The recent blackout in Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River and Rivers States as a result of protest by the workers of Port Harcourt Electricity Distribution Company has further exposed the dangers posed to power supply by the increasing financial weakness of some distribution companies, which was evidenced in earlier protests in Abuja, Kaduna, Enugu and Ikeja Discos. Ejiofor Alike reports
The liquidity crisis in Nigeriaâ€™s power sector, which has affected the capacity of all the members of the electricity value chain to boost power supply, has also impacted on the capacity of these power companies to sustain their workforce and cater for their welfare, potentially worsening the power supply situation.
The widespread protests by workers of the various distribution companies are indications that the Discos are the worst hit by the liquidity crisis.
Only recently, workers of the Port Harcourt Disco caused blackout in four states when they grounded activities of the company in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.
The workersâ€™ under the aegis of Senior Staff Association of Electricity and Allied Companies (SSAEAC) and National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) had picketed PHED offices in protest against poor conditions of service and the outrageous estimated electricity bills slammed on customers.
The President of National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE), Mr. Martin Uzoegwu, who spoke during the demonstration by the workers, accused the company of disobedience to the rulings of the National Industrial Court.
â€œWe are saying that enough is enough for this injustice meted out on these people. The court is saying that PHED should allow workers to unionise and the company owes us check-off dues since 2013. The check-off dues have been deducted and they have not submitted it. That is a criminal act and that is why we are here to tell them to do the right thing,â€ Uzoegwu reportedly explained.
Deputy President, South-South of NUEE, Chris Omonei, had also argued that it was an act of injustice for customers to pay for electricity without getting the service.
â€œOur reason for being here is that the masses want electricity. The people cannot be paying for darkness. We are made to understand that the company is rejecting load from the national grid. The company has been giving consumers estimated bills. If there is no meter, consumers will not pay estimated bills,â€ Omonei explained.
Rivers State Chairman of NUEE, Charles Eletu had also accused the company of denying the workers opportunity to belong to workersâ€™ union.
â€œThe way PHED has been treating the workers and the consumers are not acceptable. All of us are aware that consumers pay for meter, but it will always take PHED time to issue out meters that have been paid for. Both of us are also witnesses to the outrageous bills given to consumers,â€ he was quoted as saying.
â€œThe Federal and the State Governments should come and ensure that these companies (electricity distribution companies) are called to order. Why should PHED not provide meters paid for by consumers? Outrageous bills every now and then, illegal men working for them. Workers working for them are not recognised. Allow them to unionise; no way. We are not happy about itâ€, Eletu added.
The protest resulted in electricity blackout in Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River and Rivers states, which is the franchise area of PH Disco.
However, the companyâ€™s head of corporate communication, John Onyi had explained that the blackout of the four states was as a result of forceful shutdown of the companyâ€™s offices and facilities by protesting workers.
â€œThe shutdown has made it impossible for power to be wheeled out to all our customers and exposed our prepaid customers to difficulties in vending (payment),â€ he said.
Kaduna Disco in crisis
Earlier in February, the NUEE and SSAEAC had demanded for the immediate sack of the Managing Director, Kaduna Electric, Garba Haruna for alleged gross incompetence.
The unions had also declared what they described as â€œa non-working relationshipâ€ with the management of the company over the sack of 530 workers.
North West Zonal General Secretary of NUEE, Moses Amedu, had told a joint press conference in Kaduna that the two unions had written to the companyâ€™s Board of Directors demanding for the sack of the managing director and recall of all the 530 sacked workers.
Amedu said the unions had made eight demands to the board for immediate action,
According to the unions, the MDâ€™s immediate removal is â€œin the interest of the company, the Board of Directors, staff and the four States of their coverage namely, Kaduna, Zamfara, Sokoto and Kebbi States.â€œ
The union also demanded the immediate release of staff tax deductions to state boards of internal revenue, to enable the workers get tax clearance and tax identification numbers.
â€œWe demand immediate release of all pension payments deducted from staff salaries to their various Pension Fund Administrators (PFAs),â€œ Amedu said.
However, the companyâ€™s Head, Corporate Communications, Abdulazeez Abdullahi, said the company had confirmed more than 90 per cent of the workers it recruited in 2015.
He said those laid off had failed to measure up to the basic requirements of the company.
He however said that the management was still awaiting the unionsâ€™ response on to the draft condition of service forwarded to it about a month ago.
Crisis rocks Enugu Disco
Before the PH protests, a similar incident was witnessed in Enugu Electricity Distribution Company (EEDC) as the workers picketed some of the offices of the company in Enugu and Owerri, Imo State, over what they described as â€œanti Labour policies.â€
Some of the EEDC offices that were shut down in Imo State include that of Royce Road, New Owerri, Orlu and Mbaise.
Speaking on behalf of the workers, the leader of the protesters, Augustine Mbakwe, had identified the â€œde-unionisation of workers in EEDCâ€ as one of their grievances.
â€œWe are out here today to protest the refusal of EEDC to install metres for Nigerians, arbitrary and crazy billing, indiscriminate sack of workers, intimidation and harassment of workers with security agents. In this place, we do not have job security and we are suffering from so many anti labour policies,â€ he had said.
The workers of EEDC in Enugu, had at the same time, marched through Enugu metropolis, protesting against the arbitrary sacking of staff.
The protesters, comprising United Labour Congress (ULC); Trade Union Congress, (TUC); NUEE and SSAEAC, moved around the major streets of Enugu metropolis before stopping at the EEDC office, Okpara Avenue, Abakaliki Road, Enugu.
The leader of the NUEE, Mr Joe Ajaero, who spoke on behalf of the protesting workers, said the union was on picketing exercise against EEDC for arbitrary sacking of staff.
Also the leader of SSAEAC, Christian Okonkwo, alleged that the new management was not competent to run the company.
â€œThey were not qualified to manage the company. They were just collecting money from people without service,â€ Okonkwo reportedly said.
Some of the placards read: â€œWe say no to indiscriminate sacking of workers, arbitrary and crazy billing, poor working condition, ritual of burning live cows, high bill, more darkness, no metre for customers,â€ among others.
However, the Head of Communication of the company, Emeka Eze, condemned the protest, saying they should have embarked on dialogue rather than embark on street protests.
Labour shuts Ikeja Electric
In March last year, the organised labour had also crippled the operations of Ikeja Electricity Distribution Company, over the alleged sack of 400 workers, including a deputy president of NUEE, among other grievances.
But in a swift response, the company claimed that only 229 employees were affected in the disengagement exercise after they failed to meet the required parameters for the companyâ€™s performance assessment.
The companyâ€™s Head of Corporate Communications, Mr. Felix Ofulue said between January 2015 and February 2016, the company had employed 603, and promoted 74 others.
However, Ajaero had explained that IKEDC had refused to negotiate the conditions of service with the union since the privatisation in 2013, and had also embarked on redundancy at will.
Also, the President of NUEE, Martin Ozugwu said: â€œThey have been violating the Act which stipulated that every condition must be stipulated before you sack any workers. That means condition of service must be put in place.
General Secretary, SSAEAC, Umar Abubakar had also argued that â€œBy the time IKEDC gets away with this, other companies will follow suitâ€.
Turmoil in Abuja Disco
NUEE had also protested against Abuja Disco for what they called poor remuneration of the workers.
Deputy President, northern zone of the union, Mr. Isaac Abegye, alleged that the privatisation of the sector had brought untold hardship to the electricity employees.
â€œOur workers are not properly taken care of. They are collecting peanuts as salaries, compared to when we were in PHCN. The casualisation of workers that we fought against is being brought back and people are collecting N50,000, while others in the same company are collecting N1.9 million. Medical care is not there. Workers are using their bare hands to work; no tools; no materials. Vehicles are not there and ladders are being carried on the neck. It is deadly; it is dangerous; we are in pains,â€™â€™ he reportedly alleged.
Abegye said that it was imperative for the Federal Government to review the privatisation policy.
The Zonal Organising Secretary of NUEE, Mr. Temple Iworima had added a dangerous dimension to the allegation when he accused Abuja Disco of procuring substandard equipment for its operations, which had caused the death of workers on high tension cables.
â€œAEDC workers are like slaves and we came out this morning to say enough is enough. If this thing continues, we will shut down and there will be no light in the FCT,â€ Iworima added.
As electricity consumers are grappling with power blackout occasioned by the Discosâ€™ inability to replace obsolete equipment, provide prepaid meters and also carry out comprehensive upgrade of assets as result of the liquidity crisis, electricity workersâ€™ restiveness over poor remuneration has also added to the challenges fueling the power deficits.