By Ekemini Simon
Already suffering grievously under a nosedived economy occasioned by Covid-19 pandemic, staff of Peacock Paints Limited in Akwa Ibom State now face destitution as their salaries have gone unpaid for 15 months.
Even if they were to be paid their salary, the salary structure of Peacock Paints Limited is abysmally low as minimum wage is not implemented in the company. Also, one who works in the company for years does not look forward to improved salary as there has been no appraisal ever carried out for incremental steps in salary administration and promotion since its recommissioning by Governor Udom Emmanuel’s administration in September 2015.
Besides the fact that there has never been provision for staff leave, thus enable staff to be entitled to leave grants or monetization paid, staff who were retired by the company in 2016 have returned home empty-handed. They are yet to receive their retirement benefits.
The immediate reason for the ordeal experienced by Peacock Paints staff is because the company is in a state of comatose, less than six years after State Government’s intervention.
“This place is down and we need assistance. We are not in real production. Government did put in funds in the past. But the money was not put to right use. The fund is no longer there and the place is not functioning as it should. The reason for the collapse stems from the fact that the intervention fund was misappropriated,” says Christian Sampson, chairman of Senior Staff Union and head of depot staff of Peacock Paints Limited.
The state of crumbling is corroborated by Maurice Ukpong, Head Raw Materials Store and Finished Goods Stores. He says “We don’t have money to buy raw materials for production for now. we rely on customers for production. Any customer who wants to buy paint, we get money and produce for them.”
Unfortunately, the recessive condition of the company has adversely affected workers welfare.
Staff of the company say they now live in penury and a state of despondency since the company is unable to pay them salary since January 2020 till date.
Peacock Paints Staff tell their Story
The Chief Security Officer of Peacock Paints Limited, Udeme Akpabio who says his job schedule demands he works for 12 hours a day and six days a week narrates his trials and tribulations for not being paid for 15 months: ” To sustain the family is very difficult. I have two children in the university. So, I borrow money for their fees or tell my relatives in advance that in months to come, I will need their help.”
“Despite my age, the days that I am chanced, I mold blocks. I am an expert in digging out palm trees on lands they want to build. I dig out palm trees from such lands among other menial jobs just to keep the family together.”
Yet, to get transport fare to work has not been easy for him. Akpabio says “I spend at least N200 a day for transport fare. I borrow it or sometimes my neighbours who understand my situation help out. Sometimes, I take from my wife’s purse because it is difficult to ask her for it every day.”
“To be sincere, sometimes, the thought of looking for alternative job do come to my mind. But when I consider the number of years so far spent, I decide to hold on with hope that it will be better tomorrow. The 21 years I have so far invested in the company can’t be a waste.”
For Emmanuel Robinson, who serves as branch Chairman of National Union of Chemicals, Footwear, Rubber Leather and Non-metalic Products Employees (NUCFRLANMPE) in the Company, the no- payment of 15 months’ salary which he says is N28,000 after deductions has not only thrown him into bad debts but has cost the live of a member of his family.
He narrates “Life is very difficult. I have two children. One is about to write WASSCE and I have not paid their school fees for three terms despite the understanding by the school management.”
“I am also owing my landlord for 3 years and six months of a one bedroom apartment of N120,000 per annum. Instead of staying at home, I choose to leave home and come here to run away from pressure at home and also run away from those I am indebted to.”
“During these months that we have been owed, my mother became sick. I didn’t have money to rescue her, so she died. For six months now, her corpse is still in the mortuary because I do not have funds to bury her. Still in my effort to rescue her, I am indebted to someone to the tune of N260,000 and her hospital bill has not been paid.”
For the Chairman, Senior Staff Union and Head of Depot Staff quoted earlier, ” Affording two square meal a day is a problem not to mention paying your children’s school fees. You come here 10am and leave at 5pm. My daughter is sick. I go borrowing to get drugs. As it is now, I depend on my relatives to feed. Imagine a grown up man like me going to beg to feed. It is not easy.”
Mr Ukpong mentioned earlier notes that inability to bring money home has caused crack in the families of many staff including his family. He says “We don’t eat well. We can’t pay school fees. We have problem even with our wives. If you stay more than a year without collecting salary at work, it will be very difficult to survive back home.”
“To cope, at times, we run away from the home and stay here. When you are home, and you can’t face the problem there, you have to run away and come and hide here.”
There are others however who buy out time for other source of livelihood coupled with assistance from their spouse. Nsikak Emah from Maintenance Department says to cope, he skips a day from work, look for what could generate little income and return two days after. He notes that the vegetable and fruit business of the wife has been of great assistance to the family even as he still borrows to pay school fees of the children and also rely on unorthodox medication any time a member of the family is sick.
Action By Labour
The staff of the company have not folded their hands over their travails. They have explored several labour options and consultations, all to no avail.
After non payment of seven months salary, the staff of the company issued a seven days ultimatum to the Board of Directors. In the ultimatum addressed to the Board and dated July 15, 2020 as exclusively obtained by this reporter, the key vexed issues outlined were the none payment of salary since January 2020 and absence of capital base/working capital traced to the balance sheet of the company.
When the demands of the workers were not addressed, industrial action took place at the factory of the company from July 24, 2020 through August 8, 2020.
The State Government showed interest to address the matter hence pushed for a reconciliation meeting between Union Leaders of the company and the Board with the Commissioner for Trade and Investment on July 28, 2020.
Subsequent meeting also held between the Board and Union Leaders with Ntisong Ibibio, Ntisong Essien Ekidem. Further meeting with the State Chairman of Nigeria Labour Congress, Comrade Sunny James brought an end to the strike action. Yet, the agreement reached and promises made never came to pass.
The Nigeria Labour Congress in October 2020 had to use a different strategy to address the seeming impasse.
The NLC, Akwa Ibom State Council issued the State Government 14 days ultimatum to resuscitate the company among other Labour issues. Strangely, the NLC later stood down the ultimatum after the State Government made promises to address some of their demands. Unfortunately, five months after, the issue is yet to be solved.
Contacted, the Chairman of Nigeria Labour Congress, Akwa Ibom State Council, Comrade Sunny James revealed that the reason the NLC decided to stand down the ultimatum despite the fact that the State Government did not address the concerns of Peacock Paints stemmed from Government’s promise to set up a new Board and new management in January 2021 to address the problems of the company.
Offering insight to the problems he discovered during negotiations with Government, he said ” Two years ago, the Government found it necessary to change the name from Peacock to Ibom Paints limited. But that has a process, however, that process was not properly followed.”
“The Former Directors of Peacock Paints are still laying claims to Peacock and Government is struggling to have control over Peacock. These are the fundamental problems that the Ministry of Justice has to intervene.”
“I can say with all sense of responsibility that half of the intervention money was not injected into that place. The Board has not even helped matters. The little money that was given to the Board, they just finished it through high invoicing of every material and equipment they bought for the place. If the N500 million was put in, it would have turned it around for so much profit to be made. But that money went for political compensation that is why we couldn’t derive the maximum benefit of that company”.
Comrade James said the NLC is poised to ensure workers get their due. He noted that the State Executive Council of NLC had met in February to put up a 5-Man Agreement implementation Monitoring Committee so as to monitor the 13 points agreement reached with Government on December 24 , 2020.
He stated “We will pick out those areas we are yet to have a reasonable response from Government then give a write-up to the State Government to start the process afresh. Where that is not achieved, we will be left with no alternative than to resume the suspended action.”
State Government/Management Go mum over plight of Staff
The Commissioner for Trade and Investment, Ukpong Akpabio has refused to comment on the issue. He rather noted that the State Government will take decisions that will be in the interest of the company and the State.
Also, the Board and Management of Peacock Paints Limited are unwilling to comment on the matter. When this reporter contacted the Chairman of the Board, Billy Etuk on phone, he became dodgy.
“This week is out already. Let’s look at next week,” he said on March 3, 2021.
Asked the exact day for the appointment, he replied, “You know our schedule is not fixed. You may wake up in the morning and see text messages for Government appointment and that alters everything.”
That was the last heard from him.
Subsequent calls and messages sent to him were not replied. The same attitude was received from the AGM of Peacock Paints Limited, Mr Aniefiok Essien who did not respond to calls and text messages put across to him. All messages sent to him via WhatsApp were also read but not replied
Be that as it may, Policy Alert, a non-governmental organisation working on fiscal justice, advised that if Peacock Paints is not doing well and unable to meet its salary obligation, it should look for a management that can handle the company properly or it liquidates.
The Executive Director of Policy Alert, Tijah Bolton-Akpan said owing to the difficult fiscal moment occasioned by COVID-19, dwindling revenue and huge debt burden of the State, it would make a lot of economic sense to be prudent around investments.
“If you are going to run a business, run it in a way that will add value to the State not a manner that you take lean resources of the State and invest in a company that is not very vibrant. If it is not working, the company should be liquidated and a kind of social security intervention provided for the redundant staff,” Bolton-Akpan posits.