‘Why payment of gratuities to Akwa Ibom retired workers is done in batches’
Effiong Essien is the Akwa Ibom State Head of Civil Service. He is a respected civil servant and has had a distinguished career. Essien was appointed to the post last year. In this interview with ANIEFIOK UDONQUAK, he spoke on plans by the state government to settle the agitation of workers on the new minimum wage, benefits of retired workers, the attitude of civil servants to work and the state government’s affordable housing scheme for workers among other issues. Excerpts:
There has been controversy over the payment of gratuities and other benefits to retired workers; what is the state government doing in this regard?
In the last quarter of last year, the Akwa Ibom State government has paid up to 4,461 cases of arrears of promotion, of short pay in salary, pension and of course, in gratuity. Gratuity is something that government is carrying a whole lot of arrears and by my estimation; the state government cannot handle everything at a go. So, government has chosen on a monthly basis to pay in batches and those whose schedules have come up, have received their gratuities. And those that are still pending should hold on because their schedules would soon come and they would receive their gratuities.
Can we say that this government has a human face when it comes to workers’ welfare?
Our Governor, Udom Emmanuel is worker-friendly. He has sympathy. He is concerned about the welfare of workers. That is why, from time to time, everything that has to do with the welfare of workers, in terms of the release of promotion, in terms of the affordable housing for the workers. Government is running two housing estates in the state. One in Ibiono Ibom Local Government Area and the other is in Nsit Ibom, all within Uyo capital territory. These affordable houses for the workers in the state are still parts of the welfare packages that the government has put in place. Even the prompt payment of salaries is also a sign of good governance, thinking about the welfare of workers.
How many housing units are we looking at and when are the houses likely to be ready?
In Nsit Ibom we have 100 units of houses that are ready for off-takers. We have advertised and also sent out circular to public servants to apply to the Federal Mortgage Bank that syndicated this loan for the national housing scheme. We have about 80 units in Ibiono Ibom that are also ready for off-takers.
What is the cost per unit?
I cannot give you that information now. That information can be gotten from the office of the Accountant-General.
A lot of retired workers have been complaining of not being paid their pensions and other entitlements. How true is this?
We have been paying pensions, except the arrears that have been carried over from the previous administrations in the state, but the current administration has an automated payment system. When you retire, you transit from salary platform to pension platform. Those who retire during this administration are having their pension as and when due, except the ones brought forward from the previous administrations. But government is trying to pay that since government is a continuum.
You described the governor as worker-friendly, but the issue of minimum wage seems to be raising dust in the state between organised labour and government. Why is it so?
Akwa Ibom State is one of the first states to set up new minimum wage committee as far back as last year when the issue came up in preparation to pay the minimum wage. When the issue came up at the national, a template was designed by the National Salary and Wages Commission. Akwa Ibom State within few days convened a committee and it has been discussing. So, labour and government have been discussing to agree on the national minimum wage. As we speak, Akwa Ibom State is ready to pay the minimum wage and consequential adjustments to workers, only that labour leaders are trying to ask for more benefits for the workers and that is what is delaying the matter, not that there is any matter. In fact, Akwa Ibom State has declared intention to pay the new minimum wage. But negotiations are ongoing. The state government has declared to labour that it is ready to pay according to the national template.
Will the state government be able to afford the huge increase in the wage bill?
Of course, it will pay. There is going to be an increase in the wage bill. That is why at the national, they asked labour to come and negotiate and let states declare what they would be able to pay. That is why you see some states telling labour that we cannot go beyond this and labour is insisting that you have to go that height. That is what is causing delay in some instances. But for Akwa Ibom State, our governor is a talk-and-do governor. That is why he doesn’t want to be boxed into a situation that he accepts what he cannot do.
In a federal structure like ours, should a state be forced to pay a minimum wage determined at the national level?
That is why they said labour should negotiate with states on what they would be able to pay. There is still room for the states to decide on what they can afford to pay or not.
Some states have been battling with the issues of ghost workers which have drained the finances of government. What is the position of Akwa Ibom? How many ghost workers have you uncovered?
I don’t know of ghost workers in the state. For one, the salary payment system in the state has been automated. Before we got to the automation of the system, there was biometric capturing of every worker. Every worker went out and did his or her thumb print and gave out other data information which was entered into a system. So, in such a system, it is difficult for one to imagine the existence of ghost workers.
A year ago, the state government advertised for recruitment into the civil service and many Akwa Ibom people applied, but feelers have it that secret recruitment has been going on?
There is no secret recruitment going on. The civil service commission advertised last year that applicants should upload their applications into the state government website and this is to allow government at any point that government wants to engage workers to check those who are qualified from the data received and engage them; so that has been going on. Late last year, the state government had need for the services of medical personnel. Probably, that is the one you are talking about, it was not secret. From the application platform, candidates were selected and interviewed and employed as medical doctors, nurses, pharmacists, radiographers, and allied medical personnel and they are in service. So, it was not a secret thing.
What about the filling the vacancies of those who have retired from the service? When is the government really going to recruit people into the civil service?
That has to do with the governor giving approval for it. And as soon as approval is given, we will do it and bring in the personnel.
As the Head of Service, what is your relationship with the workers in the state?
My relationship with workers in the state is very cordial. Like the governor, we think about the welfare in terms of training, in terms of getting their entitlements, in terms of timely promotion, in terms of welfare packages processed in timely manner. And the workers in the state do appreciate the level and manner that we are working and delivering on our policies.
What has been your major challenge so far?
The major challenge at the moment is how to give a total reorientation of the attitude of the workers. We still find some workers living in the past by coming to work late, not being steady at the duty post and some of them not even appreciating the good nature and gesture of the government. So, these are mindsets that need to be changed. Total reorientation of attitudes of workers to work, that is what I am battling to effect comprehensively at the moment. The journey has started.
On your resumption in office, you set up a monitoring committee. What has been the achievement of the committee?
The committee makes impromptu visits to offices and they do report some laxities, especially in the aspect of keeping the work environment clean. And they do follow up and every last Friday of the month, workers are expected to clean up their work environment and they do monitor to ensure compliance. That is why if you go to the state secretariat now, you will see a great difference that the work environment is well kept, clean and tidy.
You also initiated jogging exercise for workers. What informed that decision?
I did not initiate it but inherited it and really invigorated it. For a worker to serve better, he/she needs to be fit. You know wellness is not fitness. You can be well if you don’t have malaria, typhoid and all that, but you are not fit. If they tell you to climb a two-storey building, you would be gasping for breath as you land the first floor; that means you are not fit.
The exercise that we conduct on every second Saturday of the month; workers are not only being kept well, but are now fit to work, and their mental alertness is also increased. We also do health talk from time to time during the exercise so that people have knowledge of eating habits so as to improve on their fitness, all to ensure that the workers serve better.
There was a time that the training of workers was suspended maybe due to one reason or the other. Many would like to know whether it has been restored.
I don’t think there was any time that training was stopped. But for the constraint of fund, it is not regular as one would have expected. But then, we are bringing a new face to training. Training doesn’t have to be when you are sent to Harvard, or university either in US or UK, or when you go to outside the state. We encourage in-house training, mentorship, that the senior ones sit the junior ones under them and give them training, even on the office procedures and also mentor them. We have given our officers the task of preparing the junior ones with succession plan. So, these are still training. We encourage more of the in-house training, other than waiting until you receive duty tour allowance before you say you are trained. We want effective training which has to be impactful.
The governor during the tenure of your predecessor gave a directive sometimes ago that the indigenes who made First Class should be employed. What steps are being taken to implement the directive?
Yes, that process is ongoing. And it would be effected.
What kind of legacies do you want to leave behind in the civil service?
I want to leave a legacy of a civil service that has been re-organised, reformed, new policies enacted or enunciated and the old ones that are time-bared as one would say has been reviewed. The system is a dynamic one. You update even the policies and bring in new technological applications into the service matters. The service that is result-oriented. That is the legacy that I want to leave behind.