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Southeast governors have never seen workers’ welfare as priority —Comrade Ugwu

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PHOTO: Ladidi Lucy Elukpo.

Former leader, Enugu Workers’ Forum and now President, International Solidarity for Peace and Human Rights Initiative, Comrade Osmond Ugwu, in this interview with LAWRENCE NJOKU, explained why the approved minimum wage should be paid without further negotiations, among others

What is your view on the N30, 000 minimum wage?
There is this popular saying that half bread is better than none. But honestly, N30, 000 minimum wage at this time is equivalent to nothing, in view of the economic situation in the country and the level of inflation. If you convert the new wage, I don’t think it is up to 10 dollars.

If you consider a worker’s responsibilities in terms of accommodation, especially here in Enugu, the cost of foodstuffs and transportation, you will agree that N30, 000 cannot carry a worker from the first day of the month to the last day.

But it has been negotiated and accepted. I expected Labour to have insisted on the N50, 000 they earlier demanded. It is not as if N50, 000 can do anything, but it is better than this N30, 000 they negotiated.

Governors, who spend our money on irrelevant things, are saying they cannot pay. How much does a governor receive? He is a public officer and by every standard, a citizen, just like the worker. And the governor does not spend a kobo of his salary to pay rent, fuel his vehicles and even pay school fees. Everything about a governor is purely on public purse, and he is saying his worker should not receive more than N30, 000.

There used to be means of transporting workers to their workplaces, just like there used to be certain essential commodities for workers. But all these have been withdrawn and yet, they cannot pay N30, 000. It is unfortunate.

Some governors said they have to increase charges in their states to generate more revenues before they can pay…
The issue is that, especially here in Enugu, government capitalises on the people’s weaknesses and ignorance. They use intimidation to do anything they like. If you increase fees, who are the people that will pay these fees? Are they not the same workers?

Here in Enugu, the only flourishing industry is public service. There is no other industry. The present government is not talking about establishing industries, or even resuscitating those that are moribund. The Nigergas in Emene has been abandoned. An individual who established gas industry here knows how much he makes at the end of the month.

I am not talking about the aluminum industry or Niger Flour Mills and many others that should be generating employment and revenues to run government.

They are not talking about workers’ welfare. They are talking about increasing cost of services. In as much as I believe Federal Government should increase state allocations, I don’t in any way subscribe to increase in the services coming to the states. Aside civil service, tell me any other job that people in the states do that can enable them realise capital to offset these responsibilities. We will oppose it when it comes. If they manage what they get judiciously, they can pay. The problem is that they are wasteful.

Several billions of naira had come into states as Paris Club refund, but what did the state governments use it for? They renovated few roads and people are clapping. Yet, the workers are hungry, pensions are not paid. If you compare the level of resources coming into the states, I do not know why any governor will refuse to pay.

Let me quickly observe that this issue of minimum wage is above the governors. It is purely a constitutional matter, and they cannot talk about it once it has been prescribed by the Federal Government. The issue is in Federal Government’s exclusive list within the Constitution, and it is not subject to further negotiation. This is one of the issues that have been generating crisis here. When minimum wage has been agreed upon and people return to say they want to negotiate. What are you negotiating and on what platform? There is no law that allows you further negotiation.

The 1999 Constitution as amended, in the second schedule part 1, no. 34, says clearly that governors have no option than to implement it.

Some Southeast Governors are bogged down by pensions arrears. Do you think they can pay the new wage with this burden?
It is a matter of priority. The fact is that governments in the Southeast have never seen workers’ welfare as priority. They see workers as a conquered people that should not be reckoned with. And this is because labour leaders in the zone are not serious. How can you be a labour leader and the same government you serve is owing workers salaries for several months and you still call yourself a labour leader? Without these workers, can you generate those funds?

Inability to pay workers is not due to lack of the funds. It is simply because they don’t consider it a priority. While in office, the Governors pass a law that will ensure they earn gratuities until they die. But they didn’t think of workers’ pension, when doing this. Workers’ salary is supposed to be on the first line charge in the consolidated revenue. What this means is that nothing should be done without first of all settling workers, but that is not the case.

It is unfortunate what is happening in Abia, Imo, Ebonyi and Enugu States. That is why many workers are dying.

Constitutionally, every five years or anytime there was increase in minimum wage, workers’ pension is reviewed to meet up with the challenges of the time. But tell me the last time civil servants’ pension was reviewed.

How can this matter be handled without friction between workers and government, so that each party can perform effectively?
There are two issues: sincerity of purpose and priority of government. This is a region, where governors claim they don’t have money to pay workers, but the governors appointed several Personal Assistants and Special Advisers, who go about doing nothing and contributing nothing to the state development and revenue drive. Each of these PAs receives not less than N100, 000 monthly for doing nothing. It is a matter of priority.

Government used to publish its income and expenditure before now for people to see, but can any of them summon the courage to publish that presently? The Federal Government took care of the accumulated arrears of salaries, when it released the Paris Club fund. But many Southeast governors diverted the money into other areas. That is why you still have arrears being owed everywhere.

Check it very well. Among the states that receive monthly allocation, are southeast states the least? There are some states in the North that do not receive IGR aside tax, but they are paying.

We are the architects of our problems. We are not being sincere to ourselves. We are not sincere as governors. We are greedy and only interested in personal enrichment. I have not seen that governor in the Southeast that is interested in workers, except Peter Obi. He left a standard in Anambra. He was paying pension, salaries and gratuities, but it is not so with the governors we have now.

Look at Imo and Abia States. Are they not part of oil producing states? Aside mismanagement of resources and employment of thousands of aides who contribute nothing, are they sincere about governance? Do they follow due process, when awarding contracts? Look at the secretariat they are building in Enugu here. The last administration spent over N15bn, yet, it has not been completed.

What do you think should be workers’ attitude in this circumstance?
The people responsible for workers’ woes are the labour leaders. They are comfortable. They collect check off dues of workers and money from government and overlook their primary responsibilities. I am sad to hear that Labour is negotiating the new minimum wage after it had been approved and signed into law.

So, the states going into negotiation are working purely against the law. They don’t have any legal backing or locus to go into such negotiation after the various national organs had concluded and passed it into law. That is the problem we are having in the Southeast. Many of the labour leaders are ignorant. They know next to nothing about labour laws and constitutional provisions. And some of them that know capitalise on the majority’s ignorance to manipulate them anyhow.

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These people are too corrupt, and some of them know that what they are doing is wrong. You don’t negotiate after negotiation. You don’t have power to do so, because we are operating a Constitution. This is a constitutional democracy and everything must be strictly by the rule of law.

The last minimum wage review was in 2006 and constitutionally, the minimum wage is supposed to be reviewed every five years. As it is, we have gone past eight years and no new increase. Now, a new one has come and signed into law and people are going into negotiation. We need Labour leaders that are interested in their people’s welfare and not the ones who use them to make money.

This brings me to those who said they are waiting for the National Wages and Salaries Commission. There is nothing new to expect than the circulars they will issue on salary structure to the Ministries and agencies for implementation.

That circular will only explain how the N30, 000 came about. It will contain basic salary, housing and other utilities. We are not expecting that they will just add N30, 000 to salaries. If you look at past minimum wage, for instance, when N18, 000 was approved, some states were already paying more than N18, 000.

I think workers in the Southeast should prepare for the struggle because, minimum wage, has never been paid without struggle. So, I expect a repeat of strikes and what have you in this region, because of the kind of people we have as leaders.

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