Unpaid salaries: Applying the labour law

RECENTLY, the House of Representatives made a move to criminalise the non-payment of salaries by state governments. In this regard, state governments which fail to pay their workers would be subjected to criminal litigation. This is a welcome decision and about time too, in view of the lack of commitment by the state governments to returning to previous records of smooth wage payment.

Indeed, like   a pestilence, Nigeria’s state governments have been hit by a widespread failure to pay the salaries and wages of their workers. Unprecedented in the history of Nigeria, the situation is so bad that some governments owe their workers up to eight months’ salaries. Even the oil-producing states hitherto thought to be economically buoyant are not exempt from this blight. Interestingly, some states whose earnings are adjudged meager, especially in the northern part of the country, have managed to stay afloat.

The non-payment of salaries has brought in its wake a number of existential crises in homes. The situation is more horrifying for families whose breadwinners are civil servants. Eating even once a day has become very difficult and parents watch their children, especially female children, slide down the amoral hill while striving to survive. Keeping up with the normal requirements of maintaining a family has become a very herculean task. The tragedy is worsened by the current recession in the Nigerian economy which has literally crippled so many homes.

There is an upswing in solicitation of alms by children, with many children from otherwise respected homes besieging parties and ceremony grounds for left-over foods. Incidences of well-dressed persons accosting passers-by for pittances are also on the rise. This is aside from the crises being faced by unpaid civil servants or their offspring who go through medical challenges. The hospitals are filled with patients who are unable to pay meager medical bills and many of them have died needless deaths for this inability or for allowing to fester, sicknesses and diseases that could have been tamed by prompt attendance of hospitals. The list of woes faced by workers is endless. This is why criminalising non-payment of  wages is a must.

But then, there is the need to examine the road that Nigerians took to arrive at this sorry pass. Many of the states arrived at the present state due to the consistent profligacy and heists of their helmsmen. White elephant projects that have no bearing on the lives of the people whom the governors swore to defend but were instead constructed for the sole purpose of looting public funds, litter the states. More striking is the governors’ apparent lack of foresight regarding  saving for the rainy day when the economy was buoyant. They were consumed by the desire to live for the day and played Father Christmas with the funds entrusted into their care. This indeed was the foundation of the economic crises faced by the states, and a forensic audit of their past finances is therefore very urgent.

More fundamentally, governors have been anything but open with the finance of their states. It beats the imagination that some states have been administered for years without the publication of their financial statements. Crooked administration of state finances is an art many learn on being handed the baton of governance. The reverberating effects of this unorthodox pilfering of the commonwealth are the things confronting the states at the moment. Recently when the Ministry of Finance requested for the publication of accounts as one of the preconditions for assisting them with bailout funds, many of them faltered in this regard.

In civilised societies, it is an anathema for employers of  labour to fail to pay workers’ salaries. Once an organisation is unable to meet its financial obligations, especially payment of salaries, the labour law requirement is for such organisation to file for bankruptcy, with its assets sold off to offset the salaries and wages of the long suffering employees. Some so-called Nigerian employers with a history of non-payment of workers’ salaries who took their businesses to Ghana and South Africa and attempted to inflict this blight on their employees in those countries were shown the gate unceremoniously, with litigations dogging their paths. It is only in Nigeria where leaders have very scant regard for the humanity of their people that such a barbaric act is allowed, and indeed left to fester.

We wish to remind the states and their helmsmen that there is a contractual agreement between them and the workers. Governors should stop this gerrymandering and assumption that they are doing their workers a favour by paying them salaries. It is the workers’ right to be paid their wages. They should also stop the complaint that the workers are indolent. It is their responsibility to get them engaged as there are rules for spiking indolent ones from the productive system. In an economy that is literally comatose, where state governments owe huge salary bills, it stands against reason that many of them still stick to the ostentation that is their insignia. They junket around the globe, expending multiple millions of cash. They also acquire private properties that belie their cry of paucity of funds.

We call for the activation of the relevant labour laws that criminalise non-payment of salaries. The House of Representatives should help to ensure strict adherence to these laws.