THISDAY SEPCIAL RELEASE
Peter Uzoho and Ugo Aliogo
Oil and gas workers under the umbrella of the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas workers (NUPENG), Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) and the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) yesterday picketed the Lagos office of General Electric (GE) over alleged non-refund of excess withholding tax and gratuity of employees of ARCO Group Plc.
The protesting workers in their large numbers as early as 4 a.m. blocked the entrance gate of GE’s office on Bishop Aboyade Cole Street, Victoria Island, Lagos, with their private cars, associations’ branded vehicles and a fully-loaded petrol tanker.
While they chanted their unionists and solidarity songs, the angry workers also pasted bills with various inscriptions on the gate of the GE to demonstrate their anger.
Some of the inscriptions seen by THISDAY read: ‘We say no to General Electric criminality;’ ‘It is pay day for General Electric’s evil deeds;’ ‘General Electric must pay ARCO to pay our members;’ ‘We say no to General Electric’s slave trade;’ and ‘General Electric is worse than coronavirus,’ among others.
Speaking to THISDAY, the Head of Administration, Lagos Zonal Council of NUPENG, Mr. Lanre Badmus, said they decided to embark on the protest and picketing to prevail on GE to pay their members their entitlements as agreed.
According to him, the matter had lingered enough and that all efforts made by the unions, the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, and even the Director General of the Department of State Services (DSS) could not yield any results.
Badmus said: “Sometime in 2016 or thereabout, ARCO was given a contract by General Electric, where we have our members from both NUPENG and PENGASSAN. GE terminated the employment of some of our members after winding up the ARCO contract and up till date, their terminal benefits have not been paid. And so many efforts were made in order to ensure that those monies were paid.
“Both the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, had intervened on three occasions, and also the Director General of DSS also intervened. At the last meeting among the unions, General Electric, ARCO and the minister, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed, where they (GE) agreed to pay the total amount stated in the month of December in seven days,
“But as we speak, nothing has been done. And the money in question is excess withholding tax deducted from ARCO’s account. Initially, they (GE) lied to us that the money was with the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), and the FIRS has come out to clear itself of any blame. They were able to inform the public that the money lies in the coffers of GE.
“Some of those our members have died; most of those who are alive have been left by their wives and their children no longer go to school.
So, that is why we said that in an attempt to get what rightfully belongs to our members, let us come here and do this peaceful protest”.
The NUPENG leader, however, noted that if the Lagos protest and picketing did not make GE to act accordingly, they would implement their Plan B, which he said would be a nationwide protest.
“We have come here to disrupt their activities and if they are embarrassed enough, they will come and talk to us and settle whatever agreement it reached with the union. We will continue to occupy here until they respond, and if they don’t respond, there is a Plan B that is coming. This is just the first stage. The Plan B is going to cut across the nation. We are going to solicit the sympathy of everybody in Nigeria on behalf of these workers,” he added.
On his part, the National Treasurer of PENGASSAN, Mr. Victor Ononokpono, urged the government and relevant regulatory authorities to prevail on GE to pay their members.
He added that the protest and picketing of GE’s office would continue until they do the needful.
Ononokpono said: “Well, this is a lingering issue, upward of four years. We had our members in ARCO branch and we had the issue of double taxation which the FIRS has confirmed and told the parent company -General Electric, that it was indeed double taxation, which is against extant financial regulations of this country.
“And we were in a tripartite meeting involving PENGASSAN, NUPENG on one hand, and then the ministry of labour and General Electric on the other hand. The FIRS with documented evidence has ruled that GE has to refund the money to the members. But up to this moment, that order or directive has not been attended to. So, that is why we are here.
“We hope it doesn’t lead to escalation of this issue, but we have resolved to be here today, tomorrow, next tomorrow until this issue is resolved. So, we are calling on the authorities, regulatory agencies and other meaning Nigerians to call GE to order. If you have done double deduction from people’s income, whom you have even laid off, please, by all means pay them. It is as simple. Please as that. So, we are here forever until it is resolved.”
Every effort to speak with GE officials proved abortive.
Arco had in a letter to the unions, which was also made available to the office of the Deputy Senate President explained that its inability to pay the benefits and entitlements of some of its members, five of whom have died while waiting, was because of the deliberate refusal of GE to refund withholding taxes illegally and unilaterally deducted at 10 per cent, instead of the five per cent permitted under the law.
Findings show GE has ignored letters by FIRS that five per cent is the applicable rate. Records indicate that the FIRS had noted discrepancies in remittances made by GE between 2009 and 2015.
THISDAY was informed that after a reconciliation meeting between May 17 and June 21, 2019, for example, the former FIRS Chairman, Mr. Tunde Fowler, wrote a letter dated August 7, 2019 in which he noted wrongful withholding taxes deducted by GE amounting to N328,855,903.10 between 2009 and 2015.
In the same letter, Fowler also noted that between 2011 and 2015, the dollar differential of withholding taxes wrongfully deducted by GE was $1,716,976.96.
Also, a meeting on September 24 involving GE and Arco, in which officials of PENGASSAN and NUPENG and the FIRS attended, it was decided in a letter dated October 4, 2019 signed by a director in the Labour Ministry, Mrs. O.U. Akpan, that, “GEION should within seven days apply to the FIRS and request for the refund of the over-deducted sums paid to FIRS as agreed during the reconciliation exercise.”
However it turned out that GE was lying to FIRS as it has failed till date to provide all the non-existent documents it was asked to provide.
It would be recalled that Arco Group had complained to the FIRS that GEION deducted 10 per cent instead of the statutorily approved five per cent tax payable to the FIRS between 2009 and 2015.
Earlier in response to the unwillingness of GEION to pay back to ARCO the excess tax deductions running into billions of naira, the General Secretary of NUPENG, Mr. Afolabi Olawale, said that GEION has been adamant to make the refund even at the expiration of its ultimatum by the oil workers.
Before its recent letter to GEION, the immediate past chairman of FIRS, Mr. Tunde Fowler, had after a reconciliation meeting between Arco Group Plc. and GEION between May 17 and June 21, 2019, written a letter dated August 7, 2019 in which he noted there were wrongful withholding taxes deducted by GE amounting to N328,855,903.10 between 2009 and 2015.
In the same letter, Fowler also noted that between 2011 and 2015, the dollar differential of withholding taxes wrongfully deducted by GE was $1,716,976.96. GE till date has not responded.
Akpan also said: “All deductions made by GEION on behalf of Arco substantiated with documentary evidence with the objective of remitting to FIRS, but which were not remitted to FIRS should be refunded to Arco within three weeks.”
The seven days have since expired, with GE not making any move.
According to insiders GEION does not want to pay since it has commenced the divestment of its ownership of Baker Hughes, an oil and gas company owned by GE.
In September, GE announced that it would reduce its ownership in Baker Hughes to 38.4 per cent from 50.4 per cent and aims to raise $2.7 billion in the process.
Responding to enquiry on the efforts made to resolve the withholding tax dispute between GE and ARCO, Yewande Thorpe, head corporate communications, GE Nigeria said: “The project in question was related to GE’s legacy Oil and Gas business. GE has now reduced our ownership stake and is no longer a majority owner of Baker Hughes and directed all enquiries to Segun Obagbemi, Communications leader for Baker Hughes in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).”
Obagbemi as at the time of going to press did not reply to separate mails sent to him on this matter.