Senator Chris Ngige is the Minister of Labour and Employment. He midwifed the N30,000 Minimum Wage. He has conciliated many Labour disputes with the government. He recently had a disagreement with Organised Labour on the choice of Chairman of the board of Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund, NSITF. But Ngige says he has done his best for Labour Ministry. He also speaks on other Labour issues.
On his achievements as Labour Minister and the magic wand, he used to manage industrial relations within the past four years.
There is no real magic about it. The proactive stand of the Ministry under my care and bringing to bear my experience in life as a worker with the Federal Ministry of Health helped me. I worked in the clinic before coming to the headquarters to manage the federal staff clinic in the states under the Department of Hospital Services.
So I gained some experience of what the expectations of a worker could be in managing his emoluments to satisfy his monthly needs. I managed a zone for my party and also acquired some experience there as Assistant Secretary of the party. By the grace of God, I became governor of Anambra State when there was turbulence and serious labour crisis between the unions in the state and the outgoing governor then, Dr Chinwoke Mbadinuju and decided to learn how to manage labour disputes from there.
I came to the Senate and became a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Power, Metallurgy and Steel Development, Science and Technology and for a while, Committee on Education. These are areas where you have a potential labour crisis. In the Senate Committee on Health, we were managing labour issues especially with the NMA, Resident Doctors and other health workers and finally, I found myself as Minister of Labour and Employment.
His achievements as Labour minister
I have always known that whatever I do or wherever I find myself as a public officer, I should do my best because history can be kind to you when you do your best and when you don’t do well, it will be unkind to you, record you badly and in most cases, you won’t even have the opportunity to defend yourself.
Summarising our achievements will be difficult. When I came, the economy of the country had nose-dived. The President inherited a broken economy. Oil prices moved from over $90 to about $30.
There was insecurity in the Niger-Delta and the production of oil fell from 2.2 million barrels per day to about 1.2 million. It took the intervention of the Vice-President and the Minister of State for Petroleum, Ibe Kachikwu to run to the Niger- Delta and start speaking to them and calming frayed nerves because Goodluck Jonathan had just lost an election and there was the feeling among Niger Delta youths that ‘our brother has been pushed out’.
He moved to introduce the Treasury Single Account. I was one of those who supported the introduction of the Treasury Single Account, having been in the Senate and seen the pillage and wastage of funds that was going on among the MDAs in the country.
We also had our obligation to workers in the private sector and we had to dialogue with our social partners, NECA. Those who are not within the ambit of NECA like the oil companies, we brought them here and the then Minister of State, the late James Ocholi (SAN) and myself, addressed them and worked out a format of what could be done.
There was the issue of shortfall in salaries and other allowances. One or two hospitals went on strike and we applied the principle of ‘no work, no pay’ and some doctors in Jos and FMC, Owerri became casualties and till today, we have not refunded their pay. After them came the JOHESU.
They went on strike and we negotiated with them in the first instance and in 2018, they went on another round of strike and we had to invoke the ‘no work, no pay’ principle on them after two months. We had to do so because, after two months, the ILO permits you to invoke it. In fact, the ILO permits you to invoke it immediately anybody on essential services embarks on strike.
A government that inherited a battered economy tried to do its best.
Don’t forget that this Ministry is called the Ministry of Labour and Employment and even though there was no money and the personnel cost kept increasing, we said we must give employment to Nigerians.
So, we did a double barrel approach to it. The government established the N-Power programme which was domiciled in the Vice-President’s office. We employed 200,000 in the first batch in 2016/2017 and in 2017/2018, we employed another batch of 300,000 and placed them on a monthly pay of N30,000. We also had an N-power built for those without a university degree, who needed to learn some craft in various fields.
We categorised them into the northern and southern zones and employed about 80,000 persons. We trained them for about nine months and empowered them with work tools. We also increased recruitment in all sectors of government who were allowed to replace those leaving and promote others.
We did not place an embargo on employment and so, many Nigerians were employed. We might not have been able to satisfy everybody in terms of white collar jobs. But in terms of blue collar jobs, we did a lot there.
We revitalised skills acquisition centres through the NDE and the Ministry. We had special skills acquisition centres being manned by the Department of Skills Acquisitions in Lagos, Kaduna, Calabar, Bauchi, Kano and Warri among other places. We did not achieve all that we needed to achieve in that area because our original thinking was to be funded enough to revive all the skills acquisition programmes including those belonging to state governments and do a national programme for continuous training of people in these areas.
One of the achievements is the minimum wage…
Well, it is a big one. The minimum wage was one of the products of the technical committee that worked on the palliatives as a result of the increase in the pump price of PMS. Here, we were the anchor ministry and I led the government delegation comprising about seven ministers, the Salaries and Wages Commission and the state government.
It was a tortuous and excruciating discussion because of where we found ourselves and where we were coming from. About 27 states were unable to pay the existing minimum wage of N18,000 and now, there is a demand, a genuine demand necessitated by the increase in pump price of PMS and the fact that inflation has eaten deep into the N18,000 and also by the fact that there was a big depreciation of the dollar, even though we were not computing everything about wages with the dollar.
But we know that 40 to 50 per cent of the needs of every worker is foreign-based. The minimum wage encompasses transport and housing needs. The last minimum wage was last negotiated and passed into law in 2011 and so, six, seven years down the line, there was a need to touch it because even the constitution prescribes that you must adjust pension every five years or you adjust pay wages before the five years.
You said it was a tortuous negotiation and now, there are governors who say they cannot pay the N30,000 agreed upon
No, it is a national law and no governor can say he will not pay. Issue of the national minimum wage is item 34 on the Exclusive Legislative List of the Third Schedule of the Nigerian Constitution. Issue of labour is also there and not on the concurrent list. If it is on the concurrent list, then they can make their own state Assembly laws on that.
Every state government is now owing to workers if they have not started paying N30,000. They are owing workers effective from April 18, a new minimum wage. We are now in a committee working out a new template with which we will adjust upward the consequential adjustment for those already earning above N30,000.
The minimum wage is for the most vulnerable down the ladder and that is the man on grade level one step one. So, you must consequentially adjust for the man on grade level two, grade level three, grade level four and five, because that man on GL 1 step 1 has overtaken them with his new payment.
That is what we refer to as consequential adjustment. This consequential adjustment touches more the people on the lower ladder and we are working it out. The negotiation is going to be with the Joint Negotiating Council in both the federal and at the state level.
What we are trying to do now with the Salaries and Wages Commission is that we have a technical committee working out what the Federal Government will do for their workers and advise the state governments appropriately.
In 2011, there was a mistake in the consequential adjustment in some states when they applied the principle of percentage increase across the board and they ran into trouble and were not able to pay.
What this N30,000 translates into is that there is a 67 per cent increase. If a state government applies the same 67 per cent increase across the board, there will be serious trouble, the same with the Federal Government and when there is that trouble, there will be trade dispute because the principle of ability to pay will come in and ILO encourages us to apply those principles in our discussions.
If I am unable to pay and my workers know that I am unable to pay, we will sit down and agree on what I am able to pay. So, there is a baseline now as no worker in Nigeria should earn anything less than N30,000 provided that the establishment has more than 25 workers.
Recently, I saw the NLC President on television saying you were trying to frustrate the implementation of the new Minimum wage.
That was when they were trying to picket and I pitied him because he was trying to blackmail me in the wrong direction. I am the prime mover of the new minimum wage.
If you ask anybody in the Federal Executive Council, they will tell you so and the President will also tell you so. So, the President of the NLC is playing politics. But he can’t play politics on workers like that. If he wants to play politics, he should leave labour unionism because the Labour laws do not allow labour leaders to play partisan politics.
So, when will workers begin to enjoy the new minimum wage?
They have started enjoying it. Employers in the private sector adjusted immediately because it is easier for them. In the government sector, the bureaucracy and bottleneck of government are responsible for the delay. You know that you must budget for it. That is what is causing the delay. But whenever the encumbrances are removed, they will pay arrears with effect from April 18, 2019.
So, I advise all employers of labour in Nigeria, including state governments, to immediately set up their Joint Negotiating Councils so that whatever we get from here, we give it to them and they will look at it based on their peculiarities.
There are no two states that are the same in terms of the revenues coming from the federation account and internally generated revenue. So, when the template from the federal level is given to you, you put it on the table with the Joint Negotiating Council and discuss how it suits you and cut into it as much as possible with the finances available to you.
Luckily, today, the finances of states are known. Everybody knows what the state is coming from FAAC with. The IGR of most state governments is also known now. So, it is a pleasant situation that we are all in now.
One of the things that have often led to unrest and strike in the country especially among government workers is the inability of the government to implement signed agreements with Unions. Right now, ASUU is spoiling for another round of strike…
You started by asking what is my major magic. The major magic is that I have forced government establishments to keep to agreements especially the ones that we entered into now. Where we have difficulties is the 2009 and 2013 agreements that the then government made.
But nobody wants to know that. They will tell you that government is a continuum. So, as much as possible, we try to renegotiate some of these agreements to make them realistic. The ILO principles permit that CBAs that are not feasible can be renegotiated.
That is the luck we have and in this Ministry, we have used it to the advantage of the government. That is why today if you go to the Industrial Arbitration Panel, they are complaining that cases no longer come. We are taking the bullets here and not putting some there. I have read through cases that went there and discovered that when cases go there, employers are not satisfied and still go to the National Industrial Court and to the Court of Appeal.
As they are doing that, you have a spate of industrial actions because once the workers find out that you are trying to frustrate them from getting what they believe is theirs, they will find ways of declaring new dispute. So, now that we are here, we have told the government the truth. I insist and bring government officials here for negotiation. I don’t take officers for negotiation.
The best we can do is for a Minister to come for the first two meetings and then delegate his Permanent Secretary and this has worked. Ministers are chief executives of the ministries and are the ones who will take the major decisions and do a memo to Mr. President saying we need this and that.
Recently, the Ministry had a running battle with labour especially regarding the issue of NSITF Board. Not minding what has been in the public domain, do you have any personal issues with Frank Kokori and the NLC President?
I have nothing personal against Comrade Frank Kokori, who I respect very much because of the role he played during the June 12 struggle. I was in Lagos and I know the role he played as the General Secretary of NUPENG. He was an employed officer of NUPENG, but stayed there long enough and made those sacrifices.
Many people made sacrifices for June 12. So, I don’t have anything personal against him. If anything, we hold him in high esteem. The same goes for Comrade Wabba whom I met here as NLC President, even though it was a fictionalised NLC when I came.
But for the NLC President, I don’t like his style of administration and I have told him that many times. He operates a system of divide and rule which I don’t like. He operates a system whereby if he doesn’t like anybody, he wants everybody else to dislike that person. He operates a system whereby if he loses an argument, he becomes very bitter and takes it personally.
But that is not the spirit of social dialogue as prescribed for tripartite partners. In tripartism which is the pedestal of labour administration, you enter some negotiation, losing some and winning some. But he doesn’t have the spirit of playing sportsmanship whenever he loses the negotiation. That is all. He has lost lots of negotiations with me and has taken it personal accusing me of being a stumbling block.
For example, when he called out workers on strike on the fuel price increase, he was negotiating with government and we have gone to the Vice-President’s Akinola Aguda House and reached certain agreements with TUC, NUPENG and PENGASSAN whom they brought as the labour unions in the oil industry and we agreed that we will do an accommodation by which workers will be taken care of under the palliative programme we were talking about.
The TUC President has his grouse which was to know the palliative and government told them they were being worked out. I was mandated to continue negotiating with them as Labour Minister. The meeting I fixed with him and the TUC President, he failed to show up and the next thing was for him to give notice of strike.
We started looking for him and by the time he showed up, he gave one excuse and the next day, he called out workers on strike. That was not our agreement and as Labour Minister, I had to protect government and I worked with the then DG SSS, Daura and we got the unions that were ready to listen to us and explained to them why the strike was unnecessary and what government was doing.
Finally, we managed to get them into the SGF office for us to round off and agree. He came there with his mind already made up and then walked out of the meeting egged on by his General Secretary, one Mr, Peter Eson and all pleadings ended on deaf ears.
Even Comrade Adams Oshiomhole was brought from Benin as governor to help in that negotiation, he was surprised and said he did not understand why his colleagues were behaving that way when the government had conceded to doing certain things.
When they walked out, we did some strategic positioning as government and NUPENG and PENGASSAN saw with us and were with us. The Airways people and Electricity unions under Ajaero were with us. So, we invited them and started discussing with them.
Then he said I have divided NLC when he was the one who divided NLC during their election. He took it personally and held it against me because the strike failed. It was the first NLC major strike in Nigeria that failed because it was an unreasonable strike.
Again, when we were doing accreditation in 2016 for people to go Geneva for the International Labour Conference, I allowed workers of NUPENG, PENGASSAN and the Electricity union who were affiliated to the other faction of NLC that was called United Labour Congress who applied for accreditation in Geneva through my Ministry.
They are workers who were having a problem with their erstwhile federation, but that does not deny them their rights. The only thing that we have not done was to register the new trade federation called ULC which they want to belong to, but they had the right to be accredited to ILC and I did that as their Minister.
Comrade Wabba said I committed harakiri and wrote petitions to Geneva against me because he has a General Secretary who writes for him on every issue. But the ILO ignored the letter. As the Labour Minister, I have the power to accredit even workers that do not belong to unions provided I am satisfied the person is a worker.
But I felt that it was not right reporting your competent authority to Geneva and he didn’t even come to discuss with me before taking that step. That is one of the things I find absurd, his ways of operation and not going for consultations with his competent authority.
Again, during the JOHESU strike, he was the immediate past President of Medical and Health Union and I asked him to join us and help us negotiate with them.
He joined in one or two negotiations and then disappeared. JOHESU became so recalcitrant, hostile and abusive to the Health Minister. I told them that you don’t do this during negotiations because it means that you have come with a classified mind. When the negotiations moved on and Wabba withdrew, I sensed danger and that there was more than met the eyes.
Two months of strike and hospitals shut down and ILO classified Health workers as being on essential services which you can even replace and use the money due to them to pay the workers you have brought in.
Section 43 of the trade dispute act, says there is no pay for a worker who is not on duty.
It is a law and so, I called back the NLC President and informed him that his people have been on strike for two months and that he should help talk to them because the Health Minister has written me to invoke the no work, no pay and it is a law of government.
I will give them the go ahead and inform the Ministry of Finance if they don’t go back to work. I told him the government has offered much more money than the health ministry has. I told them that from the figures sent to the SGF office, we found out that there was a mistake because the calculation was made for parity with medical doctors and there was no way health workers can earn the same parity with doctors.
I even promise to do a joint memo to the President with the Minister of finance for the government to look for the money in the service-wide vote. They still refused. I told them that if they continue and the no work, no pay is declared, there is no guarantee that they will get the money back.
They walked out on me and the Health Minister and the next thing is for them to start saying that we are all doctors and against them. I told them that there was no way I could have been against them because when I was with the Federal Ministry of health, I was the only Doctor who registered with Medical and health Union because I had a serious disagreement with NMA.
Another civil body took them to court and got an injunction against them and so, they were forced to go back to work. I was already preparing my instrument to take them to the same court because it was one of the reconciliation that I found intractable.
So, you should ask yourself, if I have an NLC President belonging to a union and that is the union I cannot negotiate their matter, what does it tell you? So, by December 2018, the books of recurrent expenditure were closed and the money was swept off by the office of Accountant General.
By January 31, Comrade Ayuba authored a letter to me saying JOHESU is recommencing their strike. I received that letter in the week of the election in February and did not even tell anybody about it because it was within my purview to deal with.
So, we wrote him back reminding him that the matter is subjudice because it is before the Industrial Court and has been referred to ADR section. If the ADR is not as fast as you want, the complaint should go to the jury there. Secondly, I said if you resume a strike for an issue that the court has arrested, it will amount to disobedience to the court and definitely, there will be consequences because we are part of the ADR.
My Director Legal services and Director Trade Union Services are part of the ADR. Thirdly, I told them that if they embark on another round of strike, the money will also be ceased under the no work, no pay rule.
He said in the letter that we do pick and choose a situation to apply the no work, no pay and referred to its the so-called no work, no pay. How can a labour leader describe the law of the land as so-called? It is only the courts that can say that the law should not apply.
He said that when other unions go on strike, we don’t apply it. If other unions go on strike, I can manage the discussion because no life will be lost because that is the principles of essential services. He said I negotiated with ASUU for three months and did not apply for no work, no pay.
I did not want to remind him that he came with ASUU and was one of those telling them to get everything they want because the election is near. When I noticed that situation, I played it by the ear, using the principle of carrot and stick. Moreover, no life will be lost because lecturers are out of the classroom.
They can decide to organise lectures to make up for lost ground. I told them that JOHESU can commence strike if they so wish, but there will be double consequences. He did not like my approach because I would have allowed him to intimidate the government. These are some of the sins I committed against Ayuba Wabba
Then the NSITF. I will continue to explain the issue of NSITF because the Act that sets up the place is clear. There are two Labour representatives and there are two employers representatives. When the act was written, the labour representatives are to come from the NLC because it was a 1993 decree that was converted to an Act in 2004.
Nobody has the right to dictate to them who they should be and immediately they submit those names, I pass them down. The only thing I can do is to send them down for SSS screening to show that they don’t have criminal records and that they are proper Nigerians.
The four Executive Directors come from the government side and I also pass them for security screening. Then the Chairman have a special paragraph which says that the Minister of labour will nominate a neutral and competent person to Mr President for appointment as Chairman.
This is so done because it is a tripartite board. The person who should wear the cap as Chairman is not supposed to be among the tripartite. He cannot be an employer association member, he should not be a trade unionist and should not be a government official.
So, when Ayuba Wabba came here along with the NECA DG at that time to tell me that they have made a nomination to the Vice President, I told him it was wrong and that they don’t have the right to nominate. It is the Minister of labour that has the right to do so and I have not done so.
I wrote to the Vice President who was then acting as President to point out this anomaly if it ever happens. Where the mixed up came was that there was a committee in the SGF office working on board membership of over 500 boards of government agencies.
But some specialised board were taken away from the basket. I had written to the then SGF informing him that NSITF was one of the specialised board and so, it was taken away from the basket. The same applies to some Aviation boards whose membership was mandatory for you to have an aviation certificate.
But somehow, we do not know how it happens because a lot of things happen in government, some people took back those boards that were taken away from the general basket and the NLC President and his supporters managed to go and do a nomination of Kokori for the board.
When I discovered it, I wrote and luckily, the President had come back and nominated somebody who, in my opinion, and in the opinion of those who nominated him at the National Insurance Commission was a fit and proper person without any colouration to chair the place.
If you look at his CV, you will know that for a place that has been pillaged, a place that has been butchered and battered and left with huge monies nobody can account for and EFCC trying to see what they can recover, you will know that he was the person with the requisite pedigree to run the place.
More so, when the accounts of the place have not been rendered for more than eight years. So, I needed this kind of a person with his experience. I never knew the man, but when I saw the CV, I sent for him for an interview and was certain that the past National Commissioner for Insurance has given me a good deal.
So, I have nothing against Kokori as a person, I have nothing against Ayuba Wabba. Wabba is the one to explain to you how he nominated Comrade Kokori there against the Act. How did he do it and why was he very desperate to have Comrade Kokori on that Board and also have him chair another board of a sister company of NSITF called Trustfund pensions.
Whoever is Chairman of NSITF also chairs the board of Trustfund pensions. Why is he blocking NSITF from having board members on Trustfund pensions until a Kokori led Board comes into place. What is he covering up?
He said I am the one trying to cover up. What am I covering up? The board is there now and Labour people are there. Let them expose whatever Ngige has done there and not making wild allegations.
He said my Minister of State had a Prado jeep from NSITF. What is wrong about that? My former Minister of State who died in an accident crashed our two vehicles meant for that office. In fact, one of the vehicles was meant for me. The one I am using now is my personal vehicle because the one belonging to the Ministry has been grounded for a long time.
So, he is the one who will answer your question on what he has against me that he took it upon himself to invade my private home by 4.30am with petrol tankers loaded with products and returned at 5.30 am with some NLC officials some of who climbed my wall. Peter Eson was one of those who came. A 75-year-old man came to my house early in the morning.
A house they knew has armed men and six ferocious dogs at the risk of their lives. What are they trying to cover up? There are whispers that I am trying to investigate the NLC people who served on that board before and that is why I am putting in place an administrative panel even when EFCC has finished their job.
He wrote to the President to stop the panel saying I don’t have the power to do that. So, he has to tell Nigerians what he is trying to avoid because I have no skeleton to hide. He said most of the people employed there are from my village. What is wrong in that.
Why should they be disqualified from applying for such jobs? If they are disqualified because I am Minister, it runs contrary to the principle of freedom of association.
He has an explanation to make and I am happy that I have brought somebody who knows the job to complement the deficit we have because most of the management members are not from the Insurance industry and they don’t have insurance and financial background to run the place.
You are leaving the office now. If given the opportunity to serve again, what is that thing you would want to do differently?
Number one, the issue of Labour Advisory Council. I would have taken the budgetary aspect of it very seriously. The major problem is that it was never a budget line and to create a new budget line is always a very difficult thing. I would have paid more attention to it.
Also, there are a few aspects of the labour laws that I would have loved amended. One of them is the area that talked about essential services. It is not streamlined in line with the ILO principle on essential services. So, I would love to put it in that line.
Finally, there is the issue of cooperatives in Nigeria. The Ministry of labour and Employment should be the parent ministry that should house Cooperatives in Nigeria. You have Cooperatives in Agriculture, Mining, Industries and many other areas. During the Military era, they created a Ministry of Rural Development and Cooperatives and was dissolved no long after.
At its dissolution, the Cooperative component that was taken out of here was mistakenly sent to Ministry of Agriculture as Agric Cooperatives. There is nothing wrong in the Ministry of Agriculture having an Agric cooperative department. But a national Cooperative for the entire country to supervise all others should be domiciled here.
Even the Colleges of Cooperatives in the country are now bent towards producing Agric cooperatives because they are managed by the Ministry of Agriculture. We had a memo for council, but my colleague in Agriculture said it was something we can discuss because there is already a circular from the Head of Service removing them from Ministry of Agriculture to Ministry of Labour and Employment.
But that has not been done. We could not send that memo during the last rush and it is one assignment I will leave for the incoming Minister of Labour because, with Cooperatives, people can employ themselves. I think it is not all regrets because these are things that can be handled effectively