By Johnbosco Agbakwuru
THE four university-based unions have withdrawn their services as a result of some unresolved demands from the Federal Government.
In this interview, the Minister of Labour and Employment and Conciliator-in-Chief of the Federal Government, Senator Chris Ngige says that the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, has no business embarking on strike because government is working on their demands.
He says the demand by the unions to review their condition of service is a genuine one and that something is being done. He speaks also on the University Transparency Accountability Solution, UTAS.
Excerpts: You had a meeting with the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council over the ongoing strike embarked upon by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities, Non-Academic Staff Union of Allied and Educational Institutions, NASU and National Association of Academic Technologists, NAAT.
How did the meeting go?
I explained to them what had happened, where we are and that a lot of committees have been set up, working with education for them to get these things sorted out. And they have timelines, six weeks. So, ASUU has no business going on strike within that six weeks, they don’t have to. And by labour laws, once I am conciliating a matter, you don’t go on strike, you don’t continue with your strike. I have apprehended it, you know, so if they go on strike like that, they are forcing me to look at other areas of labour laws, because I cannot sit down as minister and a strike is going on and I am doing nothing. If I am unable to apprehend it, then I should send it to higher bodies, National Industrial Court of Nigeria.
Do you think that their demands or agitations are wrong?
What kind of question is that? Somebody says you should review his salary, how can it be a wrong demand? It is not a wrong demand by any standard anywhere in the world, it is not. But you discuss with your employers, that is how it is; and then he will give you his books and every other thing. You look into the ability to pay. It is a part of Decent Work Agenda and International Labour Organisation, ILO Principles at Work.
Can my employer afford this? That is it. So I am not against them demanding that and that is why I told the Ministry of Education to bring back the Committee to look at the proposal that the Professor Manzali Committee did because a lot of the members of the Committee have left. So bring them back and look at this report and then you distill it and get something up for the higher body of government which is the Presidential Committee on Salaries for now.
But as it stands now, what is the way forward, what is the government doing to address the issue?
We are dialoguing, the committees are working, UTAS is being tested.
Which group are you dialoguing with? Is it with ASUU, SSANU, NASU or NAAT?
That of SSANU and NASU is new. So I have asked their employers to go and look at it. Like you are talking about the Staff Schools, that issue is an issue that has long been on ground and we agreed on the ways and things to be implemented. So I don’t know…
What about a court judgment on the issue which the government has not implemented?
Are you sure government didn’t appeal the judgment? I think there is an appeal. But there is an area of the judgment that government said it will implement and the Education ministry said they will implement and I am sure they have implemented that.
If government has implemented it, don’t you think it will be unreasonable for
anyone to go on strike because of that?
That is what you should ask them. It is becoming a habit that when ASUU goes on strike, NASU and SSANU feel that the university is now empty, that they should also go on strike. So that is what has been going on.
There is this impression within SSANU, NASU and NAAT that government doesn’t take them seriously at all, government only tries to recognise ASUU and doesn’t even listen to the demands of others?
It is not true. And make no mistakes about it, a lot of the demands are overlapping. The same complaint on Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System, IPPIS, the same complaint on revitalisation, the same complaint on academic allowances. So they overlap.
So once we treat it with any of the unions, we normally by extension, apply it to the other unions. For example, the earned academic allowances we are working on will encompass all the unions in the university system, all the four unions. The revitalisation fund is for the four unions, they are all affected and other things.
When are we expecting the strikes to come to an end?
You should ask them.
On the side of government, you are the chief conciliator, what efforts are being made to ensure that the strikes are called off?
I am the chief conciliator, yes, but they have their primary employer which is the Ministry of Education, so the Ministry of Education will answer this question, they are their workers, they are their staff.
Have you as the conciliator told their employer, the Ministry of Education the adverse effect of these prolonged strikes?
The adverse effect of the strike is not good, it is like going to war, war does no side any good. But the people who bear the brunt are the children and their parents. So I don’t like it.
Have you told their employers what they should do as the chief conciliator?
I have discussed with them, and they have shown me what they are doing and I think with what they are doing, they are going in the right direction.