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Our battle against unfair labour practices in oil industry, PENGASSAN

LIKE its National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), counterpart, the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN), has been battling against what it calls unfair labour practices especially casualisation, contract staffing and service contracting of workers in the oil and gas industry.


In this interview with Sweet Crude Correspondent, Victor Ahiuma-Young, Deputy General-Secretary, Comrade Lumumba Okugbawa, gives insight into how the umbrella body for senior staff in the industry is confronting the challenge of indecent labour

In spite of the efforts of the association, casualisation and other forms of un-pensionable employment is on the increase in the petroleum sector. What could be attributed to this trend?

It has been a menace we have been battling over the years because of the economic crunch and lack of jobs.  It has been a very tough battle for us. When I say lack of job opportunities, I mean for example, somebody has been an applicant for over three years after graduation because of the situation that we found ourselves and the first offer he gets is out-sourced job. There is nothing you will tell him about the job that would stop him from going ahead and taking that offer. It will be later that he would realise that the job does not meet his expectations.

That has been a very tough challenge and most of these organisations see this practice as the cheapest way to do business and cut overhead. As a union, we are not averse to contract staffing or casualisation because we know that certain jobs because of their nature, you cannot employ permanent workers.

These are jobs that may not last more than six months or at most one year. What we have in the industry now is that those kinds of jobs have turned to permanent jobs that we now have people working on same jobs as casual for five years, ten years, 15 years and above. In fact, there are increasing evidences of people who have spent 20 years as casual workers.

Employers and management should have human feelings. If somebody is working in such a situation for 10, 15 years, it means there is a slot in such an organisation that needs filling. You cannot continue to tell the person who has been working as a casual for such a number of years that there is no permanent job for him. Sometimes, the management will come up with other argument that out-sourced job is not their core area of operations. But you find out that this non-core areas of jobs also have core areas of jobs. You have people working there as casual and contract staff. The truth is that these employers and management are simply not being sincere. This has been our real challenge.

There is also an emerging trend where even permanent staff are disengaged only for them to be re-absorbed as casual or contract staff. What is responsible for this?

That is what I said earlier, which is the insincerity of the management of these organisations. We now have these people in large numbers especially in the service sub-sector. We have discovered that some top members of the management of these companies have their companies used for labour contracting. These companies are set up basically for supplying labour (workers) to their main companies and others. How can you set up companies for supplying labour and perpetrating unfair labour practices? What is the value that is being added to the organisation? The company is just a pay master.

The owner of such company does not even know his workers. These companies would say they want to cut cost and run away from responsibilities. What they are actually running away from is certain payments especially terminal benefits, pension, medical, transport allowance and others as well as unionisation.

They know that when workers are unionised, they can have a formidable body to ask for better conditions of service and improved welfare benefits. But they fail to appreciate that union is not there to antagonise them, but to partner with management to meet set objectives of growth and expansion and profitability. Union is interested in minimum standard, like safety standard, collective agreement and others, but most of this management is running away from all these. I tell you that it has really been a big challenge.

Some have argued that this practice is tantamount to modern day slavery and slave labour. What does the union think about this and what is the difference between this form of employment and full\permanent employment?

It is nothing short of slave labour. In all our presentations to government and others, we informed them that this is another form of slave labour.

A worker should be a worker no matter what. There is no need to discriminate among them. It is now because of our agitations that things have started improving. In some of these companies, casual or contract staff do not enter the same bus with the so-called regular staff. They do not eat in the same canteen; they do not attend the same medical facilities and so on. However, these workers are doing the same jobs for the organisation.

That is why we have been saying that these managements should have respect for labour. In those days because of the short-term nature of the jobs, the contract staff usually has higher pay because of problem of the shortness of the job, no terminal benefits and so on.

But now, you find out that they are the lower paid compared to their so-called staff counterpart. When I say their so-called regular staff because there is no employment that is permanent because at the end of the day, you will leave. So, there is nothing like regular or permanent staff.  They are all workers. We are trying to collaborate with the management and let them know that they should see these workers as human beings and see how we can get these workers into the mainstream. But it has been very difficult.

That is why we have been trying to see how we can even organise these contract staff so that we can negotiate on their behalf for them to have better conditions of service, safe environment, remuneration and nobody should just take them for granted. But most of these companies are resisting this approach. Hence, once you’re organised, before you know it, they terminate the workers’ jobs. Or they would push the workers to another location. When the management discovers that such workers have clout, the management would frustrate the workers. So, it has been a big challenge and we have been having serious confrontation on the issue.

But it appears that as a union, you are finding it difficult to insist despite several agreements reached with government and the companies that decent employment should be maintained?

We are getting to that level with our sister union, NUPENG (National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers) where the industrial peace may be disrupted because of the practice. We believe in dialogue. It does not mean that we do know what we are doing. We are taking the pain to go through the process of dialogue. Until we get to the point where we think that we can no longer go ahead with it, and I told you that we are getting to that stage.

We have been organising seminars; workshops to extent that our international umbrella body, ICEM came to see how far we have taken the issue of contract and casual workers. We try to get them unionised, try to ensure they participate in the contributory pension and things like that. We are trying to ensure and make it un-attractive for these companies to encourage contract or casual staffing and this form of indecent employment. So, if we can get a better condition of service for them, get them better remuneration, and other benefits, the companies would have no other choice than to regularise them.

It has been happening in some of these companies like SPDC where some of their contract staff have been regularised. We are expecting other major companies like Mobil and others to do same and encourage the smaller companies who are more scared of contracting jobs and using contract or casual workers and using third party companies under the unconvincing excuse that the jobs are not part of their core jobs.

They will use that excuse to say this company supplies drivers, that one supplies gardeners and things like that, to remove from the mainstream of companies. But these categories of workers are also doing the jobs meant for the organisations. The organisations believe they are making gains, but in the long-term, the organisations are losing because these staff do not see themselves as having a future in the company therefore, there is no need to be loyal and committed.

There are lots of cases outside our industry when evidence of this has begun to manifest. Like in the banking industry, most people are attributing the rate of fraud and robberies with insider connivance to the upsurge in contract staff in the industry. These workers do not feel any sense of belonging to the organisation, so why should they be loyal? The worker or the person in your kitchen no matter what, is as important as any other person in the house. So, you must take good care of him as you take care of every other person. Some of these companies claim they use the contracting of the jobs to appease local chiefs, traditional rulers, politicians, youth leaders and the rest of them.

The question is, must you enslave fellow human beings because you want to patronise or pacify certain groups or individuals?  These companies should give something better and more rewarding to those they want to patronise rather than just the job of supplying labour. It is like slave trade and slave labour. They are just supplying slaves like in the slave trade era. They should have that moral feeling.


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