Dr. Tommy Etim Okon, who recently emerged the National President of the Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria (ASCSN), speaks to SOJI-EZE FAGBEMI, on his plans for the union, its members, the civil servants, Nigerian workers, the issues of pension and especially gratuity and the national minimum wage.
HOW did you see your emergence as the national president of the Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria?
Like we always say, power belongs to God and he gives it to whomever he wants. I believe that providence has found me worthy because it came as a surprise to me, and for the interest of the association. So, it’s something I can say that God wanted it that way. The association has come a long way with positive impacts especially being the last man standing in terms of the union in the service that we can call in the National Joint Public Service Negotiating Council as the ‘Council 1’. God wanted it that way to maintain and sustain the image of the association that has given positive impact to the wellbeing of Nigerian workers especially in the public sector. So, it is God; I ascribe it to God.
There are many problems confronting the workers and labour unions, what are your major plans for the association?
I am going to look at what my predecessors have done and build on those foundations but my focus actually is to look at the sustainable welfare of Nigerian workers because it’s an issue that is on the front burner. Let me take a particular aspect of it: when you look at the Pension Act as amended in 2014, you will find out that there’s no provision that has stopped payment of gratuity to Nigerian workers. That is one area I believe that we can, alongside other comrades in the struggle, see how we can approach it with the government for the Act to be revisited. It is inhuman for a worker to put in 35 years or become sixty years as the case may be and you just wait for pension without something to say thank you. That was the essence of gratuity but I bet you, since the issue of pension came, nobody is talking about that aspect and there’s no provision in the Pension Act that has eroded that aspect. So, we need to look at that.
In my own union, we also need to look at our secretariat to see that our secretariat in Abuja, which we started long ago, is completed, so that it will also be a revenue yielding measure for the association. Very important aspect of my programme is the capacity building within and outside this country, because a well informed unionist is a well informed society.
Looking at the dynamics, the developmental issues in the labour world now is driven by knowledge, so when you have a well built capacity of the practitioners of the industrial relations, then I think we will be good with it. We are going to look at the issue of training and retraining to build the capacity including the secretarial staff.
We believe this will go a long way for them to look at our vision and work towards realising our vision. Other developmental issues including some employers that are recalcitrant, I think they have to think back and know that union members are partners in progress and for productivity to strive, both workers and management have to work hand-in-hand. So, we are not thinking of building a parallel government because there is no productivity that can strive if the industrial climate is not conducive. We are going to work in tandem with management to ensure there would be a conducive work environment for productivity in all sectors.
These are some of the programmes that we have and as the days go by and things unfold, we can also come up with other things that will help us meet the expected outcome.
But I think the Pension Act totally erased the issue of paying lump-sum as gratuity at the point of retirement and replaced it with the new contributory pension scheme. Do you think what you are now canvassing for is feasible?
There is no provision in that Act that says that management should not pay gratuity. Contributory Pension Scheme is your money and the government is only paying a certain percentage and you are also paying a percentage, so that does not stop the government from saying thank you. We are not running a different economy, the workers in the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and other agencies are earning far and far. For example, for a worker that has gotten to a directorate cadre, when you leave the Central Bank of Nigeria, you are collecting nothing less than N130 million just to say thank you and then your pension keeps coming. So why is it different in the public sector? I can challenge anyone to show me where in the Pension Act, that says that gratuity should not be paid. We can’t talk about the issue of contributory pension and you think that has eroded the gratuity? No Sir. It has not eroded it. We need to go back and look at the interpretation of some of those provisions for us to be in line with the reality on ground. That is why, when a worker is retired, he becomes a beggar. What on earth will keep a retiree for three to four years before receiving pension? It therefore means that the worker has put in all of his or her best, only for the government to throw them away into an economy that they never planned for. Some retired to the village and when they retired to the village they are not useful to the village because they never impacted on the village when they were still active in the service. So, they die even before they get their pension. But if they have collected a gratuity, that would have even helped them to live long because most of them even live on drugs. At that age they spend a lot of those meagre things on drugs. So, the government needs to look at the issue critically again.
But how far can you go with this. Will you go as far as challenging this issue legally?
Legality is not the solution to industrial relations problems but you can apply a lobbying mechanism. Like I said, we have put up a memo to the Head of Service and the memo is presently before the Head of Service. We expect a committee to be set up by her to look at it and then we take it up from there. So, it is not all about legality, it has to also do with morality and we can apply it effectively because it cuts across, even all the directors in the service, including the permanent secretaries. Forget about the fact that they have some due advantages because of the positions they occupy but it also touches on them because they too have responsibilities to cater for others even in the service. If you are the only king without a kingdom, it means that your palace will be empty.
It means you have already written to the Head of Service in this respect?
Yes. In the memo, we raised some issues including this, and the Head of Service promised to set up a committee so that we look at it together, but we are still expecting that committee to be set up. Once the committee is set up, then we proceed from there. I am very sure that the resolution from that committee, the position paper will be approved and gratuity will return to the service.
So, can we simply say that the civil servants are demanding for re-introduction of payment of gratuity?
Absolutely, that is a good caption to go. Yes, because payment of gratuity is motivational, it would also strengthen the workers to put in their best, knowing very well that before they get the pension, they have something to hold on to. They have something to gather for the family, something to take care of the children’s education, something to service medication and the rest. There are some drugs they said are not generic which National Health Insurance cannot cater for, so if you have gratuity, you can plan how to get your drugs to sustain you to wait for your pension. Now that pension only comes when you are three, four years after retirement, we demand that gratuity should return and be paid as and when due.
Are you making this new demand based on the suffering you have noticed the retirees are now going through after retirement? Because, as you mentioned, civil service retirees don’t get anything from their Pension Fund Administrator as pension even two years after they retired?
That is one aspect of it, the second leg is that if we want the service to be productive, the workers must be motivated. And one of the aspects of motivation is when they have confidence and hope that when they exit the service, the service will say thank you, and that thank you is the gratuity. So, that alone would boost their morale to put in their best. Suffering, yes, is one aspect but the area that we want to make the service to be the kind of service of our dream is that there are certain incentives that must not erode the system, and that is gratuity.
The economic reality and inflation has eroded the gains of the N30,000 national minimum wage. Coupled with this fact, a lawmaker has already sponsored a bill to remove the issue from exclusive to concurrent legislative list. What is your position on this?
It is unfortunate that a lawmaker that was voted by the common people, they sweated, queued, suffered, is the one championing this course. There are thousands and one problems they are supposed to have legislated upon and get a bill for the legislators to consider. If we remove minimum wage from exclusive legislation, it therefore means that the workers will remain in perpetual poverty, because even at N30,000 some states remain recalcitrant to pay. If you now take it off, workers will be going home with N10,000, and that N10,000 may even not be coming as and when due. The state know that they don’t have the capacity, why are they spending much on frivolities? These are workers that are helping to run your policies and you are now saying that the Federal Government should not set a standard, and that minimum wage should not be under exclusive legislation. Then why are we a member of ILO, where you talk about labour standards, where labour standards are set. It means that something is wrong somewhere.
It is either the states are sponsoring it or the lawmaker just decided that he can be used as an instrument to destroy the workers that have put in so much to ensure social economic development of their states. If the state governments come together to sponsor that bill, they are going to bring negative economic development in their states because if per-capita income is not as strong, they cannot be saving and if there is no saving, there is no way they can talk about economic development by multiplication. So, it is going to be an ill-wind that blows no one good, and we have absolute confidence that such a bill will not see the light of the day.
Forget about the fact that it has passed second reading, Mr. President will not accept such a bill, he will not sign it. I have that confidence because Mr. President also knows that a worker deserves his wages. There is no administration that can survive without the workers. With the N30,000 minimum wage, there is an increase in electricity tariff and petroleum pump price. What do you think would be the spite over the economy of most, especially the less-privilege members of the society, the informal economy that constitutes about 70 per cent of the entire population. So, they shouldn’t even think or dream of that because the informal economy survives through the wages of the workers.
You are from the Ministry of Labour where you have emerged the chairman of the unit on two occasions. It is a fact you know the dynamics and workings in terms of industrial relations, negotiation and conciliation. Do you see your emergence as a plus to the association and the labour movement?
In fact, it is a plus because I know the pro, and I know the cons. I think the government will be happy to see someone who understands the dynamics and industrial relations as a practitioner and also can read in-between the lines. So, it’s a plus to industrial relations and also to the government. Like I said, our leadership would be driven by knowledge but my appeal to the government is that whenever, whoever you enter into agreement with the workers representatives, please ensure that you don’t renege because most of the industrial relations crises are as a result of government reneging in the agreement. You can see now that the resident doctors are bent on going on strike, ASUU is also coming up, so also NASU, SSANU and medical and health workers.
So, we cannot continue this way, especially with this COVID-19 pandemic issue. This country must live above board. On industrial relations, I can advise the government, and I can also advise the union on what to do and how to do it. So, my emergence I must say it’s a plus. I have been a two time chairman of the Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria in the Federal Ministry of Labour and I have had the privilege of being a delegation to the International Labour Conference (ILC) and other conferences that has to do with labour standards. I think that those experiences would be very useful once they are applied effectively.
You said it will be a plus, but don’t you also think that the pressure could sometimes be too much on you, especially from the government, represented by your ministry. In a situation where your minister is under severe pressure and needs your help, and your unions are also looking up to you to provide leadership, how do you intend to balance the two sides?
The law also gives us advantage because, one, you are free to belong to a trade union and that is why I am a member of ASCSN and I emerged as a president. It therefore means that, in the Ministry of Labour who is the custodian of industrial relations, they know the role I’m playing. So, I will not mortgage the rights of workers with whatever happens. My drive is to ensure the sustainability of the rights of workers and the workers’ welfare becomes paramount. Don’t also forget that the Ministry of Labour is the custodian of industrial relations and promotion of workers’ welfare. So, by virtue of that, it doesn’t mean that whatever government wants to do, the ministry approves. No. The ministry also advises the government on how to handle industrial relations matters, and that is the basic thing. Me, being there does not mean that my minister will call me and say don’t do this. The minister is a man who understands the working dynamics of a trade union movement and I bet you, we would have a very smooth relationship because I and the minister were doing the same thing; to ensure industrial peace and harmony in the world of work.
In case a situation arises for you to lead the union to go on strike, you know the extent at which the government can go and pressurize you?
Strike is a right and no government stops your right. So, when that comes, they say when we get to the bridge, we will know how to cross it. But I wouldn’t want the government to force us to get to that level. That is why we have different channels- mediation, conciliation, and of course arbitration. So, if things work well you don’t have a crisis and that is why we are appealing to the government to always ensure that the by-product of collective bargaining which is collective agreement is honoured. Once you honour it, you have the workers’ support. Workers are not touts, we are partners in progress, so, let us do it together because we believe in teamwork. If we team up with the government, the government team up with us, we will have a team and together everyone will achieve more and our economy will be devoid of industrial crises.
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