For the first time in recent history of the Corporate Affairs Commission, its headquarters was shut down by picketing workers, who accused the management of corruption, high-handedness and violation of labour laws. The rift almost turned bloody but for a sense of reason which prevailed and saw the management and the leadership of the two labour centres, NLC and TUC agree to seek fresh dialogue to resolve the conflict. Onyebuchi Ezigbo reports
Recently, labour crisis rocked the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC). The matter was so bad that it led to the shutting down of the headquarters of the commission for one day by picketing workers under the aegis of Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC). From what emerged from the face-off, the dispute was two-fold. First there was a misunderstanding between staff belonging to two labour centres, NLC and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) over recruitment of members, while another part of the dispute had to do allegations of corruption and anti labour practices put against the CAC management by the workers
Initially, the two in-house unions – Amalgamated Union of Public Corporation, Civil Service Technical and Recreational Services Employees (AUPTRE) and Senior Staff Association of Statutory Corporation and Government-Owned Companies (SSASCGOC).were at logger heads with each other over issues of unionization of staff of CAC. The management capitalised on the internal wrangling between the two unions to insist that only junior staff of the organisation should belong to AUPTRE while their senior staff counterparts should join SSASCGOC.
It said the AUPTRE, which most of the staff joined was a junior staff union and not applicable to senior staff. It supported its position making reference to a ruling by an industrial court. However, beyond the conflict on unionisation, the aggrieved workers have deep-seated disagreement and allegations against the management of CAC. Some of the issues complained about by the union include, stoppage of promotions due for staff, arbitrary transfer of perceived troublesome union activists as well other punitive actions.
Based on the crisis of confidence created by the above listed issues and apparent inability of the management to resolve them, the unions embarked on the picketing of the premises of the headquarters of CAC.
NLC President, Comrade Ayuba Wabba, who led the protest at the CAC headquarters said the action of the congress was in solidarity with its affiliate union, AUPCTRE, which had alleged wrongdoings by commission’s Registrar-General, Alhaji Garba Abubakar.
Besides accusing the CAC boss of thwarting their promotions, AUPCTRE had also accused Abubakar of indulging in divide-and-rule tactics, arbitrary transfer of union leaders, transfer of married women out of places where their spouses live, intimidation of workers for engaging in union activities, among many others.
Speaking at the protest ground, Wabba also alleged that the Commission’s Registrar General, Garba Abubakar stalled staff promotion. He alleged that the organisation brought in environmental experts to fumigate the agency for N35million in view of the COVID-19 pandemic, including contracting someone to paint the Zone 5 annex office for N25million.
On his part, AUPCTRE branch chairman, Comrade Ibrahim Makarfi, alleged that the CAC boss ignored series of efforts the union made with a view to averting the conflict.
According to him, different letters to him containing alleged infractions by the commission were ignored, thus leading to the face-off. So the workers made good their threat to picket the CAC headquarters, blocking all the entry points to the commission’s premises in Abuja.
Addressing the protesters at the organisation’s premises, Wabba frowned on what he described as the recalcitrant attitude of the chief executive officer of the commission, who he said refused to acknowledge or respond to any of the six letters sent to him from last year till now over suppression of rights of workers of the commission. Wabba accused the management of the commission of flagrant violation of workers’ rights under the cover of COVID-19 pandemic policy implementation. He also said many married women and union officials, who demanded payment of their promotion arrears or voiced resistance to inhuman treatment by the management were being transferred illegally to punish them. There was a drama during the protest at the commission when some thugs confronted the workers, pouring fuel around the union vehicles and threatening to burn them, if they fail to disperse. Wabba alleged that hired thugs were deployed by the management to unleash violence on peaceful protesters and vowed that the ILO procedures in demanding the rights of workers would be followed to the letter until the management reverse its stance on the issues. He warned the CAC management to desist from impunity, especially hiring of thugs to attack workers on peaceful protest to demand their rights and come into a round table for a harmonious resolution of the dispute. Some of the placards displayed by the protesting workers read: “Unionism is our right: organised, join the union”, “Employers, respect workers’ right to unionised” and “We are workers and not slaves.”
However, the Director, Public Affairs at CAC, Duke Ukaga, took up some of the issues raised by workers. He said the allegations that management has refused to allow them unionise freely and the staff were being compelled to join a particular labour union, were not true. He said the commission, being a very law-abiding organisation obeyed the rulings of the National Industrial Court, which gave a ruling in December 2019 and May 2020, stating categorically that the union, AUPTRE, which most of the staff had joined was a junior staff union and not applicable to senior staff. “This is in line with the Trade Union Act 2004 and 2005.The commission is only obeying the court judgement and till date, there has been no injunction or stay of execution order. So for them to say that we are forcing them to join the union, it’s manifestly wrong. As a result, the commission gave the staff the option of choosing which union to join. For the junior staff, they went for AUPTRE, while the senior staff freely indicated to join Senior Staff Association of Statutory Corporation and Government-Owned Companies (SSASCGOC). The staff have no grudge with the management.” On the issue of punitive transfers, he said there was a standing rule in the public service about spouses working in the same department and office. He also said that as part of the reorganisation of the commission, the management might in their wisdom post any staff anywhere. “Even in their letters of appointment, it’s stated clearly that their appointment is at the pleasure of the commission and they may be sent to work in any of the branches. So, for one to say that there have been unjustly sent somewhere, it’s not true.” Regarding the issue of embezzlement, Ukaga denied the claim saying, “Though I’m not into fumigation, we have a standard for fumigation considering the type and size of the building. I can assure you that our management cannot embezzle any government money.”
The picketing almost into a fracas as the protesting workers defied the threat by thugs to unleash violence by equally vowing to enlist the support of other affiliate of the NLC, the Road Transport Workers Union, which has the capacity to match violence with violence. It took the intervention of the security agents and the wisdom displayed by Wabba and the leadership of TUC to unite and seek for a fresh opportunity for amicable resolution of the dispute with the CAC management.
After some consultations with the commission, NLC president came back to address the protesting workers urging them to suspend protest temporarily till the next day. He told them that the management had reached out to labour leadership, pleading for an opportunity for dialogue on the issues. Later at a peace meeting held by the two in-house unions, SSASCGOC and AUPCTRE, they both agreed to operate and conduct their activities in CAC without any clash of interest.
The unions also resolved to harmonise their positions in order to be able effective fight for the rights of their members. As for the larger issues relating to dispute with CAC management, the unions resolved to demand that the commission invites the two in-house unions and the leadership of two labour centres, NLC and TUC, to a meeting within three days. In the resolution signed by NLC president, Wabba and the Assistant General Secretary of TUC, Comrade Ibrahim Anka, the unions accepted to suspend the picketing earlier scheduled to last for three days to allow for further dialogue with the CAC management to resolve the dispute.