Benue 2015 and politics of wage increase

In this write-up, KULA TERSOO  takes a critical look at the politics of 2015 elections  involved in the current industrial action in Benue state

Benue State chairman of NLC, Comrade  Anchaver

Benue State chairman of NLC, Comrade  Anchaver

The face-off between Benue state government and its workers has reached a critical stage with labour declaring  a total down-tooling while Governor Gabriel Suswam passionately insists  the future of the state is involved and would not rescind on his decision.
Declaring the strike action which commenced penultimate Thursday, Comrade Simon Anchaver and Comrade Ordue Tartenger, Chairmen of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) respectively, said labour is seriously irked by government’s decision to adjust their wages.
It was gathered that government had effected what it described as “harmonization” of wages of workers across board in the state to ensure no sector was left out.
According to findings, the percentage for the “deductions” varies according to grade levels and position. While political appointees’ wage have been slashed by twenty-five percent starting from the governor himself, workers on grade level six to nine will forfeit ten percent while those on Grade Levels 10-17 will do away with fifteen percent.
Suswam’s relationship with labour.
Barely two and a half years into the first four years of his administration, members of the organized labour in the state decorated Suswam with the award of Labour Most Friendly Governor. This was yet followed by another investiture by the national body of the Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE) as National Patron of the union.
All these, it was understood, were based on some immediate goodwill and special attention workers received from the governor right from the inception of his administration.
Upon taking over the mantle of leadership in 2007, Suswam declared that what the state’s civil servants earned was too meager, and without any prompting reviewed the minimum wage  from N5,500 to N7,500. This was again reviewed upward to N8,000 before 2009.
The governor again redeemed his campaign promises  to primary school teachers by paying their June and July salaries  denied them by the George Akume administration which enforced  the principle of “no work, no pay” on the teachers. As variously attested to by the leadership of labour in the state, Suswam was the very first governor to implement the approved Teachers Salaries Scheme (TSS) or what has popularly come to be known as twenty-five and half percent.

Minimum wage negotiations
By the time the 18,000 minimum wage proper was implemented in August 2011, civil servants started reaping bountifully what some financial analysts referred to as bloated packages.
Available records as made available by the union’s leadership, showed  those on grade levels 10, 12,14 and 16 for instance moved to N80,452; N96,977; N138,077; N236,781 and N436,784 from N27,668; N34,002; N41,427; N68,529 and N73,458 respectively.
The state chairman of NLC, Comrade  Anchaver even boasted severally that their pay was better that those of any other state, especially in the north. Records have also shown that the salaries were so over pushed in some instances up to 250 to 300 percent with some directors earning over N300,000 and permanent secretaries taking over N430,000, an amount close to that of the governor.

The trouble
The current face-off started when government finally agreed to include primary school teachers in the implementation of the new national minimum wage. Before now, there were series of protests by the NUT  whose members  insisted that as civil servants , they were equally entitled to same benefit as others, a development that led to them embarking on about seven months’ industrial action. With government’s decision to accommodate the over 22,000 teachers’ demand, government suddenly realised that available resources would not take care of even the recurrent expenditures, much less the jumbo pay.
According to the governor, he was deceived by some government officials into signing an unattainable minimum wage agreement as he believed those officials had the interest of the state at heart. According to him,  keeping future leaders at home  at the expense of some workers enjoying over bloated salaries, won’t augur well for the system.
“After weighing the two options which include either retrenching or harmonizing the wages, I have decided that I will rather harmonize giving the attendant dire social problems of retrenching.
“I know this may not go down well with my workers but I am ready to take the bad name. I do not know who will succeed me but if I do not do this now, I assure you, anyone who succeeds me may find it very difficult to even start administering this state,” he said.
But labour  is kicking against the move it describes as deductions.  And persistently, the governor has continued to call for understanding, saying he can’t fight with his own workers, just as he lays bare the facts and figures for their perusal.

The politics
Curiously, the key negotiators of the salary structure in 2011 that now backfired are contesting to succeed  Suswam come 2015.  While Anchaver  seeks the ticket of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP),  Mike Iordye who led government’s team to the negotiation, is aspiring on the ticket of the All Progressives Congress (APC).
Keen observers of political developments in the state are of the view that though labour must have been aware of the economic situation in the state and country at the moment, its leadership which has gone political now, may be dragging the matter to make it a campaign issue.  Is it also not curious that the APC was the first the first to hit hard at the government even when labour was yet to come up with a position?
Public perception
As the salary debacle lingers and the strike action starts telling on the Benue masses, many have called on the organized labour to speak up to the public on the issues involved.
To Paul Iordzer, a retired civil servant, if truly the figure enunciated by government with comparison to other states is true, labour is been unnecessarily irresponsible.
“How is N3,000 too much a sacrifice to the state for someone taking home over N60,000 and a paltry N15,000 for those collecting a whopping N400,000?”
“ …. as a retired civil servant, I know that we are executors of government policies. If what government is saying is not true, let labour come out and tell the public. but if it is true, what they are doing will only overheat the polity and that is not healthy to our already sick economy. Things have gone bad with the economy of the nation to the knowledge of everybody,” Iordzer said.
Similarly, youths under the auspices of Benue Youths in Diaspora Association have condemned the strike action, describing it as the “height of unpatriotism”. President-General of the Association,  Agbese Philip, said the industrial action by civil servants was not a necessary action to bring solution to the salary stalemate, insisting that the union would have expended all available options to a peaceful end, emphasising that dialogue is the only option in such situation.
For Gbishe Iamegh, a retired civil servant, “ that was the best offer given by the governor. What if he decides to retrench? What would they have done?”
However, in the view of Barnabas Onje, a social analyst, the governor is at fault for not consulting widely before approving the various increments. He accused the government of not touching the real issues of over bloated workforce before the increment for fear of political revolt.
On the whole, analysts believe that the interest of the people of the state should guide the two parties in this imbroglio.

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