Mrs Beatrice Itubo, Chairperson of the Rivers State chapter of the Nigeria Labour Congress, tells DENNIS NAKU about the plight of workers in the state among other issues
The Nigeria Labour Congress in Rivers State has come a long way. What are the workers’ challenges in the state?
As I have always said, they (state government) have not paid pension arrears and gratuities; no promotion and many other things.
But have you been able to meet the state government to highlight all these so that the challenges can be resolved?
We have done that several times.
What has been the response?
When you say nothing, is it that you don’t sit at a roundtable with government to discuss all these?
The man (Governor Nyesom Wike) does not give labour the opportunity to talk. Does he look like somebody who wants to talk to labour?
But some see the governor as one who responds to issues as they happen. Are you saying this is not so?
He is a television governor and not people’s governor. He is also an overhead bridge governor. All other sectors are dead. Education, zero; health, zero; agriculture, zero; and welfare of workers, zero. Is it when we all die, then our spirits will begin to use the flyovers?
What response do you then take to your members?
We have been strategising; they are aware. We are planning and we are still writing. Very soon, we will begin to marshal out all we have been able to plan, with God helping us.
Some states are finding it difficult to pay the new minimum wage of N18,000. When did Rivers State start paying the new minimum wage?
They started paying in January 2020.
How were you able to convince the state government to pay the minimum wage?
It is not a matter of conviction; the law has been passed and we went, sat, and finally, it was paid. Before then, there had been a standing position that Rivers State would not pay less than what the Federal Government was paying. This was right from the time of Dr Peter Odili. So, that is exactly how it is.
What was the response of your members when they received the new minimum wage?
There was nothing different from other things. It is the normal thing; he (Wike) was supposed to do that. So, there is nothing new about it, especially in Rivers State. It is not a state where we begin to go and beg, or we begin to use saliva to wash our hands when we are surrounded by water.
What exactly is the situation in Rivers State when it comes to pension?
The monthly pension is regular. I cannot lie against anybody; I will always say the truth. He (governor) pays monthly pension to those who are already on the pension payroll, but what we are talking about is gratuity and pension arrears. For instance, if you retire today, they will leave you for almost two years before they will key you into the monthly pension. As soon as they key you in, you start from that particular month to earn pension. All other months, which we call pension arrears, are gone. Then the gratuity which is the benefit the worker ought to have gone home with. These are the areas of complaint. He is not willing to even attend to them.
How does this affect your members?
They are dying in their droves now. When you retire and they don’t pay you anything for two years plus, and in the process, you fall sick, your landlord will drive you out and your children can no longer go to school. You should know the consequences and how the workers will feel about that.
You once said the NLC in Rivers State would not support Wike’s presidential ambition. Are you standing by that?
That is still where I stand until he does the needful.
What specifically is the needful you want him to do?
He should begin to pay workers their gratuities, pay pension arrears, promote workers, pay increment to workers and employ more people. The system is empty. If you come to Rivers State, there are no more people again in the ministries. A job that is to be done by many is now done by two persons. If you go to the schools, we have one teacher, one headmaster. One teacher teaches from Primary 1 to Primary 6; the same thing is applicable to the secondary schools. Agriculture is zero. Let him begin to come back and think well and see what he can do. For now, with this present stance, I don’t think he can be the President of Nigeria. I am not saying he may not be, but he will not have my support and also the support of the workers of Rivers State.
Is there no way this disagreement can be resolved?
You can go and meet him and become the arbiter.
From what you have said, workers are not happy in Rivers State. Is that not so?
Seriously not happy
What options are open to you to change the situation? Will you consider going on strike?
Well, it is a process. Like I said, we are sensitising, moving from union to union, talking to people. Even that statement you said I made is as a result of the sensitisation. We went to NUPENG and the press people (journalists) came and I made that statement. So, we are still moving. At the end, we will begin to marshal out what we have. We follow procedures.
By saying that you will not support the governor’s presidential ambition, don’t you think Rivers people will be unhappy with your position?
Are Rivers people happy with the governor? Am I not a Rivers person? Are the workers not Rivers people? Are the pensioners who are suffering not Rivers people? So, we are all Rivers people, nobody is more Rivers than the other. So, his ambition will not be above that of others. Those people who are being owed, some of them need that little money to solve one issue or the other. His ambition is not superior to those of these ones who are suffering.
There was a train attack recently and two labour leaders were killed. What is your view about the level of insecurity in the country?
Yes, we’ve been mourning the death of the TUC General Secretary and the Kwara State TUC Chairman. Labour has been shouting about the level of insecurity in the country and we are asking the government to do something about it. It is the position of the government to fix security. The safety of lives and property is in the hands of the government and not in the hands of individuals. But they are trying to push people to begin to think of ways of defending themselves, and it is not a healthy one. So, we are calling on them (government) to live up to expectation. We are pained, even in the labour circle, that we lost such highly placed labour leaders. It is not a good one. If this has political undertone, they should know that human lives, once lost, can never be brought back.
Inflation has always been an issue, even with the increase in workers’ salaries; do you think your members can still meet their needs?
We cannot because of the cost of living in some states. But you know that in Rivers State, the pay is grossly inadequate. That is why we are saying, promote workers as and when due. And there should be other incentives added to workers here, because the oil workers are here and there is no different market for workers in the oil sector and those in the public service. So, we are saying that they should do something so that we can also meet our needs.
The Federal Government recently said it would give N20bn to two million youths in the country. What is your view on that?
They should make the environment conducive for the private sector to come in. Those in the government circle should employ. All over the world, the highest employer of labour is the government. All these other people are there to complement once they have taken the bulk of the people. Then, the private sector, if they make the atmosphere conducive, will now come and take the remaining ones. That way, the system will begin to move. But to give N10,000 each to people at the end of the month and all that, it doesn’t go anywhere. Don’t give people fish. Give them net so that they can fish for themselves.
Some say you are a card-carrying member of a political party. How would you react to that?
I am not a card-carrying member of any political party, but I want to join politics, because the way they are treating workers is alarming. If we allow such to continue, very soon they will annihilate the working class. I have decided that come 2023, I will play active politics. People who are coming on board, we will ask them questions. What are your plans for the workers? We will extract commitment from them before we know who we are supporting and what we are supporting. Some of us can even offer ourselves to serve. Can’t we serve? Are they more knowledgeable than us? Are they more trained? As a labour leader, I have gone to several trainings both within and outside the country. So, is there any position I cannot handle perfectly in this country? We have to come around, but for now, as I said, I am not a card-carrying member of any political party. You can do your investigations.
It is always said that some civil servants contribute to bad governance by keeping quiet when things to go wrong or even contribute to bad decisions in government. What is your take on this?
That is the truth. That is the whole truth, because without us aiding and abetting them, they cannot do what they are doing. So, I agree with that totally. And that is exactly why we are also doing mobilisation and sensitisation to let people know exactly where these issues will lead us to if we continue in this direction.
Many people are saying the country is not what it is supposed to be. What is your advice to Nigerian leaders?
My advice to them is that every privilege or an opportunity for you to lead comes from God. According to them, we are more than 200 million people in this country and for one person to become the President is a very rare privilege and opportunity. It is only God who can give you that opportunity. So, when they come, let them not behave like demigods. Let them not behave like emperors. Let them know that it is a rare opportunity and they have to lead with human face. They have to lead with the fear of God, knowing that even the people they are leading are people God created and God will want the best for them. Even the Bible says that when the righteous are in authority, people will rejoice.
There was a time your secretariat was locked up by the state government. What actually happened?
We have passed that level. We have finished. The secretariat has been reopened and we started work more than a year ago.
What is the politics behind the closure and opening of that place because it caused some stir in the state at that time?
We were making demands for the workers, just as it is happening now. And somebody somewhere felt that the only way they can intimidate me or bring me to submission was by sealing off that place and also trying to do other things. It was not just sealing off of the place, a lot of things happened. But then, God was with us because He is God. When you are for a just cause, God will always have a way of seeing you through. So, we were able to pull out of that and we are still on. And I am going to end very strongly.
You appear to be a fearless woman. At a time you were abducted by unidentified persons. How did you get over it?
No, I have never been abducted. Hired assassins came to my house and couldn’t succeed. That was what happened. I was never abducted.
How did that incident make you feel? Where you intimidated?
No, I wasn’t. It only made me stronger. It means that God was on my side, for people to come with guns into your house while you were asleep and instead of you dying, one of the assailants dropped dead. It means that God is on your side. So, that is exactly the way I feel. It made me even to begin to agitate for the workers much fearlessly.
Do you think it has something to do with your leadership of the labour union?
I don’t have any other problem. I don’t have any rival anywhere. I don’t have any other thing; I am just a poor civil servant. So, what will make people to come to kill me? Not that they are armed robbers that came to steal. They said they came for me and they came to kill. They didn’t take anything out of the place. So, what else? It is like if a witch cries in the night and in the morning, the baby dies, I don’t think we need any soothsayer to connect the two events.
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