Thursday, June 13, 2024
Politics

Otti should clear salary arrears inherited from Ikpeazu – Abia NLC chair

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Chairman of the Nigerian Labour Congress in Abia State, Okoro Ogbonnaya, speaks to IMOLEAYO OYEDEYI on the ongoing feud with the state government over seven-month unpaid salaries to workers in the state who haven’t scaled through the state verification, among other issues

Recently, the Abia State Government denied that it directed civil servants in the state to undertake a new round of verification, saying the claim by both the Nigerian Labour Congress and the Peoples Democratic Party was not true. What is your reaction to this?

What do they mean? Anyway, the information and the directive they earlier gave was that civil servants at the local government MDAs and parastatals should upload their certificates online, including all other documents they have. We (the state NLC) viewed it as unnecessary because this is the fourth time such a verification exercise will be conducted. But instead of solving the problem, the exercise has created more problems.

Many workers in Abia State have not collected their four, five months, six months, and even seven months’ salary. As a result of this, we (the NLC) believe that the government should have put more effort into solving the problems that the first verification exercise caused by seeking a way to resolve the issue of workers who were not paid after the exercise as a result of what they called ‘Code number’.

When we asked who gave the code number, we saw that it was the same government contractor handling the verification exercise. So we said before talking about any other exercise, let us handle the first one and resolve the issues of the workers suffering from the problems it created. Meanwhile, when you talk about online uploading and verification of certificates, what it means is that you are giving a broad way to people even outside the country to upload their documents, because it is garbage in, garbage out. So, that was what we told them.

We felt that in as much as we are partners in progress, the government should consider the labour when implementing some of these policies so that we can know whether it is detrimental to the welfare of the workers or profitable to them. That was the reason we issued a circular on Saturday so that the government would come, invite the Labour (NLC) and we put heads together to find a way out of the problem.

You said the latest verification was the fourth. Can you shed more light on the programme, especially when it all began?

The exercise started when the current administration came into power. Even now, across various ministries, they are still doing physical exercises (verification) to know whether we have ghost workers in the state civil service. When we met with the state governor, he told us to help him fish out the ghost workers in the system. But our question has been: is online verification assisting the government in detecting ghost workers? This is because several exercises have been conducted in the state since the beginning of the current administration. But instead of detecting the ghost workers, more problems have been created.

The last one was APMATH, and it hindered people from collecting their salaries because at the end of every month, some people will not be paid, and the government will say that they have issues with their verification code number. We then asked who generated the code; we noticed it was the same government. In some of the problems, for instance, if a person were bearing Angela Chijioke when she was single and changed her name to Angela Obi after getting married, the officials would say because the names did not tally, the person would not be paid.

What they should have done is to tell the person to bring a court affidavit and a newspaper publication for a change of name, which has been the civil service arrangement. But this has not been what they are doing. That was why we said, ‘No, let us do the right thing at the right time first, not the right thing at the wrong time’.

So, what you are saying is that it is the issue that came up after each of the verifications that has been preventing the salaries of some workers from being paid.

Yes! As we speak, go to the local government, and you will see that some of them are owed seven months, some are owed five months, and some are owed four months since the verification began. So, what are we talking about? You are trying to correct the system, yet you are creating more problems. Is that how to go?

But many people have said the state is battling with many ghost workers consuming its resources monthly. If it is not by verification, how then do you think the state government can know the actual people who are working?

When those handling the exercise are habouring people from outside the state, how come that after the exercise, we still hear of ghost workers? Who made them scale through the verification? Is it not the officials? Mind you, we have discovered that the so-called ghost workers are children of government officials studying abroad; some are not even civil servants; some are just students, yet they are earning salaries from the state government.

So, that has been the problem. If you say you are carrying out such an exercise, and at the end of the day, you still find many people on the state payroll collecting salaries, yet unknown; it simply means someone has passed them during the exercise despite being ghost workers.

But the real people working, physically present in the state civil service, and have done the online verification are still not being paid at the end of the month. What do you call that situation? All we hear is that the affected people have problems with their verification code. Who is fooling who?

How then do you think the state government should have conducted the exercise?

That was why we said that the government should not put Labour aside, because we are partners in progress. Remember we are closer to the people who have their ears on the ground and know the workers. In every ministry, every worker there knows who truly works there. So, if the government gives us the chance, we will fish out the ghost workers.

They should not just put us aside and call on us when a problem arises. Let them carry us along. We may even be able to communicate the policies better to the masses because we understand their language and needs more. That is what we are saying.

But what is the government saying to those not getting their monthly salaries in the state due to the verification issues?

Nothing! Up till now, it has been nothing from the government. Yet, the people are groaning under heavy hardship. Every day, they visit the Commissioner for Finance office and Accountant General’s office, but all to no avail. They will ask them to report to the Accounts Department, the Payroll (Unit), and all that, but nothing has come out of the whole movement.

If care is not taken, the issue will linger for one year, because the names of the affected people are not even in the state government payment system. After all, they don’t have verification codes. Mind you, those that are even verified are still being owed. Some are owed three months, some are four months. That is why we are asking: what is the problem? Why are the verified people not being paid for three to four months? So they (The government) know what they are doing.

Are you saying that even those who have been verified by the government as real workers in the state are still not being paid?

Yes. Some people who have been verified were not paid for three or four months.

But what did the government say is the reason for that?

You have to solve that riddle. You, a journalist, can also help us ask them the reason. Ask the government that we, the NLC and TUC, have said that across the ministries, many workers have been verified, but up till now, they have not received their salaries. What is the problem? Ask the government.

Regarding those who have not been able to be verified, what do you think has been the reason they keep failing the exercise?

We are trying to understand the puzzle as to why people outside the state have been cleared and have been collecting salaries from the government, but those reporting to duty in the state and doing the work daily have not been verified and not getting salaries. When we ask the government, they keep saying the affected people have verification code problems. We asked who generated the code, is it not the same agency handling the exercise? This is the major issue.

We have said that if for instance, there was a problem with the account numbers of the workers, the agency should invite the affected people to submit their correct account details for the issue to be corrected, and that if the problem has to do with code, the agency officials should also help to fix it and give the right code to the affected people. They should show the people how to input their credentials correctly so that they can get the right codes. But all these have fallen on deaf ears.

But before the incumbent administration of Governor Alex Otti, what was the norm in the state?

It was worse that time. That was the reason we voted out the past administration.

How much did the past administration owe the state workers before Otti came?

Former governor, Orji Uzo Kalu, during his time, did not owe workers salaries. But he owed pensions and gratuities. During Ochendo’s (Theodore Orji) time, he did not owe pensions and gratuities, but when leaving office, he owed workers nine months and six months respectively. When Ikpeazu came in, he paid that backlog of arrears of nine months and six months. But when he left the office, he left a huge burden of unpaid salaries to the magnitude of 22 months to ASUT (Abia State University of Technology) Aba, 17 months to HMD Umuahia, three months to primary school teachers, 17 months to junior secondary school staff, 16 months to senior secondary school staff, 22 months to Arochukwu College of Education staff, 33 months to Abia Polytechnic staff and 11 months to Abia State University workers.

So, he owed a huge backlog of arrears. When we complained to his administration to look at the plights of the suffering workers, it all fell on deaf ears. That was why we voted his party (the Peoples Democratic Party) out during the election. I can tell you boldly that more than 60 per cent of the votes cast for Governor Alex Otti at the last election came from the Abia State workers. He came, and he has been paying the workers’ salaries as and when due between the 28th and 29th day of every month.

However, since governance is a continuum and you inherit both assets and liability, we expect him to pay the arrears being owed by his predecessor, especially because the monthly allocation to the state from FAAC has increased substantially. During the last administration of Muhammadu Buhari, the three tiers of government did share a little above N760bn. But because of the fuel subsidy removal and other factors, the three tiers of government now share between N1.3tn and N1.4tn monthly, which has been double what they normally got before.

So, why should a government say it can’t pay (salaries and arrears)?

It was because of the huge backlog of salaries being owed by the former administration that the workers voted it out and elected the current government. We believed that the new government, upon assumption of office, would wipe our tears and offset the backlog of arrears because the current administration is getting higher allocations than its predecessor.

But how many months’ arrears has the new government paid since assuming office?

For now, I don’t think it has paid any. But as I said earlier on, it has been paying the current ones; that is the ones for its administration. It has however not paid any arrears owed by its predecessor, except for the pensioners, who got something last month. But that also is still causing some problems. The pensioners are aggrieved and angry with the state leadership of the Nigerian Union of Pensioners.

The pensioners are saying that the agreement their leaders reached with the government has not favoured them. However, the union leaders claimed the government has not implemented what they agreed. The NUP leaders in the state said what they agreed with the government was that N17bn should be paid to the pensioners, but the government at the end of the day paid only N10bn. That is the cause of the problem now. But aside from this, the government has not paid any arrears for salary.

Since the current minimum wage in the country expired in April, what has the Abia State Government been paying: is it still the expired minimum wage?

That of the minimum wage has not been concluded by the national. They are still deliberating and discussing it. But the one we are requesting the Abia State Government to pay is the N35,000 wage award that the Federal Government approved late last year. Other four states in the South-East have paid the wage award to their workers. But it is only Abia that has not paid it in the region. The wage award started in November 2023 and the Abia State Government has not paid a dime since then.

During the May Day celebration, it was part of our request to the state governor for him to look into it. This is because in terms of Alphabet, Abia State is the first in the region and if all other states in the zone have paid something, Abia State should not lag since we have a good governor that is also performing creditably when it comes to infrastructural development.

So, for the welfare of workers, he should also look into it. The governor, after his May Day address, promised that the wage award payment would come expediently and we are still looking for when the expedient time will come. As for the verification problem, we believe it can be resolved if the officials handling the exercise are not biased, but focused on what they are doing.

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