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BusinessDay

BPE and payment of disengaged PHCN Staff

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W

hen you think the monster of labour issues associated with the Nigerian power sector reform and the privatisation of the successor companies of the defunct Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) has been slayed and buried, it pops up from the grave in another sinister form, suggesting that it could assume many bodily or ghostly forms, and has a strange way with metamorphosis, and an almost infinite capacity to threaten the peace of the reform and its managers.

When will it be slayed and its ghost laid to rest without the likelihood of a resurrection? This is a pertinent question considering the recently reported claim that “none of the disengaged workers of the defunct PHCN … have been fully paid their entitlements” ascribed to Mr. Joe Ajaero, the Secretary General of the National Union of Electricity Employee (NUEE), one of the two labour unions of the defunct PHCN. And perhaps only Ajaero and his fellow labour leaders can answer the question, as they seem to have the magical ability to call back to menacing life an issue that some of us, keen followers of developments in the reforming Nigerian power sector, thought was fully resolved or nearly so – the issue of the payment of the entitlements of PHCN staff disengaged under the reform.

I in particular was taken aback by the recently reported claim from Ajaero’s camp (attributed to the Zonal Organising Secretary of NUEE, Mr. Temple Iworima) that “about 25,000” disengaged staff of the defunct PHCN “were yet to receive [their] pension components…”

And no less interestingly, Engr. Bede Opara, the President of the Senior Staff Association of Electricity and Allied Companies (SSAEAC), the other PHCN labour union, seems to validate Mr. Iworima’s claim, in principle at least, through his reported assertion not only that “about 10,000 workers of the defunct PHCN were yet to receive their severance package”, but also that “the 10,000 workers were a far cry from the 2,000 claimed by the Bureau of Public Enterprises.”

Engr. Opara went on to give a breakdown of the figures. He reportedly stated that, of the 10,000 workers, “about 2,500 were active workers who were disengaged from service due to privatisation of the sector”. Then, that “another 5,000 workers are those who retired during the period of negotiation between the Federal Government and the unions”. And, in addition, that “another 2,156 were casual workers who are part of the PHCN workers that are still waiting for their severance allowance, while the remaining workers are those whose data for now have not been found because their files were burnt when the corporate headquarters at Marina in Lagos were engulfed in fire”.

So when we add Engr. Opara’s 2,500 to his 5,000 and to his 2,156 we have a total of 9656 as his precise figure of the number of former staff of the defunct PHCN yet to be paid following their disengagement during the power sector reform. Then there is the imprecise number of those whose “files were burnt”, which must not exceed 344, if we are to accept his total figure of those yet to be paid as 10,000.

However, one must note that the news story containing Opara’s total figure and breakdown – published in Businessday of January 15, 2014, under the title of “Union denies BPE claim, says 10,000 electricity workers yet to get severance package” – reported the union which Engr. Opara serves as President as claiming that “about 10,000 workers” (my italics) have not been paid. And the “aboutness” of his total figure, which also applies to the 25,000 given by Mr. Iworima, makes it at best approximated rather than precise.

There is an exemplary contrast with the manner the counter claim by the BPE is presented in a statement issued by the organisation, which is devoid of such imprecision, thus: “… as at December 20, 2013, 43,375 out of the 47,913 PHCN workers had been cleared and paid their terminal benefits and pensions, totalling N361,024,432,338.48 billion. This represents 95 per cent of the total staff.”

And considering the fear some of us have of ghost workers (whose threat the BPE hinted at in its response to the unions’ claims) and their possible use to defraud the taxpayer from whom the payments in question would be drawn, I think it is necessary that the unions give exact total figures of the number of their members or disengaged staff of the defunct PHCN whom they are still expecting to be paid their severance benefits in some form or the other.

Nothing makes for lack of believability like one union leader saying it is 25,000 (which could seem like a figure pulled out of a magician’s hat considering other related facts in the public domain) and another saying it is “about 10,000”. And when one considers that the amount that may be drawn from the taxpayer in respect of just one claimant – whether as a real or ghost worker – could be several millions of Naira, then it becomes more appropriate to demand nothing but a precise total number of unpaid workers from the unions, and also scrutinise that, in order to prevent the possibility of anyone exploiting the imprecision to pay ghost workers or other forms of underserving entities.

What we now have is comparable to some people trying to draw multiple cheques on the public treasury with no certainty of the exact number of deserving beneficiaries. And any additional steps the BPE or other agencies of government may take to ensure that the exact number is confirmed and only deserving individuals paid is therefore in the public interest and should be encouraged.

By:  Gbenga Adesina