By Rommy Mom
That Primary Schools in Benue have been closed owing to industrial actions by teachers for nearly 7 months is no news. What is perhaps news is that the larger society seems content to let it ride on, arguing about Government ineptitude and corruption, while government personnel try to counter these arguments also on a generally vague note with inadequacy in specifics.
Probably what should occupy us is not the fact that primary school teachers are on strike but rather the need to end the situation in the INTEREST of the pupils, our children. The politics of whodunit or who is at fault while important, only serves interest outside that of the pupils, in the now.
Government has consistently argued that the upward review in minimum wage by the Federal Government as well as the ballooning wage purse of the labour force in Benue state AND the demand by teachers for increase in wages are the reasons for its inability to pay their wages.
I will attempt to address the two main reasons, ballooning wages and the demand by teachers for increased wages cited by Government as responsible for the seeming stand-off.
Rising Labour Wages of the State.
Recent preliminary investigations, made by Lawyers Alert, into the wage increase situation in Benue State between the years 2000 and 2011, indicates a significant increase. Surprising right? Though we were unable to access data for 2012 to date, below are our findings for the period stipulated above:
A Grade Level 01 worker in Benue in year 2000 was on a basic salary of N5, 000.00 (five thousand naira). In 2007, there was a slight increase to N7, 500.00 (seven thousand five hundred naira). In 2011, the amount was increased to N8, 328.00 (eight thousand three hundred and twenty eight naira), and by 2011 a significant increase to N18, 000.00 (eighteen thousand naira) occurred. This represents an increase of 240% in four years.
Within the same period, workers on Grade Level 07, for instance, moved from N9, 159.00 (nine thousand, one hundred and fifty nine naira) to N61, 328.00 (sixty one thousand, three hundred and twenty eight naira) representing an increase of 357%.
For those on Grade Level 12, it moved from N19, 075.00 (nineteen thousand and seventy five naira) to N96, 977.00 (ninety six thousand, nine hundred and seventy seven naira), an increase of 442% and so on.
For Level 16 workers, the movement appears very steep, rising from N28, 983.00 (twenty eight thousand, nine hundred and eighty three naira) to N236, 781.00 (two hundred and thirty six thousand, seven hundred and eighty one naira) which represents a leap of 710%.
No doubt the increases above, if true, are significant.
Civil Servants confronted with these data were reluctant to admit or deny the figures, arguing that as an “NGO” person, I am likely to get them into trouble. The issue however is, if indeed true, then the wage increase has been significant, and we probably need to take another look at Government’s position with a view to constructively engaging so our children can return to school.
Upward Review of Minimum Wage
The second reason given by Government regarding its inability to pay Teachers stems from the demand by Teachers for increase in wages following the upward review of the minimum wage. This is a valid demand by Teachers on the face of it. If wages are reviewed and the base increases, then of course there ought to, and there should be, an increase upwards for all.
Government’s position is however, to the contrary and is hinged on the following argument.
When Gabriel Torwua Suswam resumed as Governor of Benue State, he without any prodding or national directive as to minimum wages, increased Teachers’ salaries in Benue State, and ALL Teachers in Benue were on a package above the minimum wage. Probably this increase was based on the euphoria of just assuming office and was done without any scientific analysis of the future implications.
When therefore, the review of national wages came into place after the initial increase by the state, the Government was faced with a package above what it anticipated or bargained for. On this note you cannot help but feel some sympathy for the State.
The Benue state Government has argued that a review in minimum wage does not translate to increase in wages, but is only a base or a threshold for wages. Much as this is a persuasive argument, it evaporates when placed against standard practice and practices in other states that immediately reviewed upwards. Probably an Industrial Court interpretation is necessary for this.
Yet again, should all States be treated equally on issues of wages and labour? Under the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, yes. This, in my view, is wrong as States have differing income levels arising from the same Constitution and policy of Government. At the National Conference, for instance, I am for the moving of labour issues from the federal to state level.
Oil producing states have the 13% derivation fund guaranteed by the Constitution, they also have the Ministry of Niger Delta, Oïl Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission, OMPADEC , the program for rehabilitating Militants etc. These all translate to billions of Dollars going into these states over and beyond what agrarian states like Benue or Nasarawa, for instance, earn. Demanding that labour force or workers be treated equally with regard to wages across the country, therefore, has been hard to comprehend and implement. Benue it would seem, is a victim of this policy.
The whole essence of this discourse is however geared towards getting our pupils back to school. It is about time. It’s been almost a year. Does Government have an argument we can maybe stop, listen and consider? Can we weigh in on labour leaders to at least call off the strike so our children can return to school, while we evaluate government arguments and positions towards an amicable resolution of the issues?
I strongly believe so. We should ponder on the arguments by Government, evaluate same, seek some resolutions, in a process that involves teachers, government and other stake holders like Civil Society leaders, Religious leaders, and some federal Agencies.
I am making efforts at meeting with the Teachers and hopefully by Wednesday this week, I will return with their side of the story.
We cannot continue like this.