Review of some 2021 significant decisions in labour, employment by the National Industrial Court

The National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN) as a specialised court has exclusive jurisdiction in civil causes and matters relating to or connected with any labour, employment, trade unions, industrial relations and matters arising from workplace, the conditions of service, including health, safety, welfare of labour, employee, worker and matter incidental thereto or connected therewith.

NICN equally handles matters relating to, connected with or arising from Factories Act, Trade Disputes Act, Trade Unions Act, Labour Act, Employees’ Compensation Act or any other Act or Law relating to labour, employment, Industrial relations, workplace or any other enactment replacing the Acts or Law.

The court in 2021 delivered some notable and significant judgments on pensions and related matters, compensatory damages, miscellany, disciplinary matters, exit of employment, unfair labour practice etc.

In pensions and related matters, the court delivered an outstanding judgment on Dec. 7, 2021 in suit Girei v Sigma Pensions Ltd with suit No. NICN/ABJ/379/2020.

The judgment was delivered to clarify possible gaps in the Pensions Reform Act (PRA).

The judgment as delivered by Justice Benedict Kanyip reinforced the 25 per cent withdrawal threshold allowed by the PRA as relating only to those who voluntarily retire at/under 50 years, disengage, or are disengaged from employment.

It stated that there was no such bar either in the legislation or the constitution that restricts retirees who clock the retirement age of 60 years or 35 years in service, from taking a 50 per cent lump sum, or more withdrawal from their Retirement Saving Account (RSA).

The court also found that where the claimant as in the instant case, had not been allowed from withdrawing 50 per cent lump sum from her RSA, on grounds of being a female, that there was an infringement of constitutional provisions.

The court in addition delivered significant judgments in the award of compensatory damages.

In Oyeyemi v Covenant University, in suit no. NICN/LA/758/2016, judgment delivered by Justice O.A Obaseki-Osaghae on Sept.28, 2021, the defendant unilaterally reviewed the claimant’s employment contract to Senior Lecturer, on contract, which was unsolicited and would make the workplace intolerable to him.

Coupled with the wrongful termination of his employment by the issuance of two letters of termination with immediate effect without any reason.

The court therefore held that the claimant was entitled to an award of monetary equivalent of 24 months’ salary as general damages.

Similarly, in Iteogu v International Energy Insurance Plc, suit no. NICN/LA/444/2016, judgment delivered by Justice O.A Obaseki-Osaghae on Feb.12,2021, the court held that the claimant was entitled to an award of general damages, which was sum equivalent of 24 months’ salary, for the stigma associated with the defendant’s unfounded and unjustified allegation of fraud against her.

When it came to the issue of interpretation of Trade Unions Act by way of an employee possessing the right to be a member of any union of their choice or otherwise, the court equally delivered some landmark judgments in that regard.

Examples are in Amalgamated Union of Public Corporations, Civil Service and Recreational Services Employees of Public Corporations, Civil Service Technical and Recreational Services Employees (AUPCTRE) v Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), suit no. NICN/ABJ/62/2021, judgement delivered by Justice Benedict Kanyip on Oct. 7 2021.

This judgment was a firm pronouncement reiterating judicial disapproval of an employer’s interference in trade union activities in its workplace.

This was in consonance with the express lettering of the Trade Unions Act on the right of employees to unionise without interference by the employer.

Based on the facts in the instant case, the court held, that the defendant cannot dissolve, regulate, supervise, inquire into, probe and interfere with the existence, running, finances and investment activities of the claimant union.

Still on matters relating to union activities, a similar judgment in Nigeria Labour Congress v Gov, Kaduna State, in suit no. NICN/KD/06/2021, was delivered by Justice Simisola Adeniyi on Oct.6, 2021.

The court had an opportunity to address the claimants grievance with respect to non-remittance of the checkoff dues deducted from members of the Nigeria Union of Local Government Employees working in all Local Governments in Kaduna State without appropriate remittance to its registered office as stipulated by the Trade Unions Act.

The court returned a favourable outcome on the claimants’ suit in this regard

In similar vein, the NICN settled a dispute that rose from alleged unfair labour practice against best global practices in a judgment delivered by Justice O.O Arowosegbe, on Nov.18,2021.

In the suit, Chukwunonso v Ecobank Ltd with suit no. NICN/EN/17/2019,
the court stated that it arrived its decision based on the need to draw from the immensely important influence of applicable international best practices in labour, employment, and industrial relations, as well as the appropriately pleaded interpretation of international labour standards.

The court here deprecated as an unfair labour practice, banks holding their staff that processed loan documents, without more, as responsible for debtors’ loan repayment defaults.

The claimant in this case was 19 days shy of a 10-year-unbroken-service record, for entitlement to gratuity. The justice in the case therefore turned largely on availing him the equitable position of an inconsequential deviation from the standard rule that had been relied upon for his peremptory termination, a mere 19 days before the attainment of his 10 years’ unbroken service period.

The court in some of these judgments had employed practices applicable to international best practices in labour, employment, and industrial relations.

These applications or interpretations of international labour standards came handy for the court in delivering judgments that relates to unfair labour practice.

Relating to disciplinary matters and exit or cessation of employments in the year under review, some notable judgments were delivered.

The court in some of these judgments held that it cannot compel an employer through injunction from disciplining an employee when it is necessary.

The court however held that the employer must endeavour to follow fair process that are in line with principle of natural justice in exercise of its disciplinary power.

Justices John Targema ( in Emudanohowo v Delta State University, suit no NICN/AWK/33/2016 on Oct.7,2021) and Sanusi Kado (Ogunleye v Stanbic IBTC Bank, suit no: NICN/ABJ/ 120/2018, delivered on Nov.25,2021) delivered some of these judgments that bordered on disciplinary and exit matters.

The court under the period of review also stated the fact that an employee is standing trial before a competent court does not necessarily culminate into summary dismissal by the employer for gross misconduct.

In conclusion, NICN made these judicial strides in 2021, by offering renewed sense of expectations for a labour jurisprudence that is rooted to meet modern challenges in labour and employment related matters.

These giant strides were achieved In the judicial space that is sometimes seen to be unbalanced, as judgments are perceived to be against employees and in favour of the employers most often than not.

Although the work of the court is cut out for It, it continues to direct the wheel of justice towards a more equitable workplace for both employer and employee, thereby rewarding substance over mere mediocre approaches that once ruled in the workplace. (NAN)