Benue state governor, Gabriel Suswam has been engaged in a long-drawn battle with primary school teachers who have been on strike for over seven months demanding for the payment of the new minimum wage to them. In this report, our correspondent, Uche Nnorom, examines the issues in the squabble and asks when it will be finally resolved so that the primary school pupils can return to their class rooms?
Public primary schools in Benue state have continued to count their losses as a result of the protracted strike by teachers over their demand for the payment of minimum wage. This is even as there seem to be no solution in sight yet by the State government in resolving the impasse. Steps so far taken have met a brick wall.
It could be recalled that recently, in an effort to bring the crisis to an end, Governor Suswam had announced the review of salaries of all categories of workers in the state.
The governor, in actualizing this step, had quickly set up a committee consisting of the Secretary to the State government, Dr. David Salifu, the Head of Service Mr. Terna Ahua, the Commissioner of Finance Omadachi Oklobia, with chairman of the Nigerian Union of Teachers in the state, Mr. Godwin Anya and leaders of labour also members of the negotiating team.
However, the move proved to be counter-productive, as labour came up with a hard stand that they will resist the slashing of teachers’ salary.
The state Labour chairman, Comrade Simon Anchaver, at the May Day celebration, described the decision by government as ‘unpopular, maintaining that they will resist it with the last drop of their blood.
“Government should instead make efforts to improve the state revenue to pay salaries of the teachers. It is suicidal to destroy the ladder that took you up to your status. Look critically into the issue which is long overdue so that teachers can go back to classes”, Anchaver appealed.
Reacting to the issue, the Governor averred that teachers enjoy more pay package than other workers and so should graciously accept what they are offering them.
Further sticking firmly to his gun, he insisted that the state meager revenue cannot meet the skewed structure of the minimum wage demanded by the teachers.
The Governor recalled that on inception of his administration, the salary of an average worker was too meager such that it could not withstand the economic situation at that time, maintaining that he made frantic efforts at increasing the take home package of civil servants in the State.
According to him, a grade level 1 civil servants was receiving a paltry N7500 which was subsequently increased to N84208 representing 11.1%, adding that in 2011 when the N18000 minimum came into effect a grade level 7 worker had his salary jumped to N26,641 representing 155.2%.
“Also, a director on grade 16 step 1 who was receiving a salary of N28,978 to N68,528. Whatever we must do as leaders and parents to guarantee the future of these children we will do. The money is not just. Over N2 billion is needed to pay the teachers salary what I collect from the federation account is N2.7 billion. Salary bill of LGAs is over N1 billion, that means more than pN 4 billion is required to meet up the salary wage of the State. I call on workers to make sacrifices. We Will continue to negotiate even though labor has taken a hard stand on the issue.
“They should not see the review as a downward review of salaries but a percentage salary reduction. I and other political appointees have offered willing to sacrifice over 25% of our salaries that means while only three ( 3) thousand naira would be deducted from the salaries of civil servants, we would be giving out more than 20,000 of our salaries”, Suswam passionately appealed.
But in a twist of situation, perhaps frustrated and angered by the hard stance of the teachers and with the problems weighing heavily on his shoulders, the governor at the flag off of the 2014 cropping season and fertilizer sales held at Zaki-Biam, Ukum local government area, the food hub of the State, announced a possible down sizing of work force of the State as the only panacea to addressing the primary school teachers imbroglio.
He disclosed that at least 40% of the workers are to be affected in the impending exercise, explaining that the massive sack would further guarantee the future of the Benue child.
Already, the governor said, he has directed that names of civil servants likely to be affected be complied for necessary action, explaining that the gesture became inevitable following the resistance of workers to heed to government’s resolve to slash down their salaries from 10-25% to settle the teachers.
This recent declaration by the governor may exacerbate the already tense situation the seven month old strike has caused. It has the propensity to ignite a wide protest. Just imagine a state where the only productive industry is the civil service, retrenching hundreds of workers would impact negatively on the State. Not forgetting too, that it precedes an election year thus the consequences would be grievous.
But from all indications, it looks that this time, the governor who had consistently like a sermon on the mount, vowed not to retrench workers would go ahead and implement this draconian act.
With less than a year to the end of his government, Governor Suswam’s action may be a big burden to his successor except there is a swift reversal of his decision just as it would do government and labor a whole world of good to reach a meeting point.
But the question still remains, when will this drama end so that the primary school teachers and their pupils who have borne the brunt of this strike, would go back to classes? Only time will tell.