By Abraham Uwuasom
The leader of Nigeria’s foremost labour union has condemned the lingering crisis over workers’ welfare in Benue State.
Ayuba Wabba, President of the Nigeria Labour Congress, described salary crisis under the administration of Dr Samuel Ortom as deliberate and “the worst case scenario in the country.”
In a swift response, the state government denied the allegations, saying it is the only state that opens her finances to the scrutiny of labour leaders after implementing the federal minimum wage policy in the state.
“The wilful act of the government was illegal as it violates all known rules of employment, callous, morally reprehensible and a betrayal of the trust of workers and pensioners who had voted the government into office,” Mr Wabba said.
Mr. Wabba spoke during a visit to Makurdi, the state capital, recently to stand with the workers across the state in their on-going confrontation with Mr. Ortom’s government.
Mr. Ortom has drawn heavy criticism for owing workers for some of the longest periods in the country. Its salaries backlog ranged between seven months to state workers and 13 months for retirees.
Some workers at the local government level across the state have gone 11 months without pay, a situation that has angered not only union leaders but also political opponents of the governor.
“Benue has no reason to owe workers,” Abba Moro, a former minister and chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party, said in a statement in August.
Mr. Moro accused Mr. Ortom of squandering funds he received as internally generated revenue and monthly allocation from the federal government.
Mr. Moro also said the state cashed-in significantly from the Paris Club refund and a federal bailout grant approved by President Muhammadu Buhari, a statement that was echoed by Mr. Wabba in his Makurdi visit.
Mr. Ortom refused to pay “salaries, pensions, and gratuities after collecting bail-out funds and Paris Club refunds,” Mr. Wabba said.
The state received N12 billion in federal bailouts in 2015 and N6.4 billion in Paris Club refund last year.
Mr. Wabba said the failure of Mr. Ortom to settle workers’ salaries betrayed his “indifference and insincerity” to the situation, urging all union members to obtain voters’ card because the governor allegedly saw them as having no electoral value.
Terver Akase, the chief press Secretary to Governor Ortom, rejected Mr. Wabba’s claims as “politically-motivated” in a reaction.
“What he did was like a political rally to whip up sentiments and set people against the government,” Mr. Akase said. “One would expect a leader of his calibre to be measured in his comments.”
He said the state’s finances cannot meet up with its obligation, a situation he said workers understand.
“The workers know allocation is far below what it used to be and the state does not earn much in internally generated income,” the spokesperson said.
Governor Ortom had decried the financial situation of his state in an interview with Journalist earlier this month, putting monthly federal allocation at N3 billion and state tax receipt at N250 million per month.
“I have salary arrears, gratuity and pension liability of over N40 billion,” Mr. Ortom said, describing the N6.4 billion Paris Club refund as “a drop in the ocean.”
“Benue appreciates workers for showing great understanding over the past two years,” Mr. Akase added. “We will not allow anybody to come from anywhere to put the cordial relationship in jeopardy.”
But Mr. Wabba vowed to continue the struggle with the Ortom administration until issues around the welfare of the workers are resolved.
Mr. Wabba urged labour leaders in the state to urgently take required steps to fully mobilise all the workers of the state for effective action to defend their interest