Another Wave of Industrial Action Looms in Oil Sector

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As stakeholders scramble to head off an impending strike by oil workers, Olaseni Durojaiye looks at the issues at stake

A  disruption of the relative peace in the country’s oil service sector, notorious for its volatility and propensity to grind the economy whenever it experiences hiccup in its operations, may be afoot. Indications to this emerged on Sunday at a press conference addressed by President of the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, the umbrella body of junior oil workers, Williams Akporeha. At the press briefing, Akporeha issued a 21-day ultimatum to employers in the oil and gas industry to address an alleged poor welfare of workers or face an industrial action. He particularly called out the Nigeria Association of Road Transport Owners, International Oil Companies, and other oil and gas companies operating in Nigeria and accused them of kicking against unionism and frustrating collective bargaining amid poor staff welfare. He also accused the companies of not paying end of contract benefits.

The NUPENG president went ahead to notify the public that at the expiration of the ultimatum, if the listed grievances were not satisfactorily addressed, the body would have no option than to call out its members for another round of industrial action.

Grievances

Akporeha detailed the association’s grievances against the employers in the sector. According to him, IOCs operating in Nigeria are guilty of treating a cadre of their workforce unfairly and in a manner that is against the country’s extant laws. He stated that members of NARTO had refused to honour a 2016 agreement it reached with NUPENG in respect of its members who were petroleum tanker drivers.

Akporeha stated that the “union is annoyed with the continuous, intentional and methodical, irrational redundancies, casualisation, ill-treatment, indecent and precarious working conditions of oil and gas workers, ranging from refusal to allow unionisation, refusal to allow collective bargaining negotiation, non-payment of end of contract benefits, and other anti-labour practices against our members by both indigenous and multinational oil and gas companies in Nigeria, which are utterly alien to our extant industrial rules.

“We found it extremely important to express our displeasure over failure of the employers of our Petroleum Tanker Drivers members, NARTO, to implement the Collective Bargaining Agreement reached with the union since 2016. As we address you today, it is just few months to the expiration of the said agreement, yet, most NARTO members have wickedly and callously refused and failed to honour its words or follow the path of integrity by executing what the association assented to.

“The Petroleum Tanker Drivers have shown considerable endurance, patience and tolerance in the face of blatant deprivation and denial of their legitimate rights, even while toiling day and night under excruciating working conditions, putting their lives on the line to move the economy of our nation forward, especially in the downstream value chain. Granting these hard working Nigerians their entitlements and rights should not be a difficult issue.”

He added, “This is alien to our extant industrial rules. Some of the workers have died, while others are roaming the streets because they could not get their money. A prominent oil company, which is among the debtors, claimed that it cannot locate the contractor who hired the workers to do the job. This is sad.”

Recurring Challenge

Findings by THISDAY show that some of the grievances are not new to the sector, just like the reactions of NUPENG and other allied labour associations in the sector. Yet, the issues have persisted.

In reaction to what they termed excruciating working conditions of a section of employees in the oil and gas sector, the leadership of NUPENG and the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria had issued a condemnation statement last May. The statement by PENGASSAN and NUPENG condemned the Service Level Agreement reached between the Nigerian Content Development and Monitoring Board and the Oil Producers Trade Section.

Part of the statement read, “We remain resolute to ensure that reduction of contract circle to six months duration be reversed. We find the agreement ridiculous and unfortunate and wonder how NCDMB allowed desperate OPTS to arm-twist it into making mockery of the key thrust of the Nigerian Oil and Gas Industry Content Development, NOGICD, Act of 2010. We are dismayed over the activities of some contract workers’ contractors that are engaged by some oil and gas multinationals who have wilfully refused to pay Nigerian workers their ‘end of contract benefits’, having disengaged them from active service. This is not only criminal but we see it as a slap on Nigeria and its government. It is also the responsibility of these oil companies whose contractors are culpable of this reprehensible and despicable act to prevail on them in order to revert to honour and decency.”

The prevalent mood among workers in the sector is that of resentment. Many say government cannot afford to look on while the current worrisome employment relation matters remain. They urge the federal government to intervene.

Handicap

Interestingly, while NUPENG is miffed with the IOCs and the Tank Farm owners, NARTO members also blame NUPENG for their inability to wholly honour the 2016 agreement it reached with the tanker drivers.

In what appears like a chain reaction, THISDAY gathered that many of the IOCs and tank farm owners, especially at the Ibafo, Ogun State axis, owe NARTO members substantial amounts, even as a source stated that the IOCs and tank farm owners were also owed by the federal government. One source added that the fact that over 80 per cent of petroleum products consumed in the country were moved by road, by the tanker drivers, explained the huge indebtedness of major oil marketers to NARTO members.

Speaking with THISDAY, a top member of NARTO, Aloga Ogbogo, stated that NARTO members were handicapped with regard to honouring the agreement due to operational challenges and lack of fund caused by huge debts owed by their customers.

Ogbogo said, “We are handicapped by fund. It is not deliberate and there is little or nothing that we can do. The oil companies and majority of the tank farm owners, especially those in the Ibafo area, owe us huge sums of money. Over 80 per cent of petroleum products used in the country is moved by road and by our members, so this makes the debt owed us by the oil companies and tank farms very huge.

“Besides, we are also faced with several operational challenges, including bad roads and the issue of insecurity. The bad state of our roads has significantly increased our costs. We have to buy tires at expensive prices. Sometimes, too, our trucks are attacked and products siphoned.”

Assurance

However, NARTO President, Alhaji Kassim Bataiya, believes it is wrong for NUPENG to say the whole CBA had not been implemented. Bataiya stress that only some sections were yet to be implemented, even as he assured that before the expiration of the ultimatum, NARTO would do its best to ensure full implementation of the CBA.

Reiterating the issue of debt owed it by some of its stakeholders, Bataiya was quoted as saying, “We worked for them, their duty is to pay us. We have no business whether government is owing them or not. The payment for the services we rendered to them is not based on government paying their subsidy claims or otherwise before they pay us. They are the main reason why the remaining part of the CBA we reached with PTD members has not been implemented. We are also using this medium to appeal to them to pay us our money for us to meet our obligations to our employees.

“We condemn in strongest terms how oil and gas workers in the industry are being treated by the multinational companies who use them as slaves in their motherland. These portfolio investors cannot continue to make billions in our country whilst their employees, who are Nigerians, suffer gross impoverishment and other precarious conditions. Sadly, this is reducing their life expectancy and creating physical and psychological adverse effects in them. This can no longer be tolerated.”

THISDAY learns stakeholders in the oil industry are working, mainly behind the scenes, to avert the looming industrial action. But many believe a lot would depend on how much the IOCs are prepared to give in.