There is no better way to undermine the economy of a state than for a.governor to deliberately owe the workers who contribute to the state’s growth. This practice has been going on for decades without any serious consequences as deterrence. Whether they are workers in active duties or pensioners, state governors have a responsibility to meet their own part of the deal.
Who then should workers report such labour violation to and get justice? Whenever a labourer goes home from work without being paid after sweating it out for the employer, hearts are broken and the survival of families threatened. And when the culprit is the highest ranking individual in a democratic setting, it becomes very frightening. In some states in Nigeria, the governors, who are also the chief security officers owe workers for months and carry on as if everything is alright. They know the workers have families and other dependants to take care of. So, why owe instead of paying workers?
The former President of Trade Union Congress (TUC), Peter Esele, feels it is the height of irresponsibility for governments to shamelessly abandon their responsibilities to the people they govern. He adds: “It is particularly worrying that a government that makes laws compelling employers to pay salaries is itself going against such laws…”
But the governors may not realize that their action cost their states huge economic setbacks as highly unmotivated and discouraged workers underperform at work. Still, as the chief economic officers of their respective states, they are supposed to create the enabling environment for economic activities to thrive. Some public workers are known to have sabotaged work in their section because of unpaid wages. How can workers be committed in their duties knowing fully that they won’t be paid at the end of the month?
With national minimum wage still at N30,000, the delay or outright refusal by state governors to pay their workers amounts to economic crime against their states. It took the Federal Government months of negotiation with the organized labour to settle for N30,000 minimum wage in 2019 at a time the naira was exchanged at N362 to a dollar. In the calculation of the Federal Government, a thousand naira a day spread across 30 days was good for the least paid worker in public service. The Federal Government has always kept it’s own side of the deal by paying workers under it’s employ as at when due. But the government has not come up with a law to stop state governments from toiling with the lives of workers.
Law on owed wages
Acording to labour law, when workers are owed more than 10 days after a 30-day work cycle has ended, they can seek redress in court if other lawful means of getting their salaries fail. The Nigerian Labour Act protects every class of workers including those in private and public workers as defined under Section 91 of the Labour Act.
Section (15) of the Act clearly states that;“wages shall become due and payable at the end of each period for which the contract is expressed to subsist, that is to say, daily, weekly or at such other period as may in agreed upon.” A major handicap of the Labour Act is that it does not make provision for any sanction to employers that disobey the Act.
In a move to address this issue, the House of Representatives is working on a bill to send employers that fail to pay their employees for more than 60 days to six months imprisonment. The bill also seeks one-month imprisonment for any employer that owes salaries for more than 60. The bill, which is co-sponsored by the Speaker of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila and Hassan Fulata (APC, Jigawa), was introduced on 7 March 2019. It passed for second reading.
Section 4 provides that “an employer shall not hold on to the salary, wage, pension or any other benefit and emolument of any workman for a period of seven days and above from the day the payment of such salary, wage, pension, and any other benefit and emolument falls due save in the event of any force majure.”
Claims and counter claims
A disturbing fact about salary arrears is that whenever workers embark on a protest over their plight, the government counters by claiming they are not owing. This creates confusion as people decide on the party to believe. For instance, in Kogi State, workers and Governr Yahaya Bello disagreed openly as workers claimed he owed them 39 months salary in 2019. They also dismissed his claim that he spent the N20 billion Federal Government bailout fund on payment of salary and pensions.
Similarly, in Cross Rivers State where aome workers claim they had not received any salaries since their employment between 2017 and 2018 despite undergoing screening and verification, the government said it owed nobody.
“The government has made us undergo two screening and verification to resolve the issue, yet the issue remains the same. Each time the government complains of no money, and yet, he gives out hundreds of political appointments each week. Where is he getting the money to pay them?”
“Cross River government is one state that has placed a great premium on the welfare of its workforce, in spite of the challenging revenue inflows,” responded the head of service, Ogbang Akwaji, on behalf of the government.
On November 1, 2022, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) petitioned the Governor of Abia State, Okezie Ikpeazu over owed arrears of salaries. In the letter, NLC said it was unfortunate that Abia State was turning out to become one of the country’s most worker-unfriendly state governments.
The letter signed by NLC President, Ayuba Wabba said: “It is on record that the Abia State Government owes workers and pensioners in the following establishments: “Local Government Employees – three months’ salaries. Staff of Abia State University Teaching Hospital (ABSUTH) – 23 months’ salary arrears, Secondary School Teachers – (11 months) of salaries, Primary School Teachers – (3 months) salaries, Pensioners in Abia State (30 months’ pension benefits), and Pensioners in the Judiciary sector owed pension benefits from February 2021 to date)….
“In the event that the Abia State Government continues to play the ostrich with the lives of workers and pensioners, the Nigeria Labour Congress will be left with no option than to deploy the full weight of the power of trade unions and workers in the country,” NLC saiid