By VICTOR AHIUMA-YOUNG
RECENTLY the protracted face-off between Labour and the Federal Government over the terminal benefits for workers ahead of the privatization of the assets of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, PHCN, was resolved. In this interview with Saturday Vanguard, General Secretary of the National Union of Electricity Employees, NUEE, Comrade Joe Ajaero, who gave insight into how the deal was struck, however expressed fear over full implementation of the agreement.
Congratulations for your achievement in the resolution of the labour issues with government ahead of the privatization of Power Holding Company of Nigeria, PHCN. How did you do this in spite of obvious government recalcitrance?
Well, the psychology of employers all over the world is the argument of no money to pay and Nigeria is not an exception. No employer wants to pay no matter what. That was why if you examine our laid down conditions of service, there are certain things stipulated to be done when a workers is leaving.
But we discovered that in the course of these negotiations, government wanted to avoid those things and do it its own way and we said no. Its officials adopted all manner of tactics, arm-twisting, blackmailing, and harassment and so on.
If not for who we are and what we stand for, maybe some of us would have given in to the blackmail and others. Take for example, they claimed that the union is in charge of pension money, and they said workers should go and ask its officials about the pension money. Besides this, there were other negative reports and falsehoods. But we decided not to lose focus in the process of asking for and demanding for what rightfully belongs to workers.
The greatest magic we used was that the workers were with us because prior to now, there were various challenges and they knew that we did not disappoint them. So, when we looked back and knew that the workers were with us, then the tendency for us to do better was there. So, the main strength was the support of the workers and we were standing on the truth.
We also took time to do some major researches on the items that constitute pension, and the items that constitute gratuity. The issue of gratuity was a call to duty for Nigerian workers. We were not doing it for PHCN workers alone but for Nigerian workers because we needed to set that precedence.
If they were being intimidated in other sectors to abandon gratuity which was becoming the norm, there was the need for us to prove that the Pension Reform Act, PRA 2004, at no time, merged gratuity with pension, being gratuitous.
The government seemed to have captured many areas, so we decided to prove that PRA 2004 did not abolish pension. By this landmark achievement, every sector will know that the issue of being gratuitous, which is a one off payment, at the end of service, cannot be confused with pension, which is payment for life.
This is the major achievement which equally translates beyond PHCN. It is a victory for Nigerian workers and I pray that we are workers, are going to sustain this achievement and nobody should henceforth succumb to intimidation in the course of asking for his or her rights.
Another aspect which was the issue of the contributory pension was not a 100 percent achievement for us. We adopted a win, win approach. Win, win in the sense that, in the first instance, the issue of 25 percent, which had been argued over the years, that it was there or it was not, was established beyond the so-called PRA 2004 which they said the Act provided for the contribution of 7.5 by the worker and same by the employer or government.
We were able to drag our old policy up to 2007. Having done that, we now took 15 percent post 2007 that was why I said earlier that it was win, win approach. That shows you that nothing stops us from adopting 15 percent, if that was what we agreed. But between 2004 to date, PHCN has not migrated to the new Act and we argued that that you cannot punish the PHCN workers for not migrating because PHCN is a government establishment, the regulatory agency, which is the National Pension Commission, PenCom, and the Bureau for Public Enterprise, BPE, which claimed that it responsi
bility, are all government agencies.
So, since they failed to take measures that would lead to the migration of PHCN workers, you cannot turn back to punish the workers for the inadequacies or effectiveness of government agencies. That led to the agreement where we said alright, we will take it up to 2007.
The issue of 2007 till date, the concession we gave them is that government will still pay it. It is not like they are going deduct anybody’s money from 2007 till date because even in our system, it is the 25 percent agreed by the workers and the management that is being deducted at source.
So, what we now did is, pay 15 percent up to date, before we now start the process of migrating. Now the process of migrating is what officials of the Power ministry want to abuse. The process of migrating is not just opening an account. If somebody has work for 20 or 30 years, and he or she is moving into the new system, what is needed is to first do and actuarial valuation to know the quantum of his or her money.
After that is established, he now opens an account where the money is lodged into and subsequent contributions go into that account. Now you are asking people to open account for you to pay maybe, this month. What happens to that of 20 or 30 years contributions? Tomorrow maybe you may write their disengagement letters before the past years’ contributions are properly established.
That is another problem we were almost entering into with them. We have continued to insist that the right thing must be done and the procedure must be followed. We must get valuers where all the stakeholders including the unions must be involved where all accruable for instance, somebody that have worked 20 or 30 years, where we all agreed that this is his or her money.
Then, the person can open an account, the money will be paid into and subsequent contributions will be paid into the account. If not, you may end up seeing one or two months contributions and by the time the such a person gets a letter asking him to go because of reform, he would no longer be welcome even at the gate of the premises to start asking for valuation for the past 20 or 30 years that he has worked.
So, that is why we have to be serious with them on this issue because it appears they want to hide so many things. if they refuse to do the right thing we will go back to the trenches and the process of reform or privatization will not a
Some have commended the Secretary to Government of the Federation, SGF, Chief Anyim Pius Anyim, in the resolution of the dispute, arguing that before he took over the headship of government team, the negotiation was going nowhere. What is your take on this?
We must commend him because in the first instance, he is a patriotic Nigerian and he is one of the most serious people in this government. Most of the meetings he wanted done outside the former meeting. He was consulting and getting across and was even sending scenario one, two, three and four to us for us to conclude.
He was clear at the second or third meetings that he did not want a situation when we came we would record a disagreement. He said he wanted us to move round and talk to our principals and others that we needed to talk to and agreed to solve this problem. I can assure that it helped.
Secondly, he has not personal interest in the sector. When people with conflict of interest preside, there will be distortions. The initial delay was that he needed to study the sector, he needed to know where we stopped and needed to know the issues.
The third point is that he has an authority to commit government and he has the authority to get to the appropriate quarters to tell them the truth about what is on ground. These points combined facilitated the resolution of the dispute more than any other thing.
But if he had personal interest, he would have been appearing on the pages of newspapers, calling union leaders names for one reason or the other, but that was not the issue. Although he tried as much as possible to ensure that government pay less. We saw that in him, we did not lose focus because we know he is working for government. We insisted that the issues were addressed amicably.
Are you confident that the government will implement the agreement to the letter?
We cannot say for sure because of what has happened before now, that is, from where we are coming from. Like the issue of monetization, previous agreements and so on that were not implemented religiously. Secondly, the pronouncements by some people in government less than 48 hours after the agreement show that they are trying to look for a way of circumventing the content of the agreement.