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Contrary to perceptions, public service offers better than private sector – Nta

Ekpo Una Owo Nta is the Acting Chairman, National Salaries, Income and Wages Commission (NSIWC), former Chairman, Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Offences Commission (ICPC) and Member, Board of Governors at International Anti-Corruption Academy. He spoke to Obinna F. Nwachukwu in Abuja on issues around remuneration of civil servants and how government rewards performers to encourage growth. Excerpts:

What is the core mandate of the commission and what differentiates it from the Revenue Mobilization, Allocation and Fiscal Commission?

The Commission that has the closest mandate to ours, is the Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission which is charged with the regulation and recommendation of salaries of political appointees; ministers, local government chairmen, national assembly members and the likes. NSIWC regulates and recommends salaries and allowances of civil servants and those of every established public service office in the country; civil servant, public servants and agencies where government has interest.

Any allowance that is tied to conditions of service is the sole responsibility of our commission but looking at the nitty-gritty of your condition of service like job description that is the function of the Head of Service. The two are close to each other, so we work together with respect to designing the conditions of service.

The issue of harmonization of salaries and allowances of staff of key agencies such as the NNPC, Customs, CBN, Inland Revenue etc has been contentious. What is the role of your commission in this?

In each agency, the boards and councils are given power to recommend their salaries in collaboration with the National Salaries, Income and Wages Commission, some of these agencies existed long before this commission was established in 1993 and have been earning salaries but whatever is being earned now, most of it has had some input from here. If we have not had an input, maybe what you are calling juicy today would have been described as succulent but we have a strong modulating factor on all those agencies. So when we talk about harmonization, I personally think what we should be looking at is a living wage, a salary that can take you home. We tend to pay too much attention to peculiarities. When we look at revenue generating agencies, government has some form of reward system that says, “we will allow you keep “XYZ” as operating expenses” and it is part of what was regulated in the act.

The cost of collection by Customs for instance, if you are given a target of about 8 trillion to collect, and you have a 5% collection returned to you and then the act or directive prescribes what you can use for running expenses, it takes into consideration quite a number of calculations. I know there are calls for rationalization and harmonization, and that is one of the core functions of this commission. If you look at our act, we recommend to government the rationalization and harmonization of salaries and income, wages and allowances that are being earned in the polity including the private sector, which is why we have the price income monitoring system. If you look at what the private sector is generating and earning, (most people don’t care what’s being earned in the private sector) but the whole essence is that on the average, the conveyer should be coming closer to each other so that we can have market parity.

Currently, we have undertaken studies, the last study done here was released in 2019, it was a Remuneration Survey on the health sector and we were looking at what the private institutions, hospitals and laboratory were earning and comparing it to what the public sectors were earning. That study is now available. We have also undertaken a price income survey of the private sector and what they are earning. It is from there, that we were able to do a lot of input and come up with the national minimum wage. But seriously, things are being done to harmonize the salaries and allowances. As a matter of fact, the president has set up a presidential committee on Salaries, PCS, it has as chairman the honourable Minister of Finance, members include: the Minister of Labor and productivity, Head of Service of the federation, and others including me the head of this Commission and we have met a few times.

What tangible thing has the committee done for Nigerians to see?

It all depends on interpretation. If you want to see addition to public servants earning, the national minimum wage coming into effect in 2019 and the consequential adjustment from the least earning civil servant to a minimum of N30,000. There was a ripple effect right onto the top across board with defined percentages and I will like you to note that in addressing those percentages in terms of increase, it was not a flat rate that was used. The pyramid was turned in favour of those who were earning less in the public sector unlike a situation where you say I am giving a 25% increase, which could still create more gaps.

The last exercise, which was moderated effectively by the minister of labour and the office of the head of service, saw a lot of the narrowing of this gap, and the committee is still meeting. I envisage something very comfortable coming out from that meeting because we have many experiences when we looked at the national wage consequential adjustment because part of the work of this Commission is done through field work, feeling the pulse of everybody. This reminds me that this is a unique commission made up of 3-legs of the board, labour, employers and government. Whenever government is in negotiation with trade unions, this Commission serves as adviser to all parties.

What role does your commission play in trade disputes between labour unions and government especially over unpaid wages and allowances. Also, why would a government refuse to honour agreements it willingly entered into?

The commission is very much involved as advisers to all parties. Whenever you have collective agreement let’s say between government and ASUU, or polytechnic based Unions, health sector unions etc, the act that sets up this commission requires you to file 3 copies of the collective bargaining agreement with this commission for recommendation. When I saw that there was a bit of tardiness on the part of quite a number of these bodies filing their collective agreement with this commission, I issued a circular and I am very happy to say that they are beginning to respond. In areas where we need to issue circular to ensure some of the agreements that had been reached, we issue such circulars and when it comes to interpretation, they refer to us for interpretation of such circular. So we are very central to such things. We don’t even wait for things to happen, we have taken a new policy direction now we are concentrating our surveys in the health and Tertiary education sector.

We have done two studies in the health sector, 2018 and 2019, but this year, we are undertaking a study of tertiary institutions taking it to the public universities and private universities. We are looking at the remunerations just to be able to advise government and those sectors on what the trend is. The study we did in the private health sector, we have made that study available to selected persons in the health sector and we are very happy for the good reviews coming in. Some of the assumptions and presumptions we hold about certain professions until you undertake such study you will not be able to differentiate the truth from the perception.

Sometimes it is believed we have better services in private health sector and the assumption is that they earn more but when we undertook the study, we will now appreciate the works that are being done on the public health sector and that we still have a lot to do in the private health sector. This is because quite a number of persons working with the private health institutions were actually taken from the public sector as hired consultants on part time basis just like it’s done in the universities. Some private sector operators sometimes can’t afford to hire the services of some skilful professionals so they take them on a part time basis.

How worried are you that agreements signed are not being kept?

It’s very worrisome when agreements are not kept even as individuals. But there is also need to find out the reasons and circumstances that might have affected any of the party’s inability to keep to the agreement. A breakdown in communication affects both parties’ understanding of the issue.

You mentioned that your commission carries out research, findings from such research are they made public?

These findings are available for agencies to help them improve their sector. Whenever they complain about increment in salary, we present the result of the findings to enable them see their productivity. You can’t demand increase when there is no additional value, even the private sector rewards staff based on productivity and target setting, you must merit it. This commission did a 5-year target plan for every department and for the entire commission and that is translated to each staff.

Each staff will be required to show in writing what he/she has done the previous month. In fact, now in this commission, any time you go on a course, you would come back and do a power point presentation of what you learnt to every staff of this Commission through zoom. So, it’s not a matter of going for a course, you must come back and explain how you intend to translate that training to productivity. By so doing, its either productivity goes up or some people will stop going on courses.

Why are state governments not implementing the national minimum wage?

Part of what the National minimum wage act requires, is that the national salaries, income and wages commission should monitor the implementation of the 2019 act. In 2020, we made an application to the budget office of the federation for funds to monitor implementation of the 2019 Act. You are the one telling me, but I need to go into the field in concrete terms to be certain that, that is what is going on. So we are waiting for the release of funds from the budget office to undertake that Survey. That act also prescribes sanction for non-implementation both on the public and private sector. We will simply understudy the act, advise and recommend what we have seen. At the federal level, I have not heard any complaint that any agency was not paying the minimum wage. Any Agency that is in the IPPS system is structured in a way that it can’t pay below N30,000 which is the minimum wage.

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