Stunted by Labour Threats

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One of the major challenges facing organisations in the aviation industry is the frequent disruption of their services by labour unions. Chinedu Eze writes on the implications of the current disagreement between labour and operators of MMA2

One of the critical events that led to the downturn of Nigeria’s major carrier, Arik Air in 2016 was the picketing of its operations at the peak of travel time in Nigeria, the Christmas holidays, from December 21 to 23 by the National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE) and Air Transport Service Senior Staff Association (ATSSSAN).
Yuletide season is the period any domestic airline in Nigeria records the highest load factor and generates the highest revenue. But it was the time labour chose to disrupt the airline’s operations and left it vanquished.

Two months later, the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) took over the airline to sustain its operations. Under AMCON labour made another futile attempt to again disrupt Arik Air’s operation in 2017 but was rebuffed by the workers who felt that saving their company was more important than rooting for better welfare package.

Air travellers were frustrated by the disruption of Arik Air flights. Many of the passengers could not buy tickets from other airlines because they were already fully booked. This impacted on other socio-economic activities in different parts of the country because many who booked flights to attend meetings were forced to abstain from such meetings but above all, those who hoped to travel and celebrate the Yuletide with their loved ones could not meet with their families as planned.

But labour had argued then that the airline failed to abide by the agreement reached and the officials of the airline that negotiated with labour on its behalf were allegedly aloof and refused to abide by the earlier promise to allow the workers join the labour union. But it was air travellers that suffered more from the disruption.
Air Peace, Dana Air, Caverton Helicopters, Overland Airways and others have had their services disrupted since 2017, but the recent attempt to picket Air Peace was frustrated by security personnel and the workers who made it clear that they did not want to join the national labour unions.

BASL and Labour
Last week, the management of Bi-Courtney Aviation Services Limited (BASL), operators of Murtala Muhammed Airport Two (MMA2), Lagos was given seven days ultimatum to recall sacked workers by ATSSSAN and NUATE.
The unions alleged that the workers numbering about 20 were sacked by the management of the terminal operator for indicating interest in joining any union of their choice in the industry.

A petition jointly signed by the General Secretary NUATE and ATSSSAN, Olayinka Abioye and Frances Akinjole respectively, with the title, ‘Notice of Seven Day Ultimatum To Recall Sacked Workers Of Bi-Courtney Aviation Services Limited,” dated May 21, 2018 alleged that the terminal operator erred in sacking the workers for their intents to be a member of unions in the industry they work.

The petitioners said that with the notice, BASL was expected to reinstate all members of staff sacked arbitrarily, allow for unfettered unionisation of all interested members of staff in consonance with the applicable laws of Nigeria and meet with industrial unions to fashion the way forward as social partners in the industry.

The unions emphasised that the ultimatum would elapse on Monday, May 28, 2018, threatening that failure of BASL to accede to the unions’ demands would “lead to a situation too knotty for both parties.”

Reacting to the threat of labour to disrupt its operations and the lack of the said workers, Bi-Courtney explained that the workers were disengaged because some of them had passed the statutory retirement age of 60, while others were inefficient in the discharge of their assigned duties.

The company alleged that NUATE, “just jumped into the fray because it never had any dealing with us before as far as our workers are concerned” and insisted that 20 of its members were among those sacked simply because, it was learnt, they had filled membership forms to join the union.

However, there are fears that the travelling public would bear the brunt of this fresh struggle between the unions and BASL should anything happen to the operations of the 11-yearl old terminal. BASL had earlier in a statement described the unions as meddlesome interlopers, noting that their threats and attempts to disrupt the operations of MMA2 were acts of lawlessness that would be checkmated within the ambit of the law.

Security Agencies
THISDAY learnt that copies of the letter were sent to the Directorate of State Security (DSS), the Airport Commandant, the Airport Command of the Nigeria Police, the Ministry of Labour and others by BASL and some of these organisations and individuals intervened to ensure that peace reigns in the industry.

But BASL had also fired back at the unions, saying their threats were an irresponsible act. The company said in a statement in Lagos in reaction to the threat: “We are taken aback by their threats to further display acts of lawlessness against our organisation. It would be recalled that when the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) was handed over to our company in accordance with the Concession Agreement executed between our company, the Federal Government of Nigeria and the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), these two unions physically prevented us from exercising our constitutional and legal right of ownership of the terminal. Subsequent to this handover, the courts have confirmed that the terminal belongs to our company.”

General Aviation Terminal
The company also recalled that the two unions actually challenged its ownership of the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) in the court.

“Sequel to this, the courts had awarded damages of N132, 000, 000, 000 (One Hundred and Thirty Two Billion Naira) in favour of our company for the liability we suffered up to 2009. The same unions, in continuation of their desire to sabotage the operation of the laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, are now threatening to disrupt our operations.

“We will do everything within the laws of Nigeria to enforce our right to peaceful existence and to operate our business without any interference from meddlesome interlopers.

“Contrary to their allegation that our members of staff had their service terminated because they threatened to join a union, these members of staff who were relieved of their appointment are staff who had either attained retirement age or who were found not to be diligent in their duties. We reserve the right to continue to improve the quality of our staff”, BASL added.

Sources close to BASL told THISDAY that it was wrong for the unions to insist that the workers sacked were asked to go because they indicated interest in unionism and added that “while many of the people sacked were not sympathetic to any union, many who were sympathetic to unions were not sacked. They are still performing their duties unmolested. So, those sacked were not sacked because of unionism.”

There are indications that BASL may have viewed the attempts by the union to force ex-workers who are over 60 years old and those who displayed crass incompetence on the company as an opportunity to blackmail it.

The Labour Unions’ Stance
THISDAY learnt from labour that most companies in the aviation industry allegedly threaten their workers with sack if they join labour. Without protection from labour, the sources argued, the companies sack the workers at whim. Also, the workers earn poor welfare package and may not be allowed to enjoy cover for medicals and some allowances that ought to accrue to them for working in the aviation industry.

Also justifying disruption of the activities of organisations that refused to exhaust discussions and reach agreed terms with the unions, the General Secretary of NUATE, Olayinka Abioye recently said that NUATE has a responsibility as a legally recognised body to embark on industrial action, following all due processes.
“We have abided with this principle. The Employer has a duty to its workers to ensure it deals with them with respect, honour them while they exist and appreciate their contributions to the continued growth of the (organisation),” he said.

Economic Hardship
Industry stakeholders who spoke to THISDAY said that labour may be fighting for the welfare of its members but it should also give a thought to the companies that provide jobs to these members by reviewing how they operate under prevailing harsh economic situation.

“When an organisation is struggling to remain afloat and you come and disrupt its operations, you want it to die then and if it dies how can it continue to provide job for your workers? So labour should also be anxious about the welfare of the companies that provide jobs for their members,” the source told TISDAY.

An operator whose airline’s operations were disrupted on various occasions by the labour unions said the unions are insensitive; that sometimes they do not get the facts from the companies concerned before they threaten to picket the organisation’s operations.

Reacting to the sack of workers by BASL, the operator said: “Have they tried to find out the genesis of the sack? Will they pay the salaries of the people they are trying to force Bi-Courtney to recall? Do they know what the company is passing through, just like other organisations in the country, in this period of economic hardship for it to have asked the workers to go? Is it not statutory that once you are 60, you retire, whether you belong to any union or not, and if you refuse to go, your employer reserves the right to force you to go? Once the unions can answer these and other relevant questions satisfactorily, then their agitation is justified.”

Other stakeholders, who spoke to THISDAY, insisted that labour must do everything to exhaust dialogue and negotiations before embarking on disruption of service.

However, there is the need for BASL and the aviation unions to find amicable solution to the present crisis and allow peace to reign in the industry that has been battered by the prevailing economic crunch that forced many airlines out of business. Such amicable resolution, would also benefit the travelling public that would be mostly affected by any disruption to the activities of the busiest domestic terminal in Nigeria by the unions.