Withheld Salaries: ASUU, CONUA may close ranks against FG

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• Why Govt Must Pay Full Salaries, By Ndume
• Esele, NECA Ex-DG Differ On Pro-rata Payment 
• ‘Education Vote Declines From 10.79% to 5.39% Under Buhari’
• NASU, SSANU Seek Inclusion In IPPIS Conversation

With the insistence of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the Congress of University Academics (CONUA) that the Federal Government must pay the withheld salaries of their members, the two unions may soon close ranks against the government to push through their demand.

As the new crisis brews, some stakeholders have called on the government to quickly resolve all issues with the unions to save the university system from imminent collapse.

Recall that ASUU held an emergency National Executive Council (NEC) meeting last Tuesday over the payment of pro-rata October salaries to its members. Although it ended the meeting with a resolution not to embark on another strike as a result of the development, the union condemned what it described as attempt by the Federal Government to turn the academics into casual workers through the ‘pro-rata’ payment for 18 days.

The university lecturers had suspended their eight months strike on October 14 and only worked for 18 days last month. The Federal Government insisted on implementing the ‘No Work, No Pay’ policy for the period the university teachers were away from their duty posts.

In a statement after the end of the NEC meeting, the ASUU National President, Prof. Emmanuel Osodeke, declared that the university teachers are intellectuals and casual workers.

He said the union suspended its eight-month strike on October 14, 2022 in obedience to the order of the National Industrial Court and in further consideration of the intervention of well-meaning Nigerians, including the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila.

Osodeke described the action of the union as a display of manifest trust in the judiciary and other institutions and organs of government to always put national interest above all other considerations.

“Unfortunately, the response of government towards ASUU’s demonstration of trust was the so-called ‘pro-rata’ payment for 18 days as the October 2022 salaries of academics, thereby portraying them as daily paid workers!

“This is not only an aberration but a contravention of all known rules of engagement in any contract of employment for academics the world over.”

CONUA, in its reaction to the development stated that since it did not declare the strike as such, lumping its members together with the ‘No Work, No Pay’ policy must be a mistake.

A statement that was jointly issued by both the National President of CONUA, Dr. Niyi Sunmonu; National Secretary, Dr. Henry Oripeloye and the National Publicity Secretary, Dr. Ernest Nwoke, stated categorically that CONUA was never on strike and this being the case, the policy of “No Work, No Pay” ought not apply to its members.

“CONUA members were only unable to perform their full duties because of the lock-out as the students were asked to vacate the universities and the system was shut down.

“Section 43 (1b) of the Trade Disputes Act CAP. T8 states that ‘where any employer locks out his workers, the workers shall be entitled to wages and any other applicable remuneration for the period of the lock-out and the period of the lock-out shall not prejudicially affect any rights of the workers being rights dependent on the continuity of period of employment,” CONUA argued.

With the conflict far from being resolved, there are fears that both unions may collaborate to force the government re-think its position. As the government insists that it cannot meet the demands of the lecturers, The Guardian has gathered that budgetary allocation to the education sector has dropped by 49 per cent from 10.79 per cent to 5.39 per cent under President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration. 

The Chief Executive Officer of Dairy Hills Limited, Kelvin Emmanuel, who disclosed this in an interview with The Guardian, yesterday, explained that while Nigeria’s budgets over the last seven years have risen by 384 per cent from N4.45 trillion to N17.13 trillion, the allocation to education has been on downward slide. 

“What is interesting to note is that between 2015 and 2022, the size of Nigeria’s budget has risen by 384 per cent from N4.45 trillion to N17.13 trillion, but the budget allocation to education under President Buhari (right from the year he took over) has dropped by 49 per cent from 10.79 per cent to 5.39 per cent. This is a sharp decline in the progress Nigeria was making towards clinching the UNESCO standard of 15-20 per cent ratio of the education budget to public expenditure globally,” he said.

Emmanuel argued that it does appear that the Buhari administration has a gross misunderstanding of the critical roles education plays in the development of nations.

“Education is the catalyst for building the human resource on which nations industrialise. An investment in education is a non-kinetic security strategy to prevent unemployment that leads to insecurity. The refusal of the Federal Government to pay arrears from March through to September, as well as their payment of half salary in October, is a statement of intent that shows the lack of regard the government has for education in Nigeria.”

He also lamented the refusal of the Federal Government to raise the salaries of teachers, cede grounds on the integration of University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) into the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS), raise the retirement age of lecturers from 65 to 70 as well as align with global best practices that allow lecturers to earn from visiting roles at other schools, saying these are proof that the government does not understand how education works.

The Dairy Hills chief urged the Federal Government to convert the two per cent education tax into endowment funding to be managed by universities while speeding up the process of granting autonomy to the councils of universities to appoint, discipline and promote their staff members. 

“It is my view that the future of education requires that the government collapses the two per cent education tax generated from the TETFUND into a counterpart funding from the Federal Government into an endowment set up by the schools – managed by the private sector – and that will focus on scholarships, administration, research and development, infrastructure. The government has to be proactive in granting financial autonomy to schools, and designing the framework that will unlock private sector participation in the funding mechanism for institutions of higher learning in Nigeria.”

Former President of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), Peter Esele, who also intervened in the matter, submitted that the court process that the Federal Government initiated was threatening the resolution of the industrial dispute. 

“The court process truncated the industrial negotiation that ought to lead to a mutually accepted destination. The ongoing crisis, if not checkmated on time, may lead to ASUU members going to work and refusing to work. What the court has done indirectly is deny ASUU members their right to withdraw their services. It is the right of workers to withdraw their services,” he explained.

Esele, who is also a former President of the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN), wondered if the position the government has adopted is good for the future of the Nigerian students. 

“In taking action, the government should critically examine where we are as a country. Is the current action good for the future of our children who were forced to stay at home for about eight months?” he asked.

He urged ASUU to embark on a critical analysis of its responses to the government’s actions, saying it must now move away from predictable strikes as the last resort. 

“I think ASUU has been adopting the same strategy over the years. There is need for ASUU to rethink and re-strategise its responses. In my understanding, I think that ASUU has failed to take advantage of the social space, networking and contacts both within and outside of the government,” he added.    

Esele stated that voting against a fresh strike by ASUU members was a wise decision, which showed that the union is moving away from seeing strikes as the only veritable option for resolving the industrial dispute. 

On how the pro-rata payment impacts the general industrial harmony on campuses, especially the non-teaching unions, the President of the Non-Academic Staff Union of Universities and Associated Institutions (NASU), Dr. Hassan Makolo, said that both NASU and SSANU were not directly affected. 

He explained that the essence of the ‘no victimisation’ clause inserted in agreements after the resumption of work was to ensure the payment of the withheld salaries, saying both NASU and SSANU were working assiduously on that.

“The pro-rata payment is not our issue because when we returned, we were paid in full because we worked for a full month. Our concern now is the four months outstanding. Before now, when we go on strike, by the time we are calling off, we normally have an understanding with the government that there will not be any sort of victimisation or persecution. So, we expect that the government will reciprocate and pay the money,” he said. 

To the NASU helmsman, the main preoccupation of the union now is to rejig Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) to capture the peculiarities of workers in the academic space. 

“The contestation against the IPPIS cuts across all the four unions on campus. So, if a committee is now set up to look at the peculiarities of the university system in terms of payment of salaries, other unions should be included in such a committee. The University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) and Universities Peculiar Personnel Payroll System (U3PS) performed better than IPPIS when they were subjected to tests by the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA). So, common sense dictates that both NASU and SSANU ought to be represented in a committee that is set up to work on the possibilities of coming up with a payment system that will be acceptable to all the unions in the university community. Setting up a committee of that nature without NASU and SSANU will be an exercise in futility because, in the end, ASUU will be able to cover our peculiarities and people will feel aggrieved. The Joint Action Committee of both NASU and SSANU has written to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Ministry of Finance to do the needful so that the current industrial harmony we are experiencing in the university community will not be truncated so soon,” 

But a former Director General of the Nigeria Employers Consultative Association (NECA), Segun Oshinowo, declared that the Federal Government was right in not paying for job not done by members of ASUU. 

“The total context of the employment relationship is key here. The government is pushing the application of the ‘No work, No Pay’ law, which is difficult to fault. It would be a different matter completely if the employees were to be on sick leave or faced with a force Majeure,” he said.

Meanwhile, the senator representing Borno South District in the National Assembly, Mohammed Ali Ndume, has asked the Federal Government to resolve the prolonged labour dispute with ASUU to prevent collapse of the university system. Ndume made the appeal in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, in an interview with journalists, yesterday. 

“The ASUU issue is far from being over. Federal Government should resolve it now before the collapse of the university system. Those who are currently handling the negotiation can’t resolve the issue because their interests are not affected,” he said.

The lawmaker said that public officers or political office holders negotiating with ASUU should not have been allowed to continue the negotiation process since their children were not in the public universities in the country. 

He said he decided to speak out on the matter to clear his conscience and for posterity sake, asking the government to act in the interest of the public. Ndume also asked the government to issue an executive order prohibiting public officials from sponsoring their children abroad or in private universities.  He described the payment of pro-rata salary to varsity lecturers as unjust and inhuman. 

According to him, the N1 trillion out of the N8 trillion budgeted as recurrent expenditure or overhead cost to public servants in the 2023 Appropriation Bill could have settled the salaries of the lecturers.

Ndume said there was no justification for government not to pay full salary to the lecturers, recalling that public servants were paid their salaries while at home during COVID-19. 

“After all, we in the National Assembly don’t work all the days, yet we are paid full salaries,” he said. He urged the government to constitute a committee of eminent Nigerians to bring back ASUU to the table and resolve the lingering dispute, noting that neither the Minister of Labour, Dr. Chris Ngige nor the National Assembly leadership could address the problem because “their interests are not affected.”

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