Nigeria hit by labour disputes over unpaid salaries

Lagos (AFP) –


Kenneth Madiebo isn't seeking global recognition for helping to stop the spread of Ebola in Nigeria in 2014 -- he just wants to be paid.

Nearly three years after the country was declared free from the virus, he and six colleagues say they are still owed money.

Now, after appeals for payment fell on deaf ears, they're taking the government to court to claim what they say is 36 months of back pay totalling nearly $450,000 (375,000 euros).

Madiebo, who as incident manager at the Ebola emergency operations centre in Lagos, risked his life at the front line of the response to the outbreak, said he can't understand it.

"We all agree that we did our jobs very well. We handled all of it," the public health specialist told AFP.

But his is not an isolated case: the government is currently facing a series of long-running disputes, mostly about salary arrears, and a culture of late and non-payment.

- Series of strikes -

State and federal university staff have been on strike since mid-August over the non-payment of allowances dating back to 2009.

Doctors in public hospitals walked out this month to try to force the government to implement an agreement that includes the payment of salary arrears from 2013.

In 2015, staff in 30 out of 36 states were owed wages, as oil-dependent Nigeria -- Africa's biggest economy on paper -- slid towards recession after a fall in global crude prices.

The finance ministry said in June that 12 states still owed staff between one and nine months of pay, despite government bailouts totalling 760 billion naira ($2.1 billion, 1.7 billion euros).

Last December, the women's national football team even staged a protest march to parliament after failing to be paid for winning the Africa Nations Cup.

Nigeria has finally emerged from recession and President Muhammadu Buhari has blamed previous administrations and state governors for financial mismanagement.

"There are Nigerians that haven't been paid for six months. There are Nigerians that have not been paid their retirement benefits for years," he said this week.

- Industrial court -

Madiebo's job involved direct dealings with confirmed or suspected cases of the deadly fever, which was brought to Nigeria by an infected Liberian diplomat.

He said his salary stopped in October 2014, when the World Health Organization declared the outbreak over after just eight deaths from 20 cases.

The WHO hailed Nigeria's response as a "spectacular success story". In wider west Africa, more than 11,300 people died from Ebola, most of them in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

"Initially we weren't too worried because our salaries often came late, sometimes four, sometimes five months," said Madiebo.

After nine months of waiting, he contacted his employers directly but said he was accused of impertinence for raising the issue.

Chikwe Ihekeazu, the national coordinator for the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control, told AFP a committee was looking into the situation and they were working hard to resolve it.

He said the health workers were employed on an overseas grant. Madiebo's lawyer, Victor Odjemu, said an industrial court in Abuja will decide liability.

- Workers' rights -

Madiebo says he only wants what he's owed, even if it brands him a "troublemaker" and harms his career prospects.

Dela Dada, a labour relations specialist, said unlike Madiebo, "a lot of workers aren't aware of their rights".

"That explains why employers, whether government or private, often deny them their salaries without being called to account," he added.

Instead of going on strike, unpaid workers should sue their employers for breach of contract, he said.

"There are industrial courts that will adjudicate on such matters. There is also the ILO (International Labour Organization) convention... that must be respected," he added.

But with unemployment high -- officially just over 14 percent -- the suspicion is employers know their disgruntled staff have few options.

- Knock-on effects -

Nigeria's crumbling public services have suffered decades of under-investment and desperately need upgrading as the population of 180 million grows.

Workers are forced to take second jobs to survive, leaving staffing gaps in already over-stretched areas such as education and healthcare.

Economists say late and non-payment of salaries prolongs sluggish growth and anti-corruption watchdogs warn it makes workers more open to bribery.

Madiebo said at least two of the unpaid Ebola workforce were expatriate Nigerian medics who took drastic pay cuts to help.

Not paying them erodes such goodwill and holds the country back, he added.

"Everyone wants to contribute," he said. "But there's a lot of people who have lost hope in being part of the system... I find it very disappointing."