Abia workers groan as Ikpeazu hands over minimum wage burden

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President Muhammadu Buhari’s signing into law of a new minimum wage of N30,000 on April 17, 2020, was a watershed moment in the country’s workers’ welfare history.

Senator Ita Enang, the President’s Senior Special Adviser on National Assembly Matters at the time, told journalists, “The bill makes it mandatory for employers of labour in both public and private organisations to pay N30,000 as minimum wage.”

However, the minimum wage has been a mirage for workers in Abia State. Civil servants are licking their wounds over their government’s failure to implement the national wage in the final hours of the Okezie Ikpeazu administration. Many of them, harbouring grudges against the government for unpaid salaries and allowances, feel the state government has taken them for granted.

Unlike some states that were unwilling to commit to the new wage scheme, the Abia State Government agreed to pay a minimum wage of N30,000 to its civil servants.

On behalf of the state government, the agreement was formalised and signed by Sir Onyii Wamah, Dr Aham Uko, and Dr Anthony Agbazuere, Head of Service, Commissioner of Finance, and Chief of Staff, respectively.

Chris Okoro of the Public Service Joint Negotiating Council, Uchenna Obigwe of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Sunny Onwuma of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), and Kennedy Nwaigwe of the Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE) signed the agreement on behalf of the state’s workers.

The parties agreed that the new wage payment would go into effect in January 2020, and Labour agreed to the necessary adjustments.

Let’s fast forward to 2023. Thirty-seven months later, the signed agreement remains a hollow promise.

Workers have publicly stated that Governor Ikpeazu’s administration has yet to fully implement the agreed-upon N30,000 minimum wage and that all Abia civil servants working in state ministries, departments, agencies, boards, and parastatals are affected.

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Workers in the state recently marched to express their displeasure with the government, while the non-payment of several months’ salary arrears has triggered the ongoing indefinite strike action by the state chapter of the NLC.

The government’s reaction, on the other hand, bordered on hypocrisy and insensitivity to the workers’ plight.

A statement, signed and issued to newsmen in Umuahia by Chris Ezem, the Secretary to the State Government, stated: “It is public knowledge that the recent protracted court order freezing various government accounts, which affected payment of salaries to ministries and parastatals for March and April 2023.

“Despite the current challenge of the state government with its bankers, the Governor, Dr Okezie Victor Ikpeazu, has directed the Office of the Accountant General to commence payment of salaries to ministries and parastatals from today, Friday, May 12, 2023.

“Accordingly, the government wishes to place on record that no core civil servant or ministry is owed salaries before now.

“Furthermore, salaries of local government staff are up to date save for the inherited five months’ arrears, out of which three months have been paid and the outstanding two months are being addressed.

“The Government has further directed local government authorities to commence immediate payment of salaries of health workers across the 17 LGAs.”

The statement appeared to have no relation to the workers’ positions.

A cross-section of Abia civil servants interviewed by xanderetch during a recent tour of some state ministries, agencies, and parastatals expressed disappointment that the outgoing government had failed to demonstrate the capacity to improve their welfare.

One of the workers, Madam Theresa, expressed her disappointment that the outgoing administration of Gov Ikpeazu failed to demonstrate the necessary political will to ensure full implementation and payment of President Buhari’s N30,000 minimum wage for civil servants in all states of the Nigerian Federation.

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In her words, “This outgoing government shall be remembered for its obvious insensitivity towards workers’ plights. Because what the government promised and agreed with us to ensure implementation is not what we got.

“This administration is leaving behind huge debts and non-payment of backlogs of accumulated salary arrears owed to members of the state workforce, a sad development that has worsened the already battered economy of the state.”

She said further: “There is no gainsaying the fact that workers in the Hospital Management Board (HMB), Aba, and doctors are owed 11 months unpaid salaries. Abia State University Uturu (ABSU) is owed six to eight months’ salary arrears. There are others, too numerous to state here.”

Another Abia civil servant, who refused to disclose his parastatals in the state but gave his name as Comrade Okey, accused the outgoing government of high-level insensitivity arising from its neglect of the state’s workforce.

He claimed that many children have dropped out of school because of the inability of their parents to access their monthly salaries and pensions owed to them by the government.

“The irony is that this current administration received huge funds from the Federation Account Allocation Committee (FAAC), internally generated revenue, and also money through external borrowing, but still, it can’t pay salaries to civil servants and the entitlements of Abia retirees,” he stated.

He lamented that the failure of the government to pay workers in the ministries has caused them untold hardship, penury, and hunger.

“Many have gone to their various villages to clear their land for farming to get what to feed on,” he affirmed.

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Explaining how the government has demonstrated a lack of empathy for civil servants, he said: “The N30,000 new minimum wage, which they agreed with the Nigeria Labour Congress to pay workers at the state level in the country, the outgoing Abia government never attempted to ensure its full implementation.

“I can attest to the fact that civil servants in Abia are languishing and wallowing in abject hardship and starvation. We have resorted to prayers for God almighty to touch the heart of the incoming administration, once it is inaugurated on May 29, to look into our plight and ensure that the minimum wage is fully implemented and paid to the fullest.”

On Friday, Abia State Governor-elect Dr Alex Otti expressed sympathy for the workers’ plight.

The incoming Labour Party Governor reiterated his campaign promise to prioritise the welfare of Abia workers.

As he stated, improving workers’ welfare is his strategy for inspiring patriotism in service and ensuring productivity, which will allow the state’s economy to recover.

Otti reaffirmed his commitment when he hosted the Abia State chapter of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), led by its chairman, Paschal Nweke.

The meeting provided the Governor-elect with the opportunity to listen to the union leaders and understand their grievances in order to propose a long-term solution that would ensure industrial harmony.

Further, Otti stated that the welfare of workers is something that no serious government takes lightly.

He promised that decisive and far-reaching measures would be taken in the future to restore sanity in the Abia civil service and erase the painful experiences they had over the years.

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