Withheld salaries: Uncertainty as ASUU rejects FG’s offer

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There is no respite in sight for university workers under the umbrella of Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, who are agitating for the release of their withheld salaries resulting from last year’s industrial action.

Bellnews reports that the union last week lost its suit against the federal government over the salaries withheld for the period they were on strike in 2022.

The development came after the National Industrial Court, NIC, dismissed the case filed by ASUU against the Minister of Labour and Employment and the Accountant General of the Federation.

ASUU was on strike which lasted for eight months in 2022 over issues revolving around revitalisation of public universities and a review of lecturers’ salaries and allowances, among other matters.

After several meetings and efforts to resolve the strike ended inconclusively, the federal government headed to the National Industrial Court to challenge the union’s action.

In its ruling, the industrial court granted the federal government’s application for an interlocutory injunction to restrain ASUU from continuing with the strike pending the determination of the substantive suit.

However, early in November last year, when they returned to work, the members of the union were bewildered following the payment of half salaries for only 18 working days in October to its members by the federal government.

The development followed the federal government’s insistence on implementing the ‘No Work, No Pay’ policy when the university workers were away from their duty posts.

The then Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige, had said that the lecturers were paid in pro rata for the number of days they worked, counting from the day that they suspended their industrial action.

The National Industrial Court further upheld the no work, no pay rule when it ruled in the suit filed by the federal government against the ASUU.

The union had demanded salaries of members from February 14 to October 7, 2022, when the strike was called off.

But according to the court, it was within the right of the federal government to withhold salaries of workers who embark on industrial action.

In June this year, ASUU filed a separate lawsuit against the federal government over what it described as discriminatory, unfair and illegal treatment of its members.

The suit was filed by Femi Falana, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, on behalf of ASUU.

The union asked the court to determine whether having paid the salaries of members of the Joint Staff Union, National Association of Resident Doctors and lecturers in the Medical Facilities/Medical and Dental Academic of the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Nnewi Campus, Anambra State during the period of industrial actions, the decision of the defendants to withhold the salaries of the members of the claimant from February to October 2022 was not discriminatory and illegal.

The union also wanted the court to determine “whether the members of ASUU were not entitled to payment of their salaries for the months of February to October 2022, of which their members were on strike.

While ruling on the matter last week, the President of the NIC, Hon. Justice Benedict Kanyip, dismissed the case on the basis that it was an abuse of court process, frivolous and vexatious.

Justice Kanyip also awarded the sum of five hundred thousand Naira (N500,000) payable by ASUU to the Attorney-General of the Federation within 30 days.

“This stance is further reinforced when the supporting affidavit of the instant suit is considered. In paragraphs 6 to 12 and 15 of the affidavit in support of the instant suit, the Claimant recounted what constitutes the work of a lecturer, how the strike it embarked upon does not abrogate the responsibilities of its members as lecturers, how, despite that the defendants refused to pay its members their salaries for the period of the strike, how the strike continued thereby, how the teaching job component of their job was only restored upon the orders of this Court and the Court of Appeal, etc. These were matters ASUU ought to have canvassed in Suit No. NICN/ABJ/270/2022 if they had filed their defence processes. But ASUU ‘strategically’ chose not to.

“ASUU accordingly has itself to blame for all these ‘strategic’ blunders. It cannot, by the instant suit, re-litigate a suit it deliberately refused to file a defence to. To do so would be re-litigation through the backdoor. I so hold,” the court ruled.

Recall that before the court judgement, President Bola Tinubu had last month approved the partial waiver of the “No Work, No Pay” order against ASUU members.

According to the presidential spokesman, Ajuri Ngelale, Tinubu approved the grant of the waiver with a mandatory requirement that the Federal Ministry of Education and the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment must secure a Document of Understanding establishing that the exceptional waiver granted by the President would be the last one to be granted to ASUU and all other education sector unions.

Ajuri said the waiver would allow for the previously striking members of ASUU to receive four months of salary accruals out of the eight months of salary which was withheld during the eight-month industrial action undertaken by the union.

He said Tinubu invoked the Principle of the Presidential Prerogative of Mercy, seeking to “mitigate the difficulties being felt during the implementation of key economic reforms in the country, as well as his recognition of the faithful implementation of terms which were agreed upon during the deliberations between ASUU and the Federal Government of Nigeria”.

Findings by Bellnews indicated that the union was not amenable to the condition attached to its members receiving the four months of salary accruals out of the eight months of salary.

A top official of the union told Bellnews that signing the agreement would amount to ‘slavery.’

He said the union would never relinquish its rights because of the withheld salaries.

Speaking to bellnews about the matter, the ASUU UNN branch chairman, Comrade Nobert Oyibo Eze said the government was yet to reach out to the union concerning the eight months’ backlog of salaries – a fallout from last year’s strike.

He also said that the national body of ASUU has not come out with any statement on the recent court pronouncement on the matter.

Eze said that the leaders must consider the interest of the people for things to work well in the country.

He further warned that ‘‘it is going to be worse for this country if the courts are no longer doing what is proper’’.

He said, ‘‘As far as the idea of four months salary and signing documents are concerned, ASUU has not received any official communication from the government. And the truth of the matter is that we have done the work. And you cannot deny us our salaries after we have done the work.

‘‘You see, the problem with the Nigerian system is that we have a political class that is hypocritical, that is self-centred and extremely wicked.

“Why would they want to answer a doctor and a professor and claim they have attended university, which they did not? They claim all sorts of titles from the educational sector, they want to be doctor, professor; they want to claim they have the degrees. So, education is good to them but they cannot fund it in this country. What exactly is the government of this country doing?

“Recently, it was reported all over the place about the N160 million they appropriated to each one of the members of the National Assembly to buy bulletproof vehicles. So, they are the only ones to be secured.

‘‘The major salary they are paying the workers, they cannot pay it. Whenever it comes to their own, there would be money.

“I read somewhere two days ago about how N104 billion was sandwiched, smuggled into the budget as an end of the year parting gift, where a senator will take N300 million and a member of the House will take N200 million.

“Whenever it comes to their own needs, there would be money. But when it comes to taking care of the workers who generate this money, they will be talking about empty treasury. Are they talking to kids?

‘‘President Tinubu said during his campaign that if he becomes the president of this country, he will make sure that he stops strikes in the university by ensuring that whatever the universities need to be functional that he provides them.

“Since he took over as the President, has he called the members of the union to dialogue? Why do we have this type of system where the people, the masses who are working are being crushed?

“Today, we are buying a litre of fuel at N700, how much is our salary? A professor’s salary cannot feed him summarily for two weeks.

‘‘I want to tell them that if they want things to work in this country, they must consider the people. If all of us die, who are they going to govern?

“Why is it that our political class is self-centred? Other governments are pumping money into the system to have a state-of-art-university. Here in Nigeria, they are busy proliferating universities, which they don’t fund. The health sector is sick.

“I’m saying, unless they pay those salaries, things will not work well in the universities. And they are even using the eight months salaries, which we have worked for as a cover because the major issues why we went on strike, nobody talks about it anymore.

“We went on strike because our take-home-package can no longer take us home. This salary we are receiving today, they were negotiated and effected in 2009. What is the exchange rate now compared to 2009?

“What is a professor in Nigeria earning when you convert the dollars to naira? It is a shame that our people go to places where things work, they send their children overseas to study because things are working well there.

‘‘Why is it that the people who are now in government, those who went to the university, who enjoyed bursary award, free education, federal scholarship cannot even give scholarships, cannot even pay salaries?

“All over the place, the primary and secondary schools are crying. Then come to the universities, colleges of education and polytechnics.

‘‘Nobody is enjoying the strike. If they uplift the system, strike will stop. As long as they continue to play politics, we will continue to go on strike.”

When asked to comment on the court judgement, he said, ‘‘The courts are no longer the hope of common persons. I cannot address that issue because the national body has not come out with any statement.

“You see, they are using courts to do whatever things they want to do. The court is not helping the situation. Nigerian people don’t believe in court any more.

“It is going to be worse for this country when the courts are no longer doing what is proper; nobody will be interested in going to court.

‘‘We did our work. There is no question…Are they saying we did not work?

“After the strike, we went back and made sure that every lacuna was closed up. JAMB has continued to admit people because we are teaching.

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