Of Telecoms Operators, Picketing, and Economic Implications

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Emma Okonji examines the economic consequences of picketing the facilities of telecommunications operators in the country

MTN subscribers, business partners and members of staff were last week, denied access to their offices nationwide by members of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC).

The labour union descended heavily on the telecoms company and chased out it had staff that had already resumed for work, denied business partners and subscribers access and placed its offices under lock.

The offices nationwide were under lock for four days, a situation that caused huge financial losses to the company.
Aside the financial losses, MTN subscribers who had businesses to transact and who had complaints to lodge, were frustrated because they could not have access to its offices across the country.

Although NLC had justified its action, accusing the telecoms company of flagrant disobedience to labour laws and operating outside the corporate governance code by enslaving its workers, industry stakeholders however, accused the labour leaders of carrying out what they described as draconian action on MTN’s operations, which they said, had grave economic implications.

The picketing
In Bauchi, the Chairman of the state chapter of the NLC, Mr. Hashimu Gital, who led the union members to shut down the office of the telco in the state capital, said: “This is to advance issues of decent work, better conditions of service for workers.”

According to him, “Every worker is entitled to better working conditions, but the telecommunications company is fond of regularly renewing employment contract with its workers as a way of shying away from paying gratuity and pension to them.

“We are giving them three days as warning as directed by the national office of the NLC in Abuja, the reason being that every three months, MTN sacks its workers and give them a new contract. This is not acceptable. Our law does not accept that, and those workers need to be liberated.”

Gital, who was visibly angry, declared that “We need to tell them that they need to respect the laws of the country. They need to also respect our own labour laws but most importantly, they must respect human and trade union rights.
“Workers have dignity, workers are not slaves and therefore, all workers must be treated with the best of attention. Injury to the workers at MTN is an injury to all Nigerian workers.”

While the picketing in Bauchi and other state capitals were going on simultaneously, the labour leaders did not spare the head office of MTN in Ikoyi, Lagos, as NLC chased out workers, business partners and customers while chanting labour songs during the process on the first day of picketing.

Implications
Surprised at the action of NLC, industry stakeholders insisted that it was an act of wickedness, saying it would negatively impact the Nigerian economy.
They argued that the matter could have been handled amicably in a more civilised manner than a show of power that was taken too far.

“What labour leaders have succeeded in doing was to cause huge financial losses for MTN, its subscribers and the Nigerian economy,” the stakeholders said.

MTN Nigeria, it was gathered, suffered huge losses, owing to the action of the labour union.
Although the action by the union would have caused the telecoms company huge financial losses, which also affected all MTN partners that manage MTN Connect Stores across the country, the company however said it was still calculating its losses. According to the company, what was paramount to them is to ensure that its services to over 60 million subscribers were up and running.

Corporate Relations Executive at MTN, Mr. Tobechukwu Okigbo, told THISDAY that the company was more concerned about the impact of the closure of its offices nationwide and the impact on the economy, rather than counting the financial losses.

“We are still looking at the financial losses, but what is more important to us right now is ensuring that all services are up and running. It is not always about money lost by MTN, it is about impact on our subscribers and the economy also,” Okigbo said.

Chairman of the Association of Licenced Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Gbenga Adebayo, while speaking on the implications of shutting down offices and sites of telecoms operators, said: “Attempts have been made to disrupt the network operations of some of our members through the shut down and vandalism of critical network facilities.

“The implication of such disruption will lead to severe poor quality of service with attendant natural security implications and far-reaching implications on other services that are dependent on the telecommunication industry.”
The Association of Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ATCON) in a statement that was signed by its Executive Secretary, Mr. Ajibola Olude said, “The association sees the nationwide disruptions of its member’s operations as unnecessary action and an attempt to frustrate and sabotage the efforts of our member to provide a seamless communication services to all Nigerians.

“We are even worried that the picketers became so violent and tempered with telecoms facilities during demonstration.
“We would appreciate NLC to write to us before embarking on any demonstration that can put the security of the nation in jeopardy. Our members are law abiding corporate organisations that have been contributing to the wealth of Nigeria, Olude said.

Adebayo also alleged that aside the closure, NLC also caused some forms of destruction to MTN facilities and inflicted various degrees of injuries on its staff, while forcing them out of their offices on the first day of picketing.
He therefore called on the federal government and the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to intervene quickly to save the country’s telecommunications system from total collapse.

NCC’s reaction
Meanwhile, the NCC briefed the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA) on the implications of the action of NLC on MTN network, other telecoms networks and the Nigerian economy. NCC also briefed the security agencies on the developments particularly the implications of the attempt to shut down the Ojota switch station.
He had warned that a collapse of the telecommunications grid was likely, if the attacks on MTN and other telecoms facilities are not abated.

NCC had stressed that telecoms infrastructure remained classified as critical national infrastructure under the Cyber Security Act domiciled with the ONSA.

According to the statement, the NCC under the leadership of its Executive Vice Chairman, Prof. Garba Umar Danbatta, had opened talks with other critical stakeholders through the office of the Executive Commissioner, Stakeholders’ Management, Mr. Sunday Dare on the issue.
“The regulator is working behind the scene to protect telecoms infrastructure and minimise telecoms service disruptions, in order not to compromise national security, quality of service and protection of over 160 million subscribers across networks,” the NCC further said.

The threat
Worried about the action of NLC, Adebayo had threatened that if government and the telecoms regulatory body fail to carry out immediate action to stop the union, they would be forced to shut down telecoms operations across the country and allow the country to stay without telecommunications for some time.
“We hereby strongly request government and its law enforcement agencies to intervene expeditiously, otherwise we will advise our members to consider preventive shut down in order to avoid further damage to network facilities,” Adebayo had said.
He added, “We trust parties will respect each other’s constitutional rights in the interest of our nation Nigeria,” he said.

MTN’s position
MTN alleged that members of NLC vandalised its facilities and inflicted injuries on its staff on the first day of the exercise.
According to Okigbo, such attack, which led to the destruction of property and inflicting of injury on MTN staff, could have been averted.

“The violence and the needless destruction of property is deeply saddening. As always, our primary concern is the safety and well-being of our employees, some of whom were attacked by supposed NLC operatives and have sustained injuries.

“We do not prevent our employees from associating among themselves as they deem fit and owe our employees the obligation to ensure they are not compelled to join associations. MTN supports the freedom of association as enshrined in the Nigerian Constitution,” Okigbo said.
He added, “All workers have rights that should be protected. We work hard to not only ensure that this is done but also to ensure that our company is a great place to work. We will continue to champion our peoples’ rights, whether they are part of a union or not and work hard to minimise disruptions of service to our customers.”

The move for resolution

Determined to address the imbroglio, the Ministry of Labour and Employment, had called both parties to order and had fixed a date to meet with the executives of NLC and MTN, in a bid to finding a lasting solution to the issue.
Responding to THISDAY media enquiry after MTN offices were reopened for business last Friday, Okigbo said, “We have a meeting scheduled for July 24 at the instance of the Ministry of Labour and Employment. At that meeting, the issues will be discussed, and I am hopeful that the matter will be resolved at the meeting, which comes up next week.”
Having swung into action to resolve the issue amicably, industry stakeholders are of the view that government must prevail on labour unions and other agencies to desist from acting with impunity to shut down telecoms offices and cell sites, at the slightest issue, given its security and economic implications.