There appears to be a stalemate in discussions between the Federal Government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) because of the decision of the government to invoke the no-work, no-pay rule. With the decision, the government has sent a strong message to trade unions in the country that have adopted strike as a tool for arm-twisting governments at all levels by invoking the no-work, no-pay rule.
The government’s position was delivered by the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, during a press briefing with State House Correspondents in Abuja. While the Minister claimed that government had resolved almost all the contentious issues with the striking lecturers, except on two fronts – payments of withheld salaries and the conditions of service, the union disagreed. ASUU challenged Adamu to present evidence before the public of any of the issues the government had pursued to a conclusion.
Although Adamu didn’t disclose the second issue driving a wedge between the government and the leadership of ASUU from reaching a truce, a statement by the university lecturers suggested that the condition of service presented to them by the federal government team may be the second knot that the government was trying to untie. The university lecturers described the government as “miserly” in the statement.
On February 14, ASUU declared a one month warning strike that soon escalated into a full-blown strike. The strike, which has kept public universities shut and academic activities grounded and students and Nigerians bewildered, is in its sixth month, with no end in sight. Some of the demands of the union included: funding for revitalisation of public universities, payment of Earned Academic Allowances (EAA)/Earned Allowances (EA), payment of salary shortfalls, stopping the proliferation of state universities by governors and setting up of visitation panels. Others are: renegotiation of the 2009 FGN/ASUU agreement, adoption of the University Transparency and Accountability Solution (UTAS) as a payment platform for university lecturers and payment of withheld salaries and non-remittance of check–off dues.
To force the unions to return to classrooms, the Federal Government invoked the no-work no-pay rule in March. According to section 43 (1) – (14) of the Trade Dispute Act, an employer has the right to withhold salaries of an employee for work not done. Speaking with State House Correspondents on Thursday, Adamu said: “All contentious issues between the government and ASUU had been settled except the quest for members’ salaries for the period of strike to be paid, a demand that Buhari has flatly rejected.”
He stated that the government rejected ASUU’s demand to be paid the salary backlog because it believes that there has to be penalties for their action. Adamu said: “If you think it is for the government other than what the government is doing in the university to stop the strike, the standard the government has taken now is not to pay the months in which no work was done. I think this is the only thing that is in the hands of the government to ensure that there is a penalty for some behaviour like this.
“So, I believe teachers will think twice before they join the strike if they know that at the end they are not going to be paid and the federal government is not acting arbitrarily. Before, it was some magnanimity on its part, there is a law which says if there is no work, there will be no pay. I believe this will be a very strong element that will be a deterrent from going on strike. On the contrary, unions in tertiary institutions in the country, especially the Academic Staff union of Universities (ASUU), have been engaged in recurring and avoidable strikes that have crippled the university system.”
Adamu offered to take over negotiations with the university unions from the Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, who has been at the forefront on the negotiations on July 19, 2022.
Origin of no work no pay policy
On October 16, 2018, the Federal Executive Council adopted the draft White Paper enforcing the ‘No work, no pay’ rule. According to Ngige, the decision was in compliance with Section 43 of the Labour Act which he said the National Industrial Court had earlier upheld. The draft White Paper was allegedly submitted by a 10-man committee that the Minister chaired, which he said was constituted in 2017 to come up with a White Paper on an earlier technical committee report meant to stem the tide of industrial disputes in the country.
“But when workers go on strike, the principle of ‘no work, no pay’ will also be applied because that principle is enshrined in that same Section 43 of the Labour Act. That section says for the period a worker withdraws his services, government or his employers are not entitled to pay and the period for which they were absent will not count as part of his pensionable period in the public service,” Ngige had said in 2018.
In effect, workers that henceforth embark on strike are not entitled to salaries for the period the industrial action lasts. Government’s clever stance was that Section 43 of the Trade Dispute Act 2004 prohibited salary payment to striking workers and also made workers who are locked out by their employers without following due process entitled to their pay and other benefits. While adopting the White Paper, the government had added that both provisions were now to be enforced. The Trade Dispute Act gave the interpretation of strike to mean: “the cessation of work by a body of persons employed acting in combination, or a concerted refusal or a refusal under a common understanding of any number of persons employed to continue to work for an employer in consequence of a dispute, done as a means of compelling their employer or any person or body of persons employed, or to aid other workers in compelling their employer or any persons or body of persons employed, to accept or not to accept terms of employment and physical conditions of work; and in this definition:- (a) ‘cessation of work’ includes deliberately working at less than usual speed or with less than usual efficiency, and (b) ‘refusal to continue to work’ includes a refusal to work at usual speed or with usual efficiency.”
Rules not enforced.
In the past, the government had failed to enforce the no-work no-pay rule despite invoking it. On concessional grounds, the government had always turned around to pay striking unions for the period they didn’t work. For example, in 2020, when the leadership of ASUU went on strike for ten months, the payment of their salary arrears was one of the conditions the union gave the government before calling off the strike.
The government, through the intervention of Ngige, ensured that the university lecturers received all their withheld salaries before the end of 2021 as contained in the 2020 Memorandum of Action it signed on December 22, 2020 before suspending the strike. “The FGN affirmed its commitment to pay all withheld salaries of ASUU members who had not enrolled in the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System (IPPIS). However, due to special management of funds, the FGN promised to pay in instalments the withheld salaries with effect from December, 2020, starting with the universities that had made submissions of their comprehensive personnel list. The exercise is to last till January 31st, 2021,” the MoA partly read.
ASUU talks tough
However, this latest decision by the government to stand by its policy may have ruffled the university lecturers. President of ASUU, Prof Emmanuel Osodeke, said his members are not threatened by the comments made by the Education Minister, Adamu, last week. Osodeke, who spoke on Arise Television, said: “Our response is that no-pay no-work; that is our major response. I watched the Minister today and I thought as the Minister of Education and as a government, he would come to the table and see how he will resolve the issues in the Nigerian university system rather than issue threats.
“By our academic standard, we are not afraid of threats. Even during the military era, we were not afraid of threats. We will fight for the Nigerian education system to be such that we will now have foreign students coming to Nigeria, foreign lecturers coming to Nigeria as Nigerian students are going outside and Nigerian lecturers are going outside. That is what we want; not coming to talk on television about no-work no-pay. So what?
“As an academic, go and look at my condition of service. I have three lines of work – teaching, research and community service. All we have done is to stop teaching. It is not as if we have stopped research and community service. When we resume, we are going to start from where we stopped and bring up to the present and continue. All the work we have not done in the past, we are going to sacrifice our leave in the next two or three years to meet up those periods to ensure that the students get quality education. So if the government wants to close down the system, it is left to them.
“I am really surprised that the Minister of Education who in the past was well quoted in the dailies – he had a column in one of the newspapers – where he actually supported what we are doing by saying Nigerian universities were not growing and he is coming here to threaten us with the issue of no-work no-pay. So what? I expected him to have quoted one evidence that they have agreed on one of the seven items we are talking about. If they want to kill the system, let them kill it. If their children are in Nigerian universities, they will not be saying what they are saying in the media.”
Forget unfinished academic sessions if you won’t settle our salary backlog, says ASUU
Prof Osodeke further said the lecturers should not be expected to complete the unfinished academic sessions of 2020/2021 if the government insisted on the no-work no-pay policy. He said: “If we agree on that, therefore, the lectures we should have given to students for 2020/2021 and 2021/2022 sessions should be allowed to go; so we start a new session, 2022/2023, in September. Therefore, by July next year, I will go on my leave as we used to have in those days so that the backlog is gone. All the lectures that remain; all the two sets of admissions that JAMB has given that are waiting should become irrelevant.
“When other unions go on strike and come back, all those periods for which you are on strike, you don’t need to do the backlog of work. But for ASUU, when we go back today, we are going to start from the 2020/2021 session. For these two sets of students that have been admitted by JAMB, we have to teach them over these periods to ensure that we meet up with the system. So, we are going to do the backlog of the work we have left behind. We are not going to start today and say ‘this session is 2022/2023.’ Therefore, all these two sets of people that have been admitted by JAMB are cancelled. We have to take another admission for the 2023/2024 session.”
Lawyer, senator weigh in
A human rights lawyer, Frank Tietie, called on ASUU to make “the right kind of sacrifices” to bring the strike to an end. Tietie, who is the Executive Director of Citizens Advocacy for Social and Economic Rights (CASER), said the leadership of ASUU is not making the kind of sacrifices that are needed to move the country forward. “It is clear ASUU has been on strike for months now; Nigerian students have suffered, parents have suffered – the entire Nigerian public is bewildered that this strike that has been unending doesn’t seem to have any justification and that lecturers simply use the issue of standard of education as a means for a call to increase their salaries.
“This has been an unending culture in the university system from the 70s, 80s and all through the 90s. When is it going to stop? There has to be a time where the government has to make a form of disincentive for strike. Strikes have become lucrative for university lecturers especially when they go on strike for whatever time it would take, say six months, seven months in expectation that they will be paid in block.”
The lawyer added: “Nobody should actually be praised. I think we should follow the standard that the law has set. ASUU is appearing to be quite a complicated union and it is understandable. It is not making the kind of sacrifices that are needed to move the country forward. It acts as if the President Muhammadu Buhari administration has been responsible for all the troubles in Nigerian universities. Whereas I recall when I was in the University of Benin in 1992, these are the same issues that they went on strike for under Prof Attahiru Jega (former chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission) and they have gone on successive strikes and the same issues have been there and they all revolve around salaries.
“I think for a country to move forward under this condition, under this circumstances where this country is troubled on all sides, sacrifices need to be made and we don’t need to further terrorise and terrify the polity by all of these complicated demands and then creating a state of hopelessness for our students. ASUU needs to make the right kind of sacrifices. They don’t need to abuse the powers that they have. They are so powerful and secretly the government feels threatened by unions like ASUU that can actually bring it down. Take for example if Nigerian students were to revolt against the government because of the narrative that ASUU is putting forward. The government will be sacked and that is worse than a coup. ASUU should know better the implication of what they are doing and they shouldn’t act as if they want to bring down the government. There is no alternative to the government.
“We can work this out. It is a matter of resources. If the government doesn’t have the resources, it doesn’t have. Yes there is a lot of profligacy. The corruption in government is also applicable in the Nigerian universities. In fact, it is sometimes worse in many of these federal universities. There is a level of contributory negligence to the degradation that is currently facing the education system and we need to come together as a country to move us forward and to leave this quagmire situation that we are in.”
Also, a former federal lawmaker, Senator Shehu Sani, asked the Federal Government to set aside the extant law of ‘no-work, no-pay’ and pay the striking universities lecturers their six months’ salary areas. Sani, who represented Kaduna Central in the 8th National Assembly, said both the federal government and ASUU should not be talking about law, but negotiations and compromises now, especially that students who he said are at the receiving end have lost one academic session.
“First of all, it is a fact that there is a law on the ground which justifies no-work, no-pay. But the issue is that, at a time like this, we are not talking about law; we are talking about compromise and negotiation. It is important that the two parties should be conscious of the fact that the consequences of this crisis is impacting more negatively on the future of the students and our young ones in the universities. So, when there is a matter of negotiation, there is need for compromises and even if the payment of the areas of ASUU members will help in ending the strike, let them be paid. What matters now is how do we solve the problem? Especially that the students have lost a full academic session. So, compromise can come at the price of anything.”
How to resolve the statement
According to subsection (3) of the Act, only the minister of Labour and Employment, Ngige can intervene and resolve whether the striking lecturers should be paid or not for work not done. Tietie added: “There is a good thing about it. Subsection 3 of that provision states that only the Minister of Labour can actually resolve whether or not government should pay for the time that the lecturers have gone on strike. But the citizens are concerned. If you keep making strikes lucrative: you don’t work – then you punish students, you punish parents and throw the entire polity into confusion and you get so well paid after six months, somehow somewhere the government has to be decisive.”
Will the Minister of Labour step in again and resolve the stalemate now that the Education Minister has failed to get the lecturers to call off their strike? Will Ngige recommend to President Buhari that the lecturers be paid like he did in the past? Will the President make a U-turn and approve the payment of salary arrears for the teachers? Nigerians are waiting to see what the government will do next.