Isaac O. Aberare, General secretary, Nigerian Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers. In this interview with Moses Nosike of Saturday Vanguard, on casualisation in Nigeria, he reveals how indigenous and foreign companies contravene Labour laws because of government inability to enforce them. He stressed further how Nigerian workers spend 30 years in an employment as contract staff and others. Excerpts:
What is the position of NUPENG on casualisation in Nigeria?
NUPENG has consistently kicked against casualisation in the oil and gas industry and others in Nigeria as far back as 1983 when we had a show down with a company.
The company woke up one day and decided to pay off its workers and reemployed them again as casual workers. We rose against it and fought, and it led to a zonal council strike action in Warri where the entire oil workers in Delta, Edo, Ondo and Balyesa states took part in the strike action.
At the end of the day, the company recalled some members and confirmed them as permanent staff while some left the system because the management felt they can’t cope with the wage bill if they confirm all the staff. Since that year till now, we have been agitating for the plight of casual workers in the oil and gas industry. So, we are against it because it is tantamount to slave labour.
As if that was not enough, in 1992, NUPENG union embarked upon a symbolic strike action to create awareness for the plight of casual workers in the whole country with reference to the oil and gas workers. In that strike, the Federal Ministry of Labour and Productivity intervened and held a stakeholder’s meeting where representatives of the oil sector, off-stream, downstream, marketers and service companies met with the union and reached an agreement which was signed in a communique which we have used over the years to organise casual workers into the union.
But the challenge is that companies started introducing all kinds of unfavourable employment policies which was not so in the early 70s and mid 80s, where the employment Labour policy of companies in this country stipulated full employment for work and they must be on pay roll. The issue of casualisation were non existence. Before you know it, companies started outsourcing some jobs which they claim is not their core company’s jobs. Then we started unionising the outsource workers into their company and developing a collective bargaining agreement for them.
After some time when they saw that the condition of service was improving, they came up with a new strategy of migrating the contract workers into service contract. There is a different between a contract worker and service contract; the labour contract is such a one where the principal company will determine how much is payable to the workers while the service contract is one in which a contractor will command you, come and clean this house and I will pay you N10,000 Naira at the end of the month. In this case, it’s the contractor that determines personnel and equipment to use.
So they are at liberty to employ anybody they want to employ and pay anything they like and the client company doesn’t determine what to pay.
Why are you against it?
We are against this form of employment because the jobs they are contracting out are permanent jobs that last for many years and workers can do it without changing employment pattern, so while contracting out. It is meant to enslave workers because there is no condition of service for casual workers, no fringe benefits. Often time, when they are sacked, it’s only that month’s salary they are entitled to in most cases.
We have fought consistently with management of some oil company over service contract. We’re still in the fight today which even led the Federal Ministry of Labour setting up a technical committee to issue guide lines on outsourcing and casualisation issues in the oil and gas industry.
The product of that exercise they are not complying to it. However, we will continue to raise our voice against casualisation in this country wherever it is being practised and we call also for a legislative intervention because they are hiding under the right of hire and fire, that is why they are doing this. In some countries tday, it’s specified that you can’t be using people to do your job for years without regularising their employment. The provision in our law that says after three months, regularise employment, employers are not following it.
They employ people and within three months they sack the person and still reemploy the person again and again. So we may need a legislative order that says, a job that is permanent let Nigerians be employed on a permanent basis and if at the end of the day, the job is no longer existing, they can discuss with the union for severance benefit for such people. So we are against casualisation in all its ramification.
It is discovered recently that casual workers outnumber regularised workers in most Nigerian companies and it seems government and regulatory authorities are comfortable with it, what should be done?
There should be legislative intervention like I have said. The issuance of guideline on outsourcing and casualisation in the oil and gas industries is no longer enough to address issues arising from the practice of casual workers in the industry. We need legislative intervention that will reinforce that section of the Labour Law that says a worker after putting three months in service should be regularised.
We need a force that would make that law functional and biding to all companies that are operating in Nigeria. It is only that way that the issue of casualisation can be addressed. Most of the multinational companies in Nigeria because of they want to maximise profit and reduce wage bill place workers on precarious jobs, jobs that have no defined benefits.
They use the people 24/7 and pay them peanut and do not consider their welfare. But if there is legislative intervention to compel them to regularise employment, it will serve the workers better and serve the country. In some countries we read some laws bane casualisation and promote descent work ethics for citizens. We can emulate international best practices to address this issue. In some countries where casualisation is allowed, they have registered agencies whose operation must take into consideration verifiable labour authority.
In Nigeria, there is this requirement that Labour supplier should be registered by the Federal Ministry of Labour, although the provision is there but it is not being enforced. And to be able to register at the Federal Ministry of Labour as labour supplier you must be incorporated with examined condition of service for your workers by the Ministry of Labour. Even though many of them companies show paper for the purpose of registration, they don’t practise it.
With the rate of unemployment in the country and people must put food on their table, pay certain bills, don’t you think that has given employers the impetus operate without Labour Laws?
The rate of unemployment in the country is not helping matters. I agree with you. For somebody who is living in township with many bills to pay other family responsibilities to content might make up his mind to do any kind of job to ensure he puts food on the table for his family. But that should not be the situation. I want to let you know that there is dignity of labour which means that somebody working should be able to provide for his family and prepare for the rainy day.
Because of unemployment is on the increase, people are now prepared to take anything to survive. But what we are saying is that if people are employed as labour contract workers, they should be allowed to join the union of that industry and also engage in collective bargaining agreement to periodically review the condition of service.
So there should be legislative intervention to enforce it, so that if everybody cannot be in the permanent employment of the company or in whichever strata, workers would find themselves they should have a humen condition of service. That is our position
Sir, we also have a situation where some companies including financial institutions don’t allow workers to join unions, depriving anybody to fight for their case, whom do we blame for this situation in Nigeria today?
First and foremost, we should blame any financial institution or company that has changed its employment policy rather than employing people directly they go through third party employment, contracting out employment. Again, we should blame the supervisory agency of government that allows it to happen. Otherwise, how can a reputable companies like banks and others would not like to have workers on their payroll but prefer labour contractors to employ people to supply workers to work for them.
What we expect labour ministry to do is to insist that this is not labour practice and should not be allowed to take place. Those days, there used to labour inpectors from Labour Ministry going from one company to another inspecting their activities and also inquire from workers in that company about their plights and condition. Why is that not going on now so that they can discipline companies operating against labour laws.
Do you think casualisation can be reduced if not stopped in Nigeria from the look of things?
Casualisation is a practice that is in the evolved all over the world. Our quarrel is how it is applied in Nigeria. In other countries, they use casual to do jobs that are temporal in nature. Jobs that would not last more than six months. It’s commonly used in agricultural areas during harvest period where agriculturists need more hands to harvest crops, after which they go. Or during planting season when they need more hands and thereafter the casuals will go. Or in companies during stock taking period where they need more hands to carry out the job, they employ casuals to assist and thereafter the casuals are let go. While in some companies the use them to clear the surroundings and allow them to go. So the use of casuals for these kinds of jobs that are not permanent will continue to exist in Nigeria and other countries. What we are against is the use of casual workers to do jobs that are permanent either in the office of offshore. We have people in the oil and gas industry that are employed as contract workers and they have put in30 years in service as contract worker, it is not fair.
Do you think government is doing enough to curtail or end this employment hazards?
Government is not doing anything to curtail or end it. They are not doing enough. Government can do more than what it’s doing. Let that section of Labour Law be strengthened so that companies that offend can be punished and more to that empower that department in the Ministry of Labour in charge to take actions including if need be closing down companies until they are ready to comply with employment laws of this country.