By Garba Shehu
Tuesday, May 1 is Worker’s Day all over the world and expectations are that questions will be asked of what Muhammadu Buhari, the President of Nigeria is doing to make life better for workers in the country.
I place a caveat here. I work for the President and I am paid for the work I do. This is to save the naysayers some trouble, using their energy to launch attacks when I say that President Buhari is the most-worker friendly administration this country has seen for a long, long time, if ever. Here is the evidence.
When he came into office in 2015, President Buhari met a plan literally cast in stone from 2014 for the retrenchment of thousands of workers by the previous administration. The basis of this, as was then stated is that the civil service was over bloated and the payment of salaries was giving them trouble. The plan was put on for the elections.
You recall that when he was presented with the interim report of the Ahmed Joda-led transition committee, the President-elect was shown a document in which 23 states had not paid their workers, in one or two cases for up to 12 months. He said this was a national emergency and would be treated as such.
The first thing the President did on coming to office was to stop the planned retrenchment. No retrenchment, he ordered, and charged everyone to go and pay them. When the economic recession deepened and the banks and oil companies began to retrench, he asked the Minister of Labour and Employment to stop it. If anyone refused to make a sacrifice as others were doing, they should be sanctioned.
To ease the tight liquidity situation in which the states were, he gave bailout loans through the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), specifically asking them to pay workers and pensioners. In 2015, a Salary loan of about N338bn was disbursed to the states. He gave approval to the CBN to extend the repayment periods of their other loans so that they could have more money that they can use to take care of their workers.
Similarly, the huge, unpaid refunds due to the states from the Paris and London Club settlements for which the federal government overcharged the other two tiers of government that had remained unpaid since the Obasanjo years have been given an attention.
So far, two tranches, making about 50 per cent have so far been returned to them. In sum total, N1.75tn has been given to states as extra-statutory allocation known as bailout since the advent of President Buhari’s administration.
The President has also been paying attention to the accumulated problems of outstanding allowances, promotion allowances, earned- allowances etc. which have pitched unions in various sectors against the government. These are problems dating back to the years of the PDP administration. Already, three billion Naira has been paid and another eight billion is on the way.
In the forthcoming payments, government is particularly interested in alleviating the problems of ASUU and NASU staff in universities that refused to join the last strike action, and for which their mother unions excluded their members from the lists they submitted for payment.
Similarly, government appropriated N30 billion in 2017 and more will be paid under the 2018 appropriation for offsetting the backlog of promotion allowances; hazard and call duty allowances and so forth. In all cases, government has given instructions that allowances be paid directly into the personal accounts of beneficiaries, to avoid past practices of diversion of funds by ministries.
To ease the housing problems of workers, the administration has set up the Federal Integrated Staff Housing (FISH), by which civil servants have started owning houses categorized as One Bedroom, for between N3-5 million; Two Bedroom, for N5-10 million; Three Bedroom for N9-15 million and Four Bedroom between N13-17million, the latter designed for public servants. All they are required do is to obtain an application for N1, 000 and apply. All states of the Federation are to benefit from this scheme.
The Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige has started commissioning these houses that have been completed in places like Kubwa and Lugbe in the FCT. Nasarawa, Cross River, Gombe and Lagos States are to follow.
There is also an on-going Federal Mass Housing Scheme, in two categories, one by the Ministry of Finance and the other by the Ministry of Power, Works and Housing. The two schemes are running at a parallel and have both taken off.
The issue of the national minimum wage is now back as a top agenda of the administration. It has entered its final stages with public hearings held in the six geopolitical zones of the country between April 23- 30.
The government has continued to pay attention to service welfare with promotions being sustained throughout the public sector. The National Health Insurance Scheme is being reinvigorated and pensions being streamlined by the Pension Transitional Arrangement Directorate (PTAD.)
The public service is being re-injected with new blood with on-going recruitment exercises in the Immìgration, the police and the three branches of the Armed Forces.
In doing all these and many more, the message from President Buhari to workers and the labour unions is that they are seen and treated as partners.
Nigeria, the largest economy on the continent cannot be where it is today without the commitment of workers. The stock market continues to soar, the administration continues to score big on major rail, road and other infrastructure projects that are unfolding across the country, all due to the commitment and dedication of Nigerian workers.
On this day and always, the nation owes them a lot of gratitude.
Mallam Garba Shehu is the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media & Publicity.