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‘Ordering workers to report to work by debtor states highly unreasonable’


Chima Nnaji

A Lagos-based legal practitioner Chima Nnaji told GERALDINE AKUTU that it is completely unacceptable, unjust and illegal for workers not to be paid their salaries by state governments.

Some state governments owe workers’ salaries despite bailouts and Paris Club refunds from the Federal Government. How does this impact the wellbeing of civil servants?
Even the Bible has made it clear that a labourer is worth his wages. It is the responsibility of governments the world over to ensure that the interest of the citizenry is protected against threat to security, threat to hunger or any kind of threat whatsoever, and also ensure their general wellbeing within the ambit of the law.

Therefore, it becomes very unconscionable that governments with such constitutional responsibilities would become eternally derelict in observing those simple rules of engagement. Employment is a contract.

The worker provides his time and skills, and the employer provides work on the basis of the skill the worker claims to parade. Then at the end of a period, the worker is paid to retain the job and continue to perform. So, if a worker is not paid at the end of a period after he has done his own part of the contract, then it becomes unlawful for the employer to owe him. Except there is any supervening reason that does not border on fraud, corruption, mismanagement or factors that are extraneous to the terms and conditions of the contract.

Governments that we have today are essentially peopled by incompetent, insensitive, and unconscionable people because their major interests are to accumulate wealth for the next election, forgetting that it is human beings that voted them into power. Because votes don’t usually count in these climes, they use that money to buy votes and plunder their way through violence. It is completely unacceptable, unjust and illegal for workers not to be paid their salaries. Not in the least, the government which is supposed to protect them from private employers.

Owing workers their salaries must have negative consequences on the polity?
Water must find its level. If you block water from one side, it will look for a way to escape. If you don’t pay a worker and you insist on the register being signed daily to show that he attended to work, and he continues to come without being paid in excess of one to two months, it goes to say that either he is borrowing money, stealing money or that the work provides extra income that is beyond the bargain.

The police for instance, get their payment on the road (extorting motorists and unfortunate victims). That is why sometimes you don’t have a lot of complaints from their angle. Even if their inspector general gives an order from Abuja that there should be no roadblocks, policemen in other parts of the country will ignore and continue extorting members of the public.

There is no worker whether in government or in any organisation that is not being paid for onwards of two to three months whom the employer should have the moral authority to request that such a worker should report to work. If such a worker still comes to work fairly dedicated, then there is something in the intrinsic part of that job that is providing succour beyond the wages. That might enhance corruption.

In other words it is unreasonable for debtor state governments to order civil servants to report for work?
It is highly unreasonable for debtor state governments to order civil servants to report for work because most workers will use their employer as a cover to look for other means of livelihood after signing that they have reported for work in order to cater for their families.

Since the employer has become reckless with their lives, it pushes them to look for other means of survival. You will observe that the employer will think he is smarter, but in the real sense the employees are smarter because they are using the time they are supposed to be productive to do other things outside their work environments, after which they are later paid their accumulated wages, which they did not work for.

In some schools where teachers are being owed salaries, teachers sell clothes, jewelry, pastries and all manner of things to survive. In some cases, they force their pupils to patronise them. These are issues of survival.

So, the contract of employment must involve the workers being paid their agreed salaries or wages and fulfilling other terms and conditions of employment. National productivity is monumentally affected; the rate of criminality surges, people are pushed into the wrong things for survival and desperation becomes heightened when legitimate wages are denied workers.

Are there extant laws that could empower civil servants to stay away from work until the backlogs of salaries are paid?
The law never envisaged the situation where workers are employed and don’t get paid except where the workers deliberately on their own, and without justification embark on a strike, but where you have discharged your duty effectively without any hinderance, you have to be paid. The Labour Act is very clear and it has legal provision.

Because the law allows unionisation, the union can act as a group to bring pressure to bear on employers within the ambit of that trade union, either civil servants or workers in the private sector. But individually, it would be difficult to bring pressure on a debtor employer.

But if an employee is not comfortable with the job, he can terminate the employment by giving notice and seek the payment of the salary arrears. But individual workers are stronger when bonded within the union, especially if the union has national character to bring attention to the plight of its members.

Ordinarily, the law of contract is very clear. If the employer gives you a job when he has no means of paying, he is accumulating debts. Even though the law allows redundancy, or termination of employment, the ultimate thing is to release the employee and pay him or her, what is due.

To that extent, there is no provision for extant laws to empower workers to stay away from work when they are not paid, but you have the right to walk away from employment once you exercise that right within the ambit of the law.

Before walking away, you must notify the employer that you are leaving and you must give adequate notice so that the employer will sort out your entitlements, even though it might not be immediate, but he definitely has to look for ways to defray the money because it has become a debt.

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