One of the nicknames of the governor of Cross River State, Prof Ben Ayade, is Salary Master. The other more popular one known even outside the state is digital governor. This is the one that trips him and makes his head swell. Some workers also call him the promise keeper, while others call him talk and do governor. However, it is not for nothing that some workers and labour leaders in the state flatteringly call him salary master. In their estimation, he merits that appellation because he pays them regularly and at times up front. At times he pays two months in advance.
However, some critics have insisted that there is no big deal about prompt payment of salaries because it is a first line charge every employer of labour is expected to carry out. After all, the Bible says every labourer deserves his wage. Other critics have said it amounted to political gimmick and grandstanding for the governor to thump his chest all the time about prompt payment of salaries.
For some, prompt salary payment is a big deal because non regular payment of salaries is a major burden many state governors have continued to grapple with and in an instance in Kogi State, a worker committed suicide after he was owed several months salaries and he could not fend for his family. The federal government had often bailed out some states with funds to pay backlog of workers' salaries.
Ayade wanted to re-enact that seemingly populist method of salary payment on Workers' Day, 1st May, 2018 at the U.J. Esuene Stadium where thousands of workers had gathered to celebrate the day. After the state chairman of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade John Ushie had described the governor in his speech as the Best Labour Friendly Governor (BLFG) and went further to confer the title of BLFG on the governor, the excited Ayade offered to pay the workers' June salary mid-May. This was hours after he had just paid them April and May salaries.
The workers in their perceived wisdom and enlightened self-interest overwhelmingly rejected the offer which could be construed as Greek gift to them. Ayade boasted that while other state governors owed several months salaries, he paid workers regularly and most times in advance.
Although this has been his peculiar style since he came to power in 2015, the payment does not cut across board and not every worker has been won over by this salary antic. Those not comfortable with the development say they have not fared better with that method of payment. Some workers have always complained that early or double payment of salaries always left them economically destabilised than when salaries were paid as at when due, say on a particular day of the month, like the 25th of every month. This is because the current unpredictable system makes planning difficult for the workers as they would have spent the money without knowing when the next salary would be paid and long before working for it.
Frustration sets in as the workers are usually left in the lurch when there is a delay in the payment of another month's salary after the months for which the advance payment was made had elapsed. In other words, whenever payments are staggered or inconsistent, workers could be paid on the first day of a new month and the next pay could come at the end of another month, that is, sixty days apart. Matters are made worse by the poor wage workers receive which has generated a nationwide debate about the current N18,000 national minimum wage described as grossly inadequate. Labour has proposed a new national minimum wage of N66,500.
We agree with workers who have kicked against this method of salary payment. There is nothing wrong with regular payment of salaries. What is, however, wrong is paying two months salaries in advance and waiting for 90 days before paying another one.
We also believe it does not make good economic sense to pay a worker in advance for services he has not rendered. This is counter-productive and has a deleterious effect on the economic well-being of the worker in the long run. There is also a contradiction on this issue of prompt payment of salaries. It is selective as some workers in government agencies do not receive salaries for several months contrary to the picture being painted all over the place. For instance, workers in the Cross River Geographic Information Agency (CRGIA) are being owed 17 months salaries, while their counterparts at the state owned Water Board are owed over 18 months. Similarly, staff members of Calabar Urban Development Authority (CUDA) are groaning as they have not been paid for several months. These workers keep the streets of Calabar clean and the consequences of not paying them are some of the dirty streets and heaps of refuse we see in some parts of Calabar. Can these workers and their suffering families call the governor Salary Master or Talk and Do Governor? It is doubtful.
Some of the governor's aides are also being owed several months salaries. Recently, the media were replete with reports that special assistants appointed in December last year had not been paid since the beginning of this year, while others receive salary alerts at the end of every month in the villages and cities without working for such salaries. With thousands of such special assistants on government's payroll, this constitutes a huge drain on the state's meagre resources since such idle assistants draw salaries without contributing meaningfully to the economic development of the state.
While we hail the governor for not owing a vast majority of the workers and for always paying on time, we urge him to take another look at the cases of those workers whose salaries have not been paid for many months.
Also, we suggest that should pay salaries at a specific period of the month and to all the workers, not to only a section of the workforce, to merit the appellation of salary master ascribed to him. That way, workers would know when to expect their salaries and plan accordingly, not the haphazard method we are witnessing in Cross River state.