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Journalists working without wages in Nigerian newsrooms

By Ijeoma Okereke-Adagba

Charles Okogene dedicated 12 years of his journalism career, first as a correspondent and then as a Saturday Editor with Independent Newspaper, a Nigerian daily newspaper in Lagos. For 11 years, everything went smoothly while working with the medium until 2015 when receiving monthly wages from his employer became a major problem.

From 2015 to 2016, Charles struggled to send his four children to school as a result of his unpaid salary. He reached out to his sister who was a trader and rescued him from the embarrassment. For 16 months, the Independent Newspaper failed to remunerate its workers, including Charles despite efforts to reach an understanding with the management, but sadly though he was asked to leave.

“As at the time I was asked to go, my salary was N150,000 and I was owed for 16 months, I was asked to leave because my services were no longer required. I was sacked via an e-mail message by the Human Resources Manager”, he lamented.

In an effort to see that he was paid his salary arrears and gratuity worth over three million naira, he hired a lawyer, Osa Director whom they held multiple meetings with the sitting Managing Director, Steve Omanufeme.

Mr. Omanufeme, the managing director of Independent Newspaper argued that the economic situation in Nigeria had forced many organisations to owe salaries to their employees and that the Independent Newspaper was not an exception.

“I am the MD but I did not meet Charles Okogene in the company, he left before I became the MD. Yes there is a continuum but Charles has personalised it by using my name as if I owe him”, he told this reporter over the phone.

He also said that he (Steve) and others who are owed by the Independent Newspaper have mapped out a scheme to offset all wages.

“We even have a scheme. You bring an advert and collect the money, that way, we pay you”.

More work, no pay

In 2018, Abubakar Sadiq, a young graduate of Mass Communication from Bayero University joined Bauchi State Television as a correspondent for the state’s House of Assembly. This was his first job with a remuneration of N12,000.

Image: Abubakar’s letter of employment

“I can remember being owed for four months, but it’s more than that because the payment was irregular, sometimes we would be paid salary for the previous months and then deliberately ignored”.

Abubakar believes that poor management and governance fostered neglect of payment for the employees of Bauchi State Television. “I say this because despite having miniature funding from the state government, when the money comes, it is usually diverted to negligible goods like buying generators for the management staff”.

It became unbearable for Abubakar when he could not care for his siblings and parents. He joined other unpaid staff writing letters to management, expressing their grievances, and also lobbying through close friends to their bosses; however, their efforts were to no avail.

“The management saw the letters the wrong way and subsequently decided to disengage my (our) services in April 2021”.

Image: Abubakar’s letter of disengagement

Abubakar has so far moved on to work with a paramilitary institution and receives his salary when due.

Nevertheless, a former colleague of his, Salmanu Isah, still works at Bauchi State Television. He has worked as a temporary staff with the organisation for 7 years and has supplemented his income teaching at a private school in Bauchi state.

According to Salmanu, a week after many staffers (including Abubakar) were laid off at the Bauchi State Television Station, the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), intervened.

“As a result of the intervention from the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), half of the backlog allowance was settled”. Nonetheless, he is skeptical that the salaries for the remaining months will be paid.

“Life continues”, he said.

A survey conducted by Obateru, T.C, 2017 on 204 journalists in the dissertation Socio-cultural Dynamics and ‘Survival Struggle’ in Professional Journalism Practice in Nigeria surmised that 42% of the respondents agreed that they were paid regularly, while 37.2% did not get regular pay from their employers. 20 percent chose to be neutral. Since it was impossible for them not to know whether their salaries were being paid regularly or not, choosing to be neutral suggested that they were freelancers who were not receiving regular salary or were, in fact, being paid irregularly. Almost 43 per cent agreed that salary is regular while 37 percent disagreed. Nonetheless, this could be interpreted to mean that about 50 per cent of respondents were either not paid regularly or were freelancers not on regular pay.

According to the 2021 Global Gender Gap Report authored by the World Economic Forum, in Nigeria, a man earns on average 71% more than a woman earns irrespective of the salary range as visualized by Code for Africa’s Gender.Gap Africa tool.

In Abuja, Asari Ndem had to resign as a Copy/Managing Editor with Order Paper in December 2018 having been owed salary for 6 months. The management failed to state the reasons for the lack of payments.

“We are not the first to owe our employees salaries, even big newsrooms owe their staff”, that was the only reason they provided.

“When I resigned, I noted that I am still waiting for my remaining pay. I sent them a follow-up email after that but I received no response”, noted Asari.

The welfare of journalists has been a significant concern for media practitioners all over the world. For a profession that provides citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, and their governments, one would expect that journalists should be adequately compensated for their jobs.

Alarmingly too is the fact that there is a lesser representation of female journalists in the profession with 7% of female reporters in print and 36% on radio. Less representation of women in the journalism field also augments the challenges they encounter at the workplace, especially during remuneration.

Poor remuneration and unpaid salaries have forced many journalists, especially traditional ones to opt for brown envelopes, a syndrome that has corrupted the sector. It involves monetary bribes enclosed in brown envelopes and seeks to influence journalists to produce more positive reporting on an issue or to kill a negative story.

Legal practitioners have stated that non-payment of salaries is a breach of contract under the ‘Contract of employment of Nigeria Labour Act 7(1f), which states that: “‘Not later than three months after the beginning of a worker’s period of employment with the employer, the employer shall give to the worker a written statement specifying the rates of the wages and methods of calculation thereof and the manner and periodicity of payment of wages’. This clause, therefore, subjects employers of labour to ensure that salaries are paid in due time.

Be that as it may, before the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, some media houses had been defaulting on the payment of salaries and allowances. Many journalists who had sought ways to resolve unpaid salaries with their employers were issued letters of termination, leaving their workplaces with salary arrears and without their allowances.

Labourers deserve their wages — Experts

The President of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), Chris Isiguzo has said that a labourer deserves his/her wages for the job he/she has done. This is one of the reasons why the NUJ was established to cater to the welfare of journalists.

Mr Isiguzo noted that during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, many media employers complained of limited revenue to pay workers’ salaries, forcing them to disengage some of their workers.

“But we did not listen to all that because we also have our own way of ensuring that people who work are paid…our engagements are yielding results.”

When asked why the NUJ is yet to picket media houses or industrial disputes, he said that the Union must first exhaust all internal mechanisms for resolving problems.

“It is when we have tried all of them and we don’t get the result that we expect, that we may have to resort to an industrial dispute. We believe that something positive comes out of it.”

Meanwhile, a legal practitioner, Olumide Babalola, has said that journalists who are not being paid on the job by employers or government, or citizens, can reach out to legal firms who offer pro bono services to seek justice.

“It is a complete violation of the Nigerian labour law because their rights as workers have been violated by such disengagement and refusal to pay salaries upon exit”.

“We can file cases on their behalf to claim their entitlements which include being paid in arrears, tax and pension remittance, and damages for breach”, he added.

Stephanie Adams-Douglas, a media rights activist with the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development (CJID), has advised journalists to engage the services of the judiciary rather than settling for out-of-court as a means to get justice. She said that media independence has been interpreted in political terms without due consideration to the economic conditions such as remuneration and adequate welfare, which allows the media to function.

“Non-payment of salaries contributes to the economic conditions of the newsroom which affects the ethics of journalism and influences report in a subjective manner”.

This story was supported by Code for Africa’s WanaData initiative and the World Association for Christian Communication.

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