IPPIS platform, they would capture it and stop the payment automatically.

Again some of the lecturers are not present. Those who were not present, including those who were on sabbatical and those who were ghost workers and the idea of IPPIS is to fight corruption and avoid leakages and payment to unknown personnel. So, the secretary to the government of the federation got the letter and honoured the letter and made approval for them to be paid on temporary special arrangement, which I communicated to the ASUU president and he said he was going to consult with his people and he contacted me three days later to say they are sceptical about the BVN being demanded and the forms they were asked to fill; that they think it is IPPIS and I said well I don’t know which one required their biometrics.

However, I told him that an employee cannot and should not dictate to an employer how he or she should be paid. What is important is that you are paid as at when due, you are paid for quantum of work done and your payment is a compensation for the quantum of work done especially, when it is a collective agreement and you know when you are offered letter of appointment and you accept it. It is already an agreement.

For me, that is all I know about the ASUU situation and I now learnt that they have been paid and about seven universities are still outstanding and those that have not received their own are coming to us to say they have not received their own, like the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nnamdi Azikwe University, Awka and some five other universities that are pushing hard for them to be paid.

Amongst them that have been paid, some of their members have registered on IPPIS. So, it is not true that all the universities are not on IPPIS.
Some are on IPPIS and more registered during this lockdown on the account given to them by the ministry of finance.

Having gone back on its words to pay ASUU members their withheld salaries, what is the plan of government to restart negotiations and end the strike action?

Our expectation and that of the government is for ASUU to announce the calling off of the strike and come back to the negotiating table, go back to the classroom and continue negotiations. For reasons government has shown you goodwill, yes, you are in the wrong, you have gone on strike, there is an issue of no work, no pay but we are paying you. After all, the government is giving palliative to people, so, why can’t they extend it to you and family members?

Secondly, it is immoral and despicable for those who should be conducting research as Nigerians for the discovery of new drugs, new medical equipment, that we will use during this covid-19 period, playing Ludo and draft and other games.

Even if the schools were not open, ASUU members, those who are researchers are meant to be going to their laboratories, going to their botanic gardens to get some drugs to mix. This is their time and not the time for strike. Those of them that are in electronic electrical; those that are software engineers – this is the time for research to manufacture ventilators. So, it is very pathetic for them to continue saying they are on strike. They shouldn’t be saying it.

Another sister union in the universities accepted the IPPIS and enrolled into the platform. Unfortunately, it is now complaining that salaries are being deducted excessively; that there are taxations here and there and some of them haven’t received their salaries. Why is it so?

When IPPIS was introduced to the civil service, these hiccups were there and it took some time for them to be rectified. When I was in the National Assembly, we went through all this; we complained of excessive taxation at one time even now but the good thing is that IPPIS accountant general office rightly suggests, they are listening and they are addressing the problems and once the problems are addressed they pay you your arrears or deduction or whatever it is.

Why did the government rush into this platform without first test-running it?
The platform has been in use, there is nothing like rushing. What I am telling you is that they have started in universities and it is a computerised system and sometimes, the computer recognises garbage in and garbage out. How many of those members that you are talking about come forward to tell us that they are overpaid, because some of them were overpaid. Why aren’t they shouting it, because I had engaged the IPPIS office over this and it would be rectified?

It is not for you to shout let’s go back to where we were before, because where you were before the platform doesn’t exist any more. The platform that is there now is used to pay contractors, which is in hundreds of millions of monies, so, those people in the university system, college of education, polytechnics whatever the problems are, let them document and bring it and the IPPIS office will see to it.

Some unions in the health sector have also raised issues about the hazard allowance approved by FG, saying up till now, there hasn’t been any circular for its implementation?
Yes, it is work in progress but I can assure you that no union will say that they were not carried along. We held an emergency meeting here, in fact, one or two arms of the executive couldn’t come, because of the covid-19 lockdown and it is in this that we did the social distancing that was needed. The two ministers of health, their permanent secretaries, myself, people from salary, income and wages and the rest of them all and we agree that to show good faith that government should suspend the five thousand allowance for this period of the covid-19.

They made this proposals, National Association of Resident Doctors, (NARD), National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives (NANNM) and all the unions were there and their proposal was looked at and because some days before then we held an African labour and employment minister conference by zoom. Brought to the meeting, the comparative amounts being paid by Ghana, South Africa, Egypt and the rest of them and went for percentage increase, because the percentage we have now is what is obtainable in Ghana and the next thing is for us to do a memorandum of action and the meeting has been scheduled by the government side so we can work out the implementation process.

It is not only hazard allowance we discussed, we had a memorandum of understanding that will give more of them insurance, added issues from DCA in employee compensation act to take them in the cause of the work and different kind of insurance are also in the works. We also agreed on work insurance, because the Presidential Taskforce on Covid-19 (PTF) had donation of insurance for 5,000 lives from two government agencies so we can use those to do a top-up on an existing insurance and extend some to the volunteers, who are not public servants and who wouldn’t be covered by the insurance of the federal government because the federal government paid nearly N4.5 billion as first tranche of the insurance.
We also agreed that those who are in the front line, in the isolation ward and the rest of them that are battling with covid-19, Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nurses, those in the consulting room, emergency, ambulance drivers that if you are to retire within the next three months of covid-19 that while you retire you can be rolled over as a volunteer or contract staff – whatever is applicable – provided that period will not count as your pensionable services.
So, these are the things we are going to fine-tune in our next meeting with the head of services, salary and income and wages and we will then know the financial implication of what we are doing and the ministry of health would be there too and when we finish, we will then call the leadership of the unions and tell them this is our plan for the memorandum of understanding that was earlier on agreed and this is the implementation plan and if they want, we move into memorandum of action.