By Cross Udo
The Federal Government yesterday gave the assurance that its face-off with the university-based unions will soon be resolved and academic activities resume in earnest.
The Federal Government has also denied the allegation that it was planning to create a different payment table for the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).
This is as the government has summoned all the relevant agencies including the National Information Development Agency (NITDA) to brief it on the success so far recording in resolving the contentious issues that led to the ongoing strike by the four university-based unions.
Recall that the public universities were shut down on February 14 by the ASUU and the other three university-based unions, the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU), the Non-Academic Staff Union of Education and Associated Institutions (NASU), and the National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT) joined in the strike over the inability of the government to address their concerns.
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Fielding questions from State House correspondents at the end of the Federal Executive Council, FEC, meeting presided over by President Muhammadu Buhari at the Council Chamber, presidential villa, Abuja, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige said the government was interested in seeing the students going back to school.
The Minister said that the meeting on Thursday (today) is expected to look at the progress report by the relevant bodies handling the crisis including NITDA on how far it has gone with the integrity test on the University Transparency and Accountability System (UTAS) which was proposed as an alternative platform by ASUU and the University Peculiar Personnel and Payroll System (U3PS), proposed by SSANU and NASU.
Ngige said he was waiting for the report of the Tripartite Plus Committee comprising the Ministry of Education, the Chief of Staff, Salaries and Wages Income Commission, the National University Commission (NUC), as well as the striking unions.
On the allegation that the federal government was planning to create a separate salary payment structure for the ASUU, the Minister said there was no veracity in such allegation.
Asked what the government was doing to ensure that universities are re-opened, he said, “It will be resolved very soon. It will be resolved very soon.”
Explaining how far he has gone as the Conciliator to broker a truce between the government and the striking unions, Ngige said, “The Ministry of Labour and Employment, our role in trade disputes, as enunciated in the Trade Disputes Act, is to conciliate. And in doing that, we can appoint an outside arbitrator and pay. We can conciliate inside there and I will appoint whoever, the director in charge of trade union services, the Permanent Secretary or my Minister of State, or myself.
“But I have always decided to conciliate it by myself, because I have a better grasp of the situation, in that I’ve stayed in the Ministry for about seven years now. So I’m even older, on the beat than even my director of training and services, not to talk about the permanent secretary and even my minister of state.
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“So our role is to arbitrate. We don’t take sides, even if it is the government side that is wrong, we will now tell them and ask them to go and do XYZ and come back. If it is the trade unions that are making over demand, we will also tell them and find a middle ground for both the employer and the employee. That is what we adopt. And if you go down memory lane, you will see that we have conciliated a lot of disputes about 3,000 plus in my ministry, and they were successfully done.
“Very few cases were referred out as in that particular law, to the industrial arbitration panel, which is another organ of dispute resolution, or the law also permit me by section 14 that I can transmit it directly to National Industrial Court of Nigeria when I feel, in my own opinion, that the parties to the dispute do not want to conciliate or one has refused my conciliation and then I’m forced to do so.
“So to answer your question directly now…ASUU went on strike on the 14th of February, which we call Valentine’s Day lovers day. By 21, I cut short my trip to an African session conference held in Botswana. And we held a conciliation on the 21st of February with the employers, the Ministry of Education, and the National University Commission.
“As the issue is bordered on money, remunerations, welfare, we did another conciliation meeting inviting the Ministry of Finance, Budget Office of the Federation, National Salaries, Incomes, and Wages Commission and again, with their employers on the first of March.
“After that, it became clear that two cardinal things were still keen: the issue of renegotiation of their welfare package, as in the 2009 agreements. That Agreement says you can review it every five years. So that issue stuck out like a sore thumb.
“Then another issue arose in that agreement, the payment platform of University Transparency, Accountability Solution, which they say they’ve invented. They said they don’t want to be on IPPIS, that IPPIS was amputating their salaries and taking off certain allowances. And so that it is not capturing their peculiarities.
“So two agencies are involved. The direct employer and University Council, are on one side. Salaries, Incomes and Wages Commission and Finance.
“Because the remuneration, the welfare package we’re talking about involves more funds on the side of government, two broad agencies are involved. There is also the payment platform, the Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy, and there are parastatals, the NIDTA, which approves every new portal or any digital platform we want to use in Nigeria now, especially in public service.
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“So NITDA has undertaken to look at that platform, and see if that platform can be beneficial to the government. No employee or worker can dictate to his employer how he or she will be paid. There are principles at work. But the government gave this privilege in consonant with Executive Orders three and five, for local content development, and I support it.
“So NITDA on their own was doing their test. And when NITDA gave their preliminary results, they said user acceptance was the one that they passed. But the whole thing is a total package of vulnerability and stress tests. Vulnerability, whether this platform or this system can be hacked into, without difficulty or stress, and how many people can it carry.
“So, we now have to ask them to go back to these places, form committees with them. Education took them on the issue of the 2009 agreement, which is the renegotiation of their condition of service, and the emolument of their remuneration allowances. Therefore, salaries, income, and wages Ministry of Finance that produce the money are involved. So they went back.
“So that’s where they are, what we call a tripartite plus meeting, based on a presidential directive that the Chief of Staff, myself, finance, education, find the solution.
“That meeting was held in the Banquet Hall. We gave an instruction again for them to go back and come back to terms. So, as I speak to you, as the Arbitrator or Conciliator-in-Chief, I have not gotten back any of the reports from education, from salaries, incomes, and wages, or ASUU because they’re supposed to report to me. I have not gotten any report.
“But on the government side, we’re calling up a meeting tomorrow so that everybody on the government side can report if he has a problem, so we know how to address it.”
On the allegation that the government is not saying anything to ASUU and other unions to resolve the face-off, he said, “It is not true that nobody is talking to ASUU, we are talking to ASUU. Other unions are accusing us of preferential treatment because these other unions have also claimed that they have developed their payment platform and that they will not use your UTAS even if it is good. And they are putting it down in writing and saying they have developed their platform.
“So, what government has done at the last meeting was to say, NITDA, test the three platforms and rate all of them and give us reports. Their term expired last Friday, the time they were given. That’s why we’re calling them to come tomorrow and brief us.
“So, you can see that the situation like the Minister of Information told you two weeks ago is very complex, but we are navigating it, we are taking it to step by step. So that we don’t ruffle feathers, we are interested in our children going back to school.
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“And if ASUU and other unions in the university system want to comply with the labour laws of the country, once I have apprehended a dispute and brought it to my table, you return to what is called status quo antebellum. So even as they have abandoned their jobs, a lot of them and their children at home discussions and work still going.”
Further asked to confirm the allegation that the government was planning to create a separate salary payment structure, he said, “It is works in progress. We have not given any preferential treatment to anybody.
“The remuneration is being looked at. If the government decides to raise, which government is ready to do, it will be holistically done for all university unions because they’re all in the same environment.
“And we know also that once you do it in universities, the Polytechnics will come. The Colleges of Education will come. They are all educational sector. And once you finish with the educational sector, we also know that the health sector will come.
“So it is complex like you said, and so we are not afraid of handling it because the government will do the needful. They have to do that within the available resources they have. So I’m a friend to nobody. I’m not a friend of government and not a friend to trade unions.
“There’s a rivalry. If you pretend there is no rivalry, it is a lie. Everybody knows there is a rivalry.”