Industrial Court: FG loses suit on Varsity private schools

Succour came the way of thousands of teachers of private schools established by Federal Universities across the country, as the National Industrial Court (NIC) on Monday directed Federal Government to implement the terms of the collective agreement entered into with Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU) in November 2009.

In the lead judgement delivered by Justice N. N. Esowe on the case instituted by SSANU against Federal Government and National Salaries and Wages Income Commission, on the interpretation of the collective bargain agreement, ruled that Federal Government as the Proprietor of the Federal Universities should bear the full responsibility of both the capital and recurrent cost of the University schools.

The court in the judgement stated that any other interpretation or order apart from the above as well as any circular emanating from any other place contrary to the spirit of the agreement was null and void and tantamount to the breach of the agreement.

“The Collective Agreement itself was an agreement between the Federal Government of Nigeria and Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities. This means that the rights and obligations imbued under the agreement relates these parties of the collective agreement.

“In paragraph one point two of the Collective Agreement, the Federal  Government of Nigeria is described as the Proprietor of the Federal Universities and the agreement itself was signed by the Chairman of the team of Pro-Chancellors, Chairman, FGN/SSANU Re-negotiation, Chairman, Committee of Pro-Chancellors Re-Negotiating Committee and the Pro-Chancellor, University of Lagos and the National President of SSANU.

“If the Federal Government of Nigeria is the Proprietor of Federal Universities, then reference to the Universities must be necessarily be referenced to the Federal Government of Nigeria. The 1999 Constitution in Section 3181 defines government to include the government of the federation or of any state or of a local government council or any person who exercises power or authority on its behalf.

“Public service of the federation means the service of the federation in any capacity in respect of the government of the federation and includes service as staff of any educational institution established or financed principally by the government of the federation.”

Justice Esowe further observed that the matter before the Industrial Court was for the court to inquire into the trade dispute existing between SSANU, Federal Ministry of Education and National Salaries Income and Wages Commission over the dispute.

The term of reference from the Minister of Labour and Employment to the Industrial Court was for the interpretation of item 10 (1 and  2) of the Collective Agreement between Federal Government of Nigeria and SSANU in November 2009 in view of circular of 27th August 2014 issued by the National Salaries Incomes and Wages Commission.

The Collective Agreement provides that Universities shall bear the full capital and current cost of the Universities Primary Schools.

Justice Esowe said: “The term of reference to the National Industrial Arbitration Court was to interpret item 10(1 and 2) of the November 2009 Collective Agreement actually signed on the 5th November 2009, within the contest of the circular issued by the National Salaries, Income and Wages Commission (NSIWC).

“What this means is that this Court cannot go outside its terms of reference. The function of the Court here is one of interpretation as such one of a question of law.”

Reacting to the judgement, Chigozie Iwuoha, Counsel to the Commission, explained that government would go through the judgement to analyse it to know the next line of action.

He said: “We are to study the judgement. If there is room for appeal, we will appeal it, if there is no room for appeal, we advise the government accordingly so that people will take the appropriate steps in implementation wise.”

Wofai Robert, Counsel to SSANU, said: “If the Federal Government fails to abide by the judgement, we would most respectfully consider that as an irresponsibility on the part of the government.

“We believe that this is a country of laws and we have a government that has prided itself in the obedience of laws and the rule of law. If the government feels uncomfortable with the ruling of the court, as their counsel had rightly said in court, they know what to do.”

He said the import of the agreement in very simple terms was a collective agreement entered between the Federal Government and various unions in the educational sector in 2009, adding that from the judgement, the Federal Government was responsible for all University schools generally.

“With the advent of the current administration particularly in view of the challenges we have economically, the Federal Government decided that they shouldn’t be responsible for particularly the recurrent cost of university secondary schools in order to at least cut the cost of funding those schools.

“But our argument was that if the Federal Government had entered into agreement by which they said that they would undertake to fund schools established by universities, it would amount to a breach of that agreement and indeed an irresponsibility on the part of government to subsequently say that the staff of those schools are not staff of the Federal Government. Because at the time these staff were being employed the Federal a government had not undertaken to fund those schools.

“So, the basic crux of this matter was that we came to court to interpret that agreement to the effect that Federal government has the responsibility to fund these schools but the capital expenditure and as well as the recurrent expenses for those schools particularly in respect to the primary schools.

“The point is that the federal government is responsible for funding staff schools in the universities and any such act which will detract from doing so will be regarded as irresponsible on one the hand and the breach of the agreement on the other hand.

“The court has just held, vindicating the position of our law that the federal government is responsible for funding those schools and if it refused do so or even any act aimed at stopping such funding is a nullify, basically that is the summary of the judgement.”

In his remarks, Samson Ugwoke, SSANU National President who described the ruling as a landmark judgement, noted that the judgement “goes a long way to vindicate SSANU and myself as the President of SSANU.

“I am happy also that this judgement has given hope to thousands of our SSANU members and millions of Nigerians. I am also happy that this judgement has actually paved the way for people to regain their jobs and for other to retain their jobs by this judgement today. I look forward to the implementation of this judgement. I still believe there are gentlemen and ladies in the judiciary and in Nigeria.

“There was a kind of confusion caused by some irresponsible elements within the government circle that querying the actual meaning of the clause of this agreement. Before 2014, there had been no confusion or disagreement on the position of government and SSANU in this case.

“It was when one Chief Egbula, Chairman of Income, Salaries and Wages Commission overstepped his bounds, misled the then government to sack people in the process of trying to save money for the government.

“A responsible Civil Servant, a responsible government cannot sack people and throw people into unemployment by a way of trying to save money. Government has some social responsibilities it has to give to the people and part of it is employment.

“The appointments of these officers they are sacking is the same body of council that signed the appointments of the Vice-Chancellors and any other Professor in the University.

“They passed through the same process of employment in the university system and some recalcitrant ones, the overzealous ones felt that they should throw the teachers away, they are no longer Nigerians, they are no longer citizens of this country, they are no longer bona fide staff of the universities because they have powers and authorities.”