Salary arrears as a misnomer

PHOTO: http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/

PHOTO: http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/

SEVERAL news outlets from Nigerian dailies are reporting on a serious economic sabotage of the working class wherein the practice of Nigeria’s employment law is observed in its breach. The revelation is that wages are being withheld on a widespread scale. The worrisome claim is that the very watchdog hired by the sovereigns, and empowered by the constitution, that is the executive, legislative and judicial arms of government are neck deep in an unholy practice of withholding wages of workers.

In many jurisdictions, it is a violation of law and the collective bargaining agreements. The Nigerian constitution frowns at it too. It falls under the general premise of the Fundamental Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy as enshrined in the 1999 Constitution’s Chapter II, Section 17(3)(c ) whereby government is enjoined to protect and ensure that “the health, safety and welfare of all persons in employment are safeguarded and not endangered or abused.”

In the U.S., it is against the Fair Labour Standards Act (FLSA), which requires a qualifying employer in most cases to pay workers their earned wage, above a minimum level, and with earned overtime pay, if they are not classified as exempt. Withholding pay or wages may be allowed under certain strict guidelines vide a court order, wage garnishment, tax lien, mutually agreed proffers, or other legally permitted rules. Arbitrarily withholding wages does far more grievous harm to the worker. In fact, wrongfully withholding wages from a bona fide employee may result in costly legal consequences for the employer, including governmental agencies. In some places, the repayment penalty may even be a multiple value of what was withheld.

Obviously the debtor-state governments have scant respect for their workers that they can spurn their fundamental rights to fair compensation. The first duty of government is the protection of lives and not this conscious plan, wittingly or unwittingly, to impoverish them and force them into homelessness. The Nigerian constitution recognizes this fact under the herein before referenced Chapter II, Section 14 (2)(b) thus: “The security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government.”

Several commentators have written on this unfolding criminality. Yes, that is what it is when you seize wages duly earned and then withhold same for several months, some upwards of six to nine months, without interest credit! The public, and especially the injured workers who have locus standi, without prejudice to their other rights, must take the fork in the road and contest this criminal conversion. It is a task that must be done!

What exactly is considered a job – an employment – in today’s Nigeria and who has legitimate claims to having one these days? That may be the question of the year for all the elected public officials to answer. Further, is the Nigerian employer aware of the truism that a worker is deserving of his wage?

In some cases, there has been the incredible report of non-remittance of pre-tax pension withholdings, and or the suspect heist of the pension accounts of public employees. Why is such a revered social safety net meant for the retirement years being desecrated and raided? We may be looking at organized crime here, or perhaps a form of racketeering being practised in the most brazen manner.

In Abuja and other state capital cities, the preoccupation is about personal entitlements of the political class and the place of ranking partisans in the sharing of the spoils of office. Unfortunately, no one is exploring legally sufficient, fair compensation for those that oil the wheels of the economy with the same gusto. The alleged plea by the state governors in asking for economic relief from the Federal Government as a palliative for the workers is revolting to say the least, and is clearly antithetical to the principle of accountability and good governance. If the previous federal allocation and internally (locally) generated revenue from which the wage bill is funded were allegedly mismanaged, why would any sane Federal Government release more funds into the rat hole without an inquisition being carried out?

The Nigerian worker must seize the initiative. Why would folks repeatedly go back to an organization – an employer – as a daily routine to oil its wheel of sustenance, if that entity has habitually and contractually failed in its basic obligation to compensate its workers? It can be argued that the alleged pension and wage theft compromises the provision of the 1999 constitution’s Chapter II, Section 16(2)(d) which requires the government to provide “suitable and adequate shelter, suitable and adequate food, reasonable national minimum living wage, old age care and pensions, and unemployment, sick benefits and welfare of the disabled … for all citizens.”

The question that begs an answer from the affected worker, in a sense, technically though, is if there is still a job for you when and where you are not being paid your wages and entitlements, time and time again? The reality is that the more things remain the same, the more they will never change unless you invoke Newton’s laws of motion to redress your plight. Where are the civil rights advocates and the array of activists that claim public interest commitment when they are needed most?

• Dr. Ihekwaba is a public official and wrote in from Florida, USA
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