Reviewing significant decisions – labour and employment changes in 2022.
From a European conflict to a projected global recession, the aftershocks of a multi-year pandemic, and an impending national election at home, economies all around the world took a beating in 2022. Businesses, industries, and nations, for the most part, have remained adaptable and resilient while embracing innovation. During this period of breaking new ground, key court rulings had an impact on the emerging world of work. Within the restrictions of the medium, this article will look at the far-reaching, eyebrow-raising, and much-in-between verdicts of Nigeria’s labour court, the National Industrial Court. Two choices in the current fiscal year highlighted the persistent threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, not only on public health and its coordinating systems, but also on workplace relations.
In Bamidele Niyi v Diya, Fatimilehin & Co. (Unreported Suit No. NICN/KD/31/2021, the judgment of which was given on October 14, 2022; per Hon. Justice S.O Adeniyi), the defendant used a handy and thinly disguised veil to avoid meeting obligations to pay outstanding salaries. In the second case, Rasak v Liquid Bulk (Unreported Suit No. NICN/PHC/103/2020, the judgment of which was issued February 09, 2022; per Hon. Justice N.C.S Ogbuanya), an employer attempted to justify terminating the claimant’s employment on account of the latter’s ‘job desertion at the workplace’. That is, the employee’s physical absence from a designated physical workplace during government-imposed lockdown procedures enacted to prevent the spread of the disease. In both decisions, the Court found unequivocally that the circumstances did not lend themselves to exonerating the offenders, and hence the defense could not bear judicial scrutiny.
Focused on stagnation of judicial officers’ remuneration and conditions.
Chief Sebastine Hon SAN v National Assembly (Unreported Suit No. NICN/ABJ/142/2022, ruling given July 15, 2022; per Hon. Justice O.A Obaseki-Osaghae) focused on the stagnation of judicial officials’ salaries and working conditions since 2008. Suffice it to say, it took the intervention of the same judiciary to order the National Assembly, the Revenue Mobilization, Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC), and the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) to take immediate action to ensure that the salaries and allowances of judicial officers in the country are increased.
The decision in SPDC v Minister of Petroleum Resources (Unreported Suit No. NICN/ABJ/159/2018, delivered July 28, 2022; per Hon. Justice B.B Kanyip, PhD) heralds a marked revival of interest in, inter alia, the propriety (or otherwise) of the Minister of Petroleum’s (mandatory) approval/consent as a condition precedent to determining employment relationships in the oil and gas industry. The Court said unequivocally that Guidelines issued in addition to the provisions of the Petroleum Industry Act of 2021 are legal and applicable to employment contracts in the petroleum industry. However, the reverberation echoes of this choice are far from inaudible. Suffice it to state that the last of the all-too-important allied matters addressed and resolved in the action at first instance may not have been heard.
Unfair Labour Practice and the compensatory Damages.
NICN’s judgment power over fact structures indicating unfair labour practice, as well as its auxiliary power to award compensatory damages, is now firmly settled. What has gradually emerged from the cases in recent years is the court’s benchmarking of the quantum of damages against a proportionate number of years’ worth of earnings the victorious claimant would have been entitled to, had employment lasted. It is now almost certain that there is a pattern in the granting of compensatory damages. The ruling in Olasewere v Airtel (Unreported Suit No. NICN/IB/90/2014, judgment given April 7, 2022; per Hon. Justice J.D Peters) raised worries over the level of damages costing millions in total.
Furthermore, the N60 million general damages that were awarded was the equal of two years’ wages. The actual facts proved an unjust termination of the claimant’s employment, as well as a taint on his character, remarkable career, and future employment chances. A veiled allegation of ‘improper behavior’, in particular, stained the claimant with guilt. Inexplicably, an additional N100 million in exemplary damages was given. The trial Judge in Nwankwo v Priscilla Olloh awarded the claimant an equivalent of three years gross salary as general damages after finding that the termination of the claimant’s hiring during her maternity period of leave was illegal and prejudicial against her on based on gender, pregnancy, childbirth, and marital status.
Damages were awarded based on the successful outcome of the case.
Similarly, in Dr. Ikenna v Zitadel Medicals, the court reviewed, among other things, the validity of terminating a medical practitioner on grounds touching on professional and/or medical negligence without a medical disciplinary process. The claimant’s case was successful, and the damages granted reflected ‘the baseless charge of professional negligence that has tarnished the claimant’s personal and professional integrity’. In Attah v Saii Associated Ltd/GTE, the court determined that the termination of the claimant’s job had some stigma attached to the claimant’s person and character, which the defendant was unable to substantiate. As compensation, the claimant was awarded the equivalent of two years’ wages.
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