Thursday, 30th November 2023

FG dangles N35,000 wage top-up, others as Labour revisits decision

By Joseph Onyekwere, Gloria Nwafor (Lagos) and Terhemba Daka (Abuja)
02 October 2023   |   4:35 am
In a last-minute effort to stall the indefinite strike billed to commence tomorrow, the Federal Government has again sought concessions with labour unions by presenting new offers for consideration.

Femi Gbajabiamila PHOTO: Twitter

• High implicit taxes, inflation to wipe out additional pay
• Fears over fate of Atiku, Obi appeals as judicial workers join strike

In a last-minute effort to stall the indefinite strike billed to commence tomorrow, the Federal Government has again sought concessions with labour unions by presenting new offers for consideration.

Chief of Staff to the President, Femi Gbajabiamila, announced the update on the decision earlier made by the President, Bola Tinubu, during his Independence Day Broadcast to the nation on Sunday.

According to the Presidency, after further consultation, President Tinubu increased the intervention funds from N25,000 to N35,000 for the next six months for all Federal Workers.

Indeed, the meeting called by the Federal Government to resolve the grey areas for which the Organised Labour had issued a threat to go on indefinite strike, ended on an inconclusive note, as the two labour unions agreed to consult with their National Executive Councils (NEC) today over the new proposal thrown on the table by government.

Conveying part of the outcome of the meeting, which began at 3p.m. to State House correspondents, Gbajiabiamila said: “Thank you for the long hours you’ve been here. We’ve been at a closed-door meeting with labour and government side since three o’clock. So, it’s been over four hours.

“A lot of issues were addressed; issues that concern the Nigerian worker. I can’t begin to reel them out here. But I am happy to say that after four hours, we have reached certain agreements that are for the benefit of the Nigerian worker.

“Agreements on the wage bill, on committees on salary increment, CNG buses, and several other things, I believe, we have made some progress with both the TUC, Labour and government side.

“Hopefully, we expect that Labour will call a meeting of their various branches and executive tomorrow to present the agreements that have been reached, and we pray and we believe and hope that the strike will be called off on Tuesday.

“There was a lot of chatter on Twitter about the issue of low-income workers only falling into the category of the wage bill. They spotted that and we communicated that to Mr President and he quickly agreed that all categories of workers will be given the wage bill. There’s nothing like low-income, mid-income or high-income. I think that’s worthy of clarification tonight.”

NLC President, Joe Ajaero, in his remarks, said: “I don’t have much to say other than what the Chief of Staff has said. We’ve been meeting and we’ve looked at almost all the issues, all the promissory notes from the government and how to translate them to reality and be workable. We’re going to take those promises to our organs. Of course, you know the people here cannot just wake up and review and call off action.”

Among some of the resolutions that all parties at the meeting agreed to was that the Federal Government has announced N35,000 only as a provisional wage increment for all treasury-paid federal workers for six months.

The closed-door meeting equally resolved that the Federal Government must show commitment in fast-tracking the provision of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) buses to ease public transportation difficulties associated with the removal of PMS subsidy, while also committing to the provision of funds for micro and small-scale enterprises.

They also agreed that VAT on diesel will be waived for the next six months, while the Federal Government commences payment of N75,000 to 15 million households at N25,000 per month, for a three-month period from October to December 2023.

Another major highlight of the meeting was that the issues in dispute would only be resolved when workers are at work and not when they are on strike, preempting a call off of the indefinite strike billed to begin tomorrow.

A statement by the presidency last night indicated that Labour unions argued for higher wage award and the Federal Government team promised to present Labour’s request to President Tinubu for further consideration.

To this end, they resolved that a sub-committee should be constituted to work out the details of implementation of all items for consideration regarding government interventions to cushion the effect of fuel subsidy removal.

“The lingering matter of the Road Transport Employees Association of Nigeria (RTEAN) and National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) in Lagos State needs to be addressed urgently and Lagos State governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, who participated virtually, pledged to resolve the matter.

“NLC and TUC will consider the offers by the Federal Government with a view to suspending the planned strike to allow for further consultations on the implementation of the resolutions above,” all the stakeholders agreed.

Governor Abdulrazak Abdulrahman of Kwara State and Chairman of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF), and Governor Dapo Abiodun of Ogun State, participated virtually in the meeting, chaired by the Chief of Staff to the President, Femi Gbajabiamila.

In attendance were the Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Wale Edun; Minister of Information and National Orientation, Mohammed Idris; Minister of Labour and Employment, Simon Lalong; Minister of State, Labour, Nkeiruka Onyejeocha; Minister of Budget and Economic Planning, Abubakar Atiku Bagudu; Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, Betta Edu; Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Doris Uzoka-Anite; Head of Service of the Federation, Dr. Folasade Yemi-Esan; and the National Security Adviser (NSA), Mallam Nuhu Ribadu.

The labour delegation was led by NLC President, Joe Ajaero; Deputy President, TUC, Dr Tommy Etim Okon; NLC General Secretary, Emma Ugboaja; TUC General Secretary, Nuhu Toro, among others.

Earlier before the negotiation meeting ended last night, Organised Labour had kicked against the N25,000 monthly provisional wage increase for the average low-grade federal civil servants in the country, saying the scheme amounts to an insult to Nigerian workers and falls short of what its members require to sheathe their swords.

The position of the labour organisations came hours after President Tinubu, in his 63rd Independence Day speech, announced a six-month provisional wage increase for some low workers in the country, it was meant to enhance their wages without causing undue inflation.

Amid rising hardship, the organised labour demands an immediate review of the minimum wage, which was last reviewed in 2019. The labour leaders demanded a N200,000 wage floor, triggering a debate on the right and just minimum wage a Nigerian worker should be entitled to.

Nigeria sits among the countries with the lowest minimum wages across the globe. Even in Africa, a country where the country prides itself as the economic powerhouse, Nigerian workers are among the least paid. Supposing yesterday’s raise is sustained, the monthly wage floor amounts to $72, making the country the 14th least paying country (judging by wage floor) among African countries ranked by Only 27 countries are ranked by the platform.

Whereas Nigerians are poorly paid, they also contend with elevated inflation, pegged at over 25 per cent in August, and high implicit taxes (taxes borne but not recorded or seen like the cost of bad roads on motorists), which the President of the African Development Bank, Dr Akinwunmi Adesina, described as among the highest in the world.

But with close to 100 per cent of the Federal Government’s revenues going into debt services, experts have raised concerns about the whole general increase in wages of civil servants would create in government revenue and raise an important question in the wage debate – the ability to pay.

Like the government, the private sector operators are equally battling with existential challenges, ranging from the rising cost of energy, double taxation, high cost of funds to foreign exchange (FX) scarcity. A survey by the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN) said the confidence in the business environment had dropped to a two-year low in the first half of the year – a situation that has also questioned the ability of the private sector to level up with the demand of new wages.

MEANWHILE, as the National Executive Council (NEC) of the NLC and TUC prepare to embark on indefinite strike and “total shutdown of the nation” from October 3, the decision by the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) to join in the strike, has equally raised concerns about the fate of the appeals filed by the candidates of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) Atiku Abubakar and that of the Labour Party (LP) Peter Obi before the Supreme Court as well as others before the court of appeal and various Tribunals.

This is because Section 285 of the 1999 Constitution (as altered) stipulates that appeals arising from election disputes must be heard and determined within 60 days.

If the shutdown stands with judicial workers joining as they have indicated in their circular, there are fears that it may encroach into the time permitted by law to determine election cases.

However, while some lawyers have allayed the fears and concerns about such delays that may jeopardise the chances of those cases being determined within time and on merit, others warned that the judiciary must find a way to avert such occurrence.

Abubakar Sani, Kano-based Attorney, believes that the strike will have no effect on the appeals, going by the recent amendment to section 285 of the Constitution, which negates the time limit when there are emergencies.

He said: “A recent amendment to the Constitution negates such events; they are regarded as force majeure and any time lost to the industrial action will not be reckoned in terms of the constitutional periods for taking any steps in the petition or even delivery of judgment.”

Section 285 of the Principal Act was altered by inserting after subsection (13), a new subsection (13A).

Section 13A says: “For the purpose of this section, where there is a natural disaster, war or any State or national emergency or any other “force majeure” that prevents the filing of a pre-election matter, election petition, sitting of a court over a pre-election matter or the sitting of an election petition tribunal or appellate court, the period of the natural disaster, war, State or national emergency or any other “force majeure” shall not be reckoned with in the computation of time under subsections (5), (6), (7), (9), (10), (11) and (12) of this section.”

Also, Ibadan-based Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Yomi Alliyu explained that anything that happened outside the control of the parties qualifies for the exemptions provided in the amended Section 285, and so, will not affect the time limit.

“Anything outside the powers and control of parties to the election petition or something that affects the majority of Nigerians adversely will be tagged a state of emergency and this will definitely include strike.

“This makes days affected by the strike uncountable for purposes of filing, hearing and judgment in election petition proceedings by virtue of the 5th amendment amending S.285 (13A) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999,” he pointed out.

Expressing optimism that the appeals will not be caught by time, labour law expert, Folabi Kuti (SAN) insisted that the strike will not be a frustrating element in the appeal, considering the time still left to hear them.

He added that in any event, the apex will be able to get around it and ensure that the appeals are heard regardless of any strike.

Kuti said: “Going by the uninterrupted flow of time-count for step(s) to take in the petitions cycle or hearing, it would not be a frustrating element. Put more concisely, the strike is not likely to affect or avail as latitude for (extending) timeline for the hearing. The Supreme Court will likely still be able to get around the hearing as the strike action may not affect the Court.”

However, the Executive Director, Access to Justice, Mr Joseph Otteh believes that it would create profound constitutional complexities if electoral courts are unable to carry on with the adjudication of electoral complaints and abide by the provisions of Sec. 285 of the Constitution, which has limited the time for the delivery of judgments and appeals in election cases.

According to him, given the strategic importance of resolving election petitions within the delimited time period, and what a failure to complete those cases could mean, the JUSUN should probably, out of inexorable necessity, feel the need to exempt those of their staff on those assignments from the strike.

“Otherwise, the strike action might play into the hands of those incumbents whose interests it will be to frustrate courts and tribunals from scrutinising the validity of their elections.

“The judiciary should not be caught off-guard by the prospect that JUSUN might join the strike. Court administrators knew, beforehand, that election petitions have fixed timelines for their resolution.

“So, it is expected that preparatory arrangements for election tribunals must include contingency planning, so that tribunals can deliver their outputs (judgments) within constitutionalised timeframes, even where regular components of judicial administration– such as JUSUN staff – are not readily available,” he argued.

Otteh expressed the hope that there is a back-up system that can be deployed to enable tribunals/courts to function even in the absence of JUSUN staff, given the huge significance of what is at stake.

According to him, if election courts do not function as a result of JUSUN joining the strike, it is not a fait-accompli, as it will not be an excuse for the judiciary not to carry on with its business and deliver its assignment within the allocated time.

“It will simply imply that the Judiciary was not adequately prepared for its assignment and must take full responsibility for not meeting the challenge,” he charged.

Emphasising the importance of time specific nature of election petitions, former publicity secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr Kunle Edu said the Supreme Court recently set aside a judgment of the Court of Appeal in an election petition delivered outside the mandatory 60 days period provided by law.

He, however, noted that it was in realisation of such unforeseen factors the 5th Alteration to the 1999 Constitution now recognises extreme situations that may occur out of human control as exceptions to the general rule.

“In this light, JUSUN strike will certainly affect the sitting of the various Election Petitions Tribunals but the duration of the strike may be considered and excluded from the number of days required by law to hear petitions.

“However, I know that during strike periods like this, special arrangements are also made by JUSUN to allow their members assigned to Tribunal duties to continue working.

“Talking about the politicians having a special way to cater for themselves, while the ordinary Nigerians continue to have their cases suffer delays in court,” he noted.

The Executive Director, Sterling Law Centre, Deji Ajare, said judicial workers joining the proposed industrial action by organised labour could potentially have debilitating effects on the courts, thereby creating uncertainty in the polity, and ultimately undermine public confidence in the judiciary.

This, he said, is even going to be worse when one considers the fact that a large proportion of Nigerians are already dissatisfied with the outcome of the Presidential election results and the judgment of the tribunal.