By Onyebuchi Ezigbo
The Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, has said that the federal government may be forced to drag the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) before the National Arbitration Panel and even the National Industrial Court if it fails to respond to invitation for negotiation.
He urged the striking ASUU to take the opportunity of a recent invitation by the federal government to return to the roundtable.
The minister said that he had invited the leadership of the union for a zoom meeting, but they insisted on meeting him face to face.
“I invited ASUU for a zoom meeting in compliance with World Health Organisation (WHO) and National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) Covid-19 guidelines, but they insisted on meeting me face to face. We have labour laws,” he said.
ASUU had said that negotiations via zoom will not be able to produce the desired solution to the lingering dispute.
It said that for it to suspend the strike, the federal government must make substantial progress in addressing their key demands which include payment of arrears of earned allowances, revitalization fund, and constituting visitation panels for federal universities.
However, Ngige warned that if the union refuses to come to the roundtable, the federal government may resort to labour laws to see what can be done.
He said: “The law permits the federal government to take the union to the National Arbitration Panel and even the National Industrial Court.”
According to a statement by his media aide, Emmanuel Nzomiwu, the minister spoke in his hometown, Alor, Anambra State where he donated palliatives worth N15 million to vulnerable households to cushion the effects of Covid-19 pandemic on them.
He said the ASUU strike was all about the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), adding that “any other reason given by ASUU is an alibi.”
Ngige accused the leadership of the union of deceiving the members and not telling them the truth.
“We have hierarchy of arbitration. There is the National Arbitration Panel. If I am tired, I can refer it to the National Arbitration Panel. If I am tired, I can refer it to the National Industrial Court. The better thing for them is to come and negotiate on firsthand basis where we are not bringing an external arbitrator,” Ngige said.
The minister described the position of ASUU in the dispute with the federal government as laughable, saying: “As an employee, you lack the right to dictate for your employers how to receive wages.
“It is even in the International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention on wages. You cannot dictate for your employers how to pay you. But the important thing is for your salaries and wages to come to you. As a workman, you receive your pay as compensation for services rendered. So, that is on the statute everywhere.
“But for some strange reasons, this has been an issue with the Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities. Why? they claimed that they are being migrated from the GFMIS (Government Integrated Financial Management Information (GFMIS) platform to the IPPIS).”
Ngige said that the federal government has complained that it was losing a lot of money paying lecturers from the GFMIS platform, which only transmits money for your salaries to the university system through the Bursar’s office, from where they are paid.
“The anomalies are that, one, some of the people are ghost workers. They don’t exist at all but their names exist and they are drawing money from the federal government.
“Some people receive more than their due because after the salaries, some who are teaching in various other universities are supposed to take 50 per cent as extra pay for teaching in that other universities and the maximum universities they should teach is two. Some teach in three, some teach in four universities.
“Again, the taxes that are being deducted by your bursar and your Vice Chancellor’s are not reflective of the taxes of PAYE (Pay As You Earn). They are not and because they are not, the shortfall of the taxes that are deducted, the various state governments, the various state governments where the universities are domiciled have petitioned the Joint Tax Board (JTB) to demand for this shortfalls, to demand for this shortfalls,” Ngige said.
The minister said over some time the shortfalls in tax deduction accumulated to over N800 billion, and JTB penalised the federal government for these monies not paid to the states.
He added that the federal government from the office of the Accountant General of the Federation paid over N800 billion to states.
Ngige further lamented the uncompromising attitude of ASUU in the dispute.
He said not minding that the strike, which commenced on March 9 did not follow due process, he brought the lecturers to a roundtable with the Federal Ministry of Education and the Accountant General of the Federation.
“We had discussions and they now said that some of the agreements we had in Memorandum of Action 2019 were not implemented vigorously and we agreed that they will be paid 25 billion for their earned academic allowances and another N25 billion for revitalization of university system.
“The federal government paid the first tranche of N50 billion, N25 billion and N25 billion. Thereafter, there was the issue of National Minimum Wage. Flowing from National Minimum Wage, there was the issue of consequential adjustment on that minimum wage, which cost the federal government N160 billion. I negotiated it.
“The federal government had to pay retroactively with effect from when the president signed the National Minimum Wage. So, the federal government could not pay ASUU the next tranche of N25 billion because it was due to be paid in October last year. They said there is a breach.
“We said we are owing, that we can pay it. So, we restructured it and agreed that the government can pay them N20 billion and another N20 billion for earned academic allowances between April 2020 and May. We all agreed,” Ngige said.
The minister said the federal government even agreed to test the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) system proposed by ASUU to encourage presidential order 5 on local production, but the union asked for 18 months to enable its researchers conclude work on it.
He said the government side recommended that ASUU should migrate to the IPPIS while waiting for their researchers to conclude work on UNITAS and bring it for integrity test for all parties to agree, but the union refused to return to the roundtable.