By VICTOR AHUMA-YOUNG
NIGERIA Employers Consultative Association, NECA, recently held an interactive session with Labour Correspondents on “Promoting Industrial Harmony, Productivity and National Development in the Post-Reform Era of Power (Electricity) sector: Issues and Challenges”. Director General of NECA, Mr. Segun Oshinowo, in his opening remarks, sounded it loud that the much trumpeted stable power supply under the private sector driven new era would be a mirage without industrial peace.
To start with, the NECA Director General was full of praise for President Goodluck Jonathan for his courage in privatizing what he called “octopus” Power Holding Company of Nigeria, PHCN, saying the government has really done well.
For Mr. Oshinowo, “As far as Nigerians are concerned, the success of the reform in the electricity sector should be measured and rightly so by regularity or stability of electricity. We can excuse the private owners because it is still early days. It is not unusual for them to have hiccups and challenges that will come with any transition. I believe that it is a question of time before we start enjoying the benefits of the reform. That is where we have a little bit of concern. We are talking of promise and prospects rather than reality, those are two different things. The reality to Nigeria is that right from day one, let there be improvement in power supply. But we will be asking for too much. The prospect and promises that somewhere down the line we should be able to have regular electricity supply. If we are going to have regular electricity supply somewhere down the line, it is quite possible that it could bear a hope that will not materialize.”
“The belief is that private sector is far more effective and efficient than the public sector. That is one of the reasons that informed the transformation, that if we have got it right with the telecommunication, if we have got it right with pension and management and administration issues are in the hands of the private sector, then the same formula should work for the electricity. Ordinarily, it should but it will only happen that way if we make sure that all the variables, all the key factors and parameters that have to be tended are actually tended to. What do I mean by that? Now the physical assets have been handed over to the new owners. From a dispensation where we have one octopus employer, we now have probably close to 20-25 different employers, different entities. In which case, the dispensation has changed.”
Multiplicity of employers
According to Oshinowo, “We are talking of multiplicity of employers as against just one monolithic employer which is good. But we must realise that in the old dispensation, they have their culture, their traditions, their practice and their system. Those are things that you cannot change overnight and those things are paramount to the realisation of the hope of regular supply of electricity. I will not go into the entirety of what those issues and variables are, I will just mention one. This has to do with the industrial relation practice and system in the electricity sector. We believe that if that variable is not handled with professionalism, if that variable is not accorded attention, if that variable is not given premium, it can undo whatever benefit we are all hoping for under this new dispensation of privatisation. Remember we have moved from a dispensation where one big union was talking to one big employer, now we are in a dispensation where you still have one big union representing the interest of all the employees in the electricity sector and you have several employers not only several employers but new employers in the business. Now they require the human asset to work on the physical asset so that we can have regular electricity.”
“The human asset that they require, have been used to a highly unionised environment where they look up to their union to represent their interest in promoting their welfare. The first thing is that, we now have new employers, those new employers must first of all recognise the right of the employees which include the right to be unionised which is in line with International Labour Organisation, ILO, convention 87 and it is in line with the labour law in Nigeria. Failure to recognise that rights of workers will throw a spanner into the entire template of guaranteeing regular power supply in this economy. The right to associate with union of their choice, the right to engage in collective bargaining must be recognised by the new employers.”
Right to unionize, collective bargaining
NECA Director General explained that the predominant bargaining structure in Nigeria, saying “the predominant bargaining structure in Nigeria is what we call the Industry-wide Collective Bargaining System which started up in 1978 following the industrial reform of Nigeria. That industrial relation reform actually led to the creation of Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, and the establishment of 42 industrial unions in 1978. Today, you have industrial unions in some of the sectoral groups, you have the food beverage, you have the chemical and none metallic, you have the textile union of employees in those sectors are also unions of employers . Now when you look at the dispensation before now when we had add only one employer, that one employer actually represented the industry-wide employer representative in the electricity sector and that was the organisation called PHCN which was negotiating with the National Union of Electricity Employees, NUEE.”
“Now that we have well over 20 operators, what is going to be their game plan? Are they going to individually negotiate with the National union or they want to come together just as we have the association of food beverage tobacco employer for them to equally form a union of employers that will engage the National Union of Electricity Employees? These are big issues that nobody is talking about. As far as the Bureau of Public Enterprises, BPE and the National Electricity Regulatory Commission, NERC, are concerned they have done the needful in terms of privatising the physical assets. I have not seen in their templates the reform plan for industrial relations. Now, guaranteeing regular supply of electricity goes beyond just handling over the physical assets. What of inherited practice such as the industrial relations?”
“Without harmony and without peace in that sector, I am sorry to say, we will be back to square one. That is why we are having this engagement in order to send appropriate messages and information to all concerned that we have not turned the corner yet on this. We have not arrived at Eldorado. The most you have done really is just to hand over the physical asset.