Strike: Bleak Yuletide for Plateau workers

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The prolonged wage dispute between the Plateau State Government and its workers may mar the Yuletide celebrations for the majority in the state, writes JUDE ONWUAMANAM

The International Crisis Group, in its latest report on the different crises in Nigeria, especially in Plateau State, entitled, ‘Curbing Violence in Nigeria (1): The Jos Crisis,’ has given a detailed analysis of the conflict in Jos. The report concluded        that unless the intermittent crises in the city was addressed, it would continue to fuel the tension created by the settler/indigene question and increase inter-communal strife across the country.

When the Brussels-based group released its report in December, little did it realise that another crisis of a national dimension may engulf Plateau if not carefully handled. For a state that has witnessed over 4,000 deaths in the last 10 years, and no prospect for an end to the crises, another self-induced crisis has been added.

Last June, the National Union of Local Government Employees in the state began a wage dispute with their employers over the implementation of the new National Minimum Wage. The workers, drawn from the 17 local government areas of the state, are demanding the implementation of the N18,000 minimum wage as signed by both the state and Federal Government.

Now, while the state government has implemented the salary regime at the state level, it insisted that it could not do so at the LG level because the funds accruable to the LG would not be enough to accommodate the increase and at the same time allow the third tier of government to carry out its statutory functions.

According to the Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, Dr. Paul Wai, while the monthly allocation to the whole LGAs is N1.9bn, the government will require about N3.2bn to pay the new minimum wage. After months of negotiations, an agreement was reached between the government and the workers that the minimum wage should be implemented 50 per cent pending when there will be an increase in the monthly allocation.

A few months after the agreement was sealed, the workers said they noticed an increase in monthly allocation to N2.2bn and therefore demanded an increase. However, Wai said that what they perceived as an increment was actually an augmentation.

But the workers disagreed and went back to the negotiation table. The government agreed to add one per cent, but the workers rejected it, preferring a five per cent increment.

Meanwhile, while the negotiations were going on, the workers were still on strike. When they eventually resumed, they demanded the payment of the six months they were on strike. That is the genesis of the current impasse. The government insisted that it would not pay them for the period they were not on duty, citing labour laws, which forbid it from paying. The matter has since become a ding-dong affair. Even the visit of the leadership of the organised labour to the state could not solve the problem.

 The organised labour gave the state government a 10-day ultimatum to pay or face a coordinated action by all the state chapters of the industrial unions in the state. The government was unperturbed. The ultimatum elapsed on Dec. 10 and the next day, labour called all its members out on the streets. But the government took panicky measures to scuttle the strike. It went to the National Industrial Court, asking it to stop the strike. The NIC did give an injunction, but the workers said they were not served.

Chairman of the Nigeria Labour Congress, Plateau State chapter, Mr. Jibrin Bancir, said the government had never implemented no-work-no-pay rule and that the unions mentioned decided to go back to work after interventions by well-meaning citizens of the state and considering the security situation in the area.

“If there had been such antecedents, of course, we would have taken a second look at our stand, but there had not been,” Bancir says. He was supported by the chairman of the NMA, Dr. Chris Yilgwan.

Yilgwan says, “NMA has at no time accepted the no-work-no-pay policy as widely claimed by the government, but rather directed its members working for the state to suspend their earlier strike in 2011 to alleviate the suffering of the citizens. Up till this moment, our members are waiting to be paid their entitlements for those months as jointly agreed and signed by representatives of the government and labour in 2011.”

NMA was not alone. The Academic Staff Union of Polytechnics, which is also in a wage dispute with the state government, says it never entered into such agreement. ASUP National President, Mr. Chibuzor Asomugha, berated the state government for its recalcitrance.

He says, “The government in Plateau State has provided enough evidence for the public to conclude that it is allergic to a compromise that could have helped the state to retrace its straying steps. While patriotic members of the intellectual community in other states have embraced the strategy of returning home to help in building their state institutions, those from Plateau are leaving state services, lacking all interest to work at home because of the suffocating and frustrating working environment.”

Unfortunately, in the face of this situation, the more embarrassing is the inaction of the state House of Assembly. Though the lawmakers asked the governor to pay the arrears to save the state from being plunged into chaos, they could not enforce the resolution.

For now, the economy of the state has totally been shut down. It is also going to get worse if the NLC carried out its threat to embark on a national strike if the Jonah Jang-led administration refused to bulge. For two weeks now, banks in the state have shut their doors to customers, while telecommunications providers have taken a cue from them. Citizens throng banks daily waiting to transact one business or the other, only to have the doors slammed on their faces.

All the markets in Jos are almost empty, with more sellers and fewer buyers. With less than 72 hours to Christmas and no solution in sight, residents, indeed, face a bleak celebration.

The Movement for the Creation of South Plateau State,  berated the state government for pushing itself to a cul de sac.

The group, through its Secretary, Prof. John Wade, says, “Government has lamentably found itself in an embarrassing situation and is unable to resolve the issues. The situation is fast degenerating such that houses of government officials, as well as elected representatives of the people have either been burnt or destroyed with even more threats to their families. Top government functionaries have been forced to go underground or relocate to neighbouring states for fear of their lives.”

He pleaded with Jang to lean backwards in the same manner and pay with immediate effect the amount agreed upon, including all the arrears.

 A former senator, Mr. V. K Dangin, expressed dismay at “the insensitivity of the government” to workers in the state. But another group, under the auspices of Plateau Indigenous Professionals, decried the violence that had attended the protests and called on labour to reconsider its position.

The group’s spokesman, Mr. David Dakwal, said using hired hoodlums, masquerading as labour leaders, to maim and burn houses did not speak well of organised labour.

He says, “The situation we have been witnessing since last Tuesday at Langtang South, Kanke, Pankshin and Mangu LGs is a far cry from what the law permits because houses of elected representatives of the people have been burnt by mobs hired hoodlums masquerading as protesting workers.”

Dakwal, however, appealed to labour to allow banks and other commercial activities to thrive in Jos and other parts of the state. “What we need in Plateau at the moment is peace that will be enduring and respect for constitutional authorities; people should not be allowed to operate as if they are above the law,” he says.

Youths in the state have also joined the call for peace. Plateau Youths for Good Governance, through its President, John Sheku, expressed worry over the strike, saying that the leadership of the national labour union lacked diplomacy in their negotiations but employed militancy in dictating how the national minimum wage negotiation should go.

 The state government has, however, stuck to its guns. In the latest offer, the government has reiterated its willingness to pay the striking LG workers their October to December salaries. Director-General, Research and Documentation, Government House, Mr. Chris Kwaja, says the payment will be made if the workers suspend their strike and return to work, while negotiation continues with the verification and staff audit also being carried out.

But Bancir says the offer is not new. “This is what they have been offering and it is not new. We must be paid from June and nothing short of that.”

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