By Victor Ahiuma-Young
COMRADE Achese Igwe, was recently elected President of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), succeeding Comrade Peter Akpatason who led the union for eight years. In this interview with Labour Vanguard, the new President, gives anÂ insight into his trade unionâ€™s career and theÂ menace of contract staffing in the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG), where he said NUPENG presently does not have members.Â Excerpts
Many people will be interested to know how long,Â you haveÂ been in active unionism. How and when did your trade union activities commence?
Well, I started my union career in Port Harcourt refinery in 1993 at the committee level. From the committee level I rose to becomeÂ the branch Chairman ofÂ Port Harcourt refinery and from there I rose to becomeÂ the vice president of NUPENGÂ Port Harcourt zone.
But I never assumed office due to what I would call, I donâ€™t want to use the word victimization but a stop gap. I was elected unopposed,Â that was in the first tenure of Comrade Peter Akpatason as the national president. I had to relinquish the office for the continuation of the union because if I had refusedÂ there would have been. crisisÂ andÂ Â chaos. In 2001, IÂ wasÂ transferred outÂ to Sarki pawa in Niger state. It is a boundary community between Niger state and Kaduna state.
There, I was asked to take over the unit leadership. I resisted , but the workers insisted.. In fact, at a point, I was asked to stay away from union activities by my employer, which is NNPC for reasons best known to management. But the workers insisted because they saw me as a strong unionist who believedÂ in the principle ofÂ equity,Â fairness and justice, which I believe was why I was asked to stay away from unionism.
I was almost sacked from the system. I believe during the process, some people started asking questions. This man, why do we want to sack him?Â What did he do? Instead, I was transferred to Niger state. There,Â many members said yes, we have heard your story, we know who you are,Â so we are insisting that you take over the unit leadership.
I declined . From there I grew up and became an ex-official of Kaduna zonal council of Petroleum Products Marketing Company (PPMC) because I was transferred now from refinery to PPMC in Kaduna zone. The PPMC was spread acrossÂ four different zones, but currently I think they have five zones. From being an ex-official in the Kaduna zonal council, I grew upÂ to become a branch ex-official. From the branch leadership as an ex-official in Kaduna zone,Â as God would have it,Â I was transferred out to Benue State, Markurdi depot.Â From Markurdi depot,Â I was transferred to Enugu.
That was like coming nearer home town?
Yes, Enugu was like going back home because Enugu was part of Port Harcourt zonal council. Luckily, I got into Enugu few months to the expiration of the tenure ofÂ the leadership in PortHarcourt zonal council.Â As soon as I arrived Enugu, the members in the PortHarcourt zonal council said you are welcome back home,Â we want you toÂ re-contest. It was a tough one for me. After much pressures,Â IÂ accepted the responsibility to re-contest even thoughÂ I knew my job was on the line.Â But I took up the challenge and re-contested.
I won the election against the incumbent. From there, I started again the trade union politics at the highest level, that is the National Executive Council (NEC), level.Â At a point I must confess,Â it was a big challenge because a lot of issues came in to play. That was when the issue of deregulation was intensified.Â That was when the issue ofÂ reforms and restructuring started.
Some people thinkÂ the issue of deregulation just started yesterday or last year,Â but the system has been deregulated for long. In fact, the deregulationÂ started for a very long time since 2003 and it was almost coming to a head in 2005. It has since been a big challenge for us.Â The reforms of deregulation has really been affecting the oil and gas sector and the economy of this country.
If you look at the issue of deregulation, one would want to ask, is Nigeria moving forward or retrogressing?Â When I took over office as the zonal Chairman of Port Harcourt Council,Â that was when we also had a lot of challenges over casaulisation, out-sourcing of jobs to third parties.Â I think that was when the issue ofÂ third party contacting came into limelight where every one (oil company) was now moving into the third party contract communities , politicians were now looking at third party contract as a very huge business.
How did you confront it?
Well, we tried our best., but weÂ had aÂ lot of set backs then my organization where I work was not an easy one. Comrade Peter Akpatason was the President then and I was the zonal chairman .Â I had to take directives from him that is what the constitution says, which is normal. My mission then was to see how we could set a ball rolling, where workers,Â if you are been contracted out or if you are been sourced out by the ILO convention of 1998, that workers have all the rights to make sure they have conditions of services.
As workers, there shouldÂ beÂ conditionsÂ of service in place for workers.Â Not just because you are out-sourcing them, but the workers must haveÂ privileges,Â rights or conditions ofÂ how their work environment should look like and what theirÂ future would look like.
I took one major challenge which was Nigerian Liquefied natural Gas (NLNG). But like I said earleir, there set backs. Unfortunately, even till today the NLNGÂ is a bigÂ project to me. You will not believe it that up till this moment that up toÂ 60% , ifÂ not more of the workersÂ in NLNG areÂ hired through labour contractors and there is no conditionÂ of service for workers in NLNG. The employeesÂ are being enslaved, theyÂ hire and fire them at will,Â no conditions of service, no pay off,no benefits because there is no means of discussing why workers are being relieved of their jobs.
So, NLNG is a major environment where both NUPENG and Petroleum and natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSANN) need toÂ sitÂ up and live up to our responsibilities. Today,Â as I talk to you,Â we have PENGASSAN on ground in NLNG.
NUPENG was existing in NLNG until the management saidÂ NUPENG should no longer exist there again and thatÂ what they only want is PENGASSAN. What followed wasÂ out sourcing of most of NUPENGâ€™s jobs to third parties, to what they call service jobs, what they call contract jobsÂ and what they call short term jobs and so on.Â But the job continues and you cannot imagineÂ where a company that is consistently producing gas would argueÂ that they have only a short term jobÂ in terms of maintenance of the plant.
As I talk to you, we have workersÂ that are being contracted as maintenance engineers, contracted out as professionals. The management will say, you see, the system is not functioning. We are not going to accept anymore. So,Â it is a big project we need to fight in NLNG. This unfair labour practicesÂ resulted to the various crises I had before I became President of this great organization.Â Â As a result ofÂ some of these unfair practices, I was transferred again to Maduguri, but this time around, the union stood its ground that I was not going anywhere until the transferÂ was reversed.
I was latter transferred again to Mosimi. In the cause of all these NLNG struggles, my life was even threatened.Â I refused to give up, and remained consistent in the act of making sure workers are given a fair treatment in their work environment, given the rights and privileges as workers and citizens ofÂ this country.
So, when I was a transferred to Mosimi which made me lose my leadership role as the zonal chairman of NUPENG.Â Again it took a very long battle, the union stood its ground under the able leadership of Comrade Peter Akpatason.
Workers ofÂ NNPC in NUPENG resisted. They said, this is purely victimization and at the end it was clear that few individuals in the management where behind my travail. When questions started arising,Â some of them who took that decision started denyingÂ it. Some said they were not part of the decision. At the end , it was reversed and I assumed my office again as the zonal chairman of NUPENG and I continued till where I found my self today as the President ofÂ NUPENG.