From PETER OKORE, Umuahia
The second of the government in Abia state will begin after May 29, 2019, but the Workers’ Day provided an indication of what to expect ahead. The Day was dominated by the issues bordering on the lingering plight of Abia workers and pensioners. Before now, both workers and pensioners assumed that agreements reached during internal negotiations on measures to clear the backlog of pensions and salary arrears in the state had failed.
However, the Abia state Government has restated her commitment to pay more attention to the welfare of workers and pensioners, following the reports of the various committees it had put in- place to study the situations and advice government. Government has since the May celebrations been using her various media organs to affirm her resolve to implement outcome of committees set-up recently on prevailing issues in the bid to put smiles on the faces of Abia state workers and pensioners.
BusinessHallmark understands that the high point of the 2019 May Day celebration was the peaceful protest by pensioners, who stormed the playground of Ibeku High School, Umuahia, the state capital, venue of the celebrations, in their hundreds. They were all clad in black attire and walking- sticks for support. During the march past, other Unions marched clock-wise past the rostrum, while the protesting pensioners marched anti-clock-wise to the central podium where dignitaries were already seated,
The governor’s representative, Sir Onyii Wama, had mounted the rostrum to take salutes from the respective Labour Unions. But to the surprise of the audience, the protesting pensioners created a scene that attracted empathy from the crowd, just as crying voices of women were heard all over the playground, as they watched the pensioners (majority of whom retired as Permanent secretaries and Directors) sitting down on the bare ground under the scotching sun. Workers watched with dismay and imagined how their own turn would be when they retire.
Reliable sources revealed that security report had envisaged the fracas and so advised the governor and his deputy to steer clear the arena. Instead, Wama, who is the Head of Service, was delegated to stand-in at the occasion. As helpless as he was, Wama merely assured the pensioners of government’s new resolve to realistically commence clearing the backlog of unpaid pensions and gratuities. On the part of workers, Wama promised that government would pay the N30,000 new Minimum wage to them as soon as the Federal Government Circulars and payment Table were available in the state.
Several promises made by Abia state government in the past to clear the arrears of un-paid salaries, promotions arrears and other emoluments, including Leave allowances, owed workers as well as the backlog of Gratuities and pensions owed pensioners, had hit the rocks. As far as the workers and pensioners were concerned, government appeared to be insensitive to their plight or that it does not want to make welfare of workers and pensioners a priority in her scheme of things . They re-iterated that promises by government to pay pensioners two months of pension arrears after every three months, appeared to have been swept under the carpet after such an agreement was reached.
Even an accepted suggestion by the Nigeria Union of Pensioners, NUP, for government to set-aside the sum of N150 million every month to enable it kick-start payment of Gratuities to deserving retired civil servants was also ignored. They recalled that gratuity was last paid to Abia retirees in the year 2001.
A retired Director, who was on-hand, but pleaded an anonymity, made it clear that the cumulative Payment Vouchers for the Harmonization exercise had long been prepared in the Ministries before his retirement, but regrets that the political-will to implement it had not been there. Consequent upon that, most civil servants, who retired before 1999 are still receiving Two thousand Naira(N2,000) only monthly , as pensions, till date.
In the ever-rising inflation/ fluctuating market prices, what can N2,000 buy in the market, another retiree queried? Not only that, it has also been discovered that as a result of lack of funds, most retirees have died because they could not afford money to access good medication, buy drugs or feed fine to live longer.
So ,when it appeared that the patience of pensioners and workers were almost running-out, both the Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, the Trade Union Congress, TUC, and the Nigeria Union of Pensioners, NUP, became resolute and unanimous in their attitudes to government; arriving at a conclusion that the Abia state government had not been fair to them in the area of keeping to promises or making the welfare of workers and pensioners a priority in its administration .
In the statistics presented by the respective Unions, Wednesday, 1st May, 2019 at the May Day Rally, the Unions gave a run-down of what they had been talking about all these years. A breakdown of the indebtedness of salary arrears reveals that Pensioners in the state are owed between 19 and 25 months of their pensions. Aside these, Gratuities were last paid to deserving retirees more that 18 years ago.
A competent source told BusinessHallmark that Gratuities are statutory deductions made by government from the monthly salaries of every confirmed serving civil servant and served for him/her for the number of years the person worked. The statutory number of years is 35 or 60 years of age, depending on whichever comes first. At the end of the mandatory service- year (retirement), these sums are computed by the Ministry of Establishment and paid to the retiree in-bulk to enable him/her start his/her private life. But this payment is now being delayed, if not almost denied.
Other indebtedness owed to serving civil servants in Abia state, as listed by the Trade Unions, are as follows:
- Abia state University Teaching Hospital, Aba is owed 12 Months.
- Abia state Health Management Board (HMB) -9 Months.
- Secondary School Teachers – 10 Months.
- Abia State Polytechnics, Aba – 13 Months.
5.College of Education, Technical, Arochukwu – 15 Months.
- Abia State Universal Basic Education Board, ASUBEB – 6 Months
- Local Government Areas – 21/2 Months
- Abia College of Health Sciences and Technology, Aba – 13 Months.
According to the Abia state chapter chairman of the NLC, Comrade Uchenna Obigwe and his TUC counterpart, Comrade Sunny Onwuma , as a result of the present predicaments of pensioners, serving civil servants no longer want to retire when due. They have now resorted to falsifying their ages in order to remain longer in service.
Said Obigwe: ”More pensioners are now dying daily . The situation of pensioners is worst now and we do not want to say that it is an offence or sin to delve into the civil service career”. He also noted that death benefits of workers ,who died in active service are not being paid by government over the years.
“Governor Okezie Ikpeazu should put his machinery in place to ensure that workers’ salaries, pensions and gratuities are paid, as at and when due, without further delay, as the situation now is not funny. Congress still repeats her plea for the sum of N150 Million to be set-aside for Gratuities monthly”.
On his own, the TUC state chairman, Sunny Onwuma, among other things, disclosed that revenue leakages contribute a major part of the bane of Abia economy, noting that untrustworthy revenue contractors convert a great chunk of what should go to government coffers to their private pockets. He regretted that certain markets, including the Ubani International market and the New Timber market, all in Umuahia as well as the Ariaria International market at Aba, where government invested huge sums of Tax-payers money, are now lying waste.
Clarifying government’s stance on the issues in a public Radio programme, tagged :”Abia Today”, the state Commissioner for Finance Mr. Obinna Oriaku made it clear that government does not dispute the number of months it did not pay salaries to the affected parastatals and pensions to pensioners. He noted that the problems of Abia people go beyond the present state government, stressing that government is committed to seeing that what gave rise to the backlogs are resolved amicably and timely too.
The commissioner hinted that a verification exercise would be conducted to ascertain the real workers in the state service, pointing out that core civil servants in Ministries are up-to-date in payments. He took his time to explain why the salary wage-bill of the state has been on the high rise.
Firstly, Oriaku attributed the problem of civil servants and pensioners to ghost workers syndrome. This problem is sponsored by a cabal comprising some highly placed officials in Abia civil service and political stakeholders. The issue of ghost workers had been a standing order in Abia. Even those indicted by Panel Reports and recommended for dismissals and prosecutions are still in service. For some years now former and incumbent commissioners for Ministry of Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, Chiefs Charles Ogbonnaya and Chief Christopher Enweremadu have spoken about the rut in Government establishments, concerning the harm ghost workers are causing in the state.