By Femi Aribisala
IF you were to visit the Lagos headquarters of ExxonMobil (Nigeria) in Victoria Island, Lagos today, you would immediately notice that something strange is going on. You will find a number of people camped outside the building; sometimes chanting, sometimes dancing, sometimes shouting slogans. They are there 24/7; day and night. Surely, this is anomalous to the activities of an international oil company.
You will also notice that there are placards hanging everywhere. Some read “A Luta Continua,” meaning the struggle continues. Others insist ExxonMobil must obey the verdict of the Nigerian Supreme Court.
What is happening is that some of the Nigerian workers of ExxonMobil are protesting the sharp practices of the company. These practices should be of concern to all Nigerians because ExxonMobil’s treatment of its Nigerian staff is not only an affront to its workers, it is an affront to all Nigerians. A foreign company, however big and powerful, should not be allowed to come to Nigeria and maltreat Nigerians in Nigeria with impunity.
The affected Nigerian workers at ExxonMobil have not resorted to violence. They have sought instead legal redress. The matter has taken no less than 18 years within the Nigerian legal system. It has worked its way up from the High Court to the Appeal Court and, finally to the Supreme Court. In April 2018, the Supreme Court finally ruled in favour of the Nigerian workers and against ExxonMobil. But ExxonMobil has refused to abide by the verdict of the Nigerian Supreme Court.
Instead, ExxonMobil had the effrontery to use duplicity to sack all the 860 affected Nigerian workers, most of who had worked with the company for 22 years, and to lock them out of its building. This is a step it would not dare take in the United States after a Supreme Court verdict. But for some reason, it is confident it can get away with it here in Nigeria.
In retaliation, the Nigerian workers have decided to shut down the Lagos headquarters of ExxonMobil, insisting their dismissal is unlawful. They also insist ExxonMobil must obey the verdict of the Supreme Court.
Rasak Obe, chairman of the ExxonMobil branch of PENGASSAM (Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Association of Nigeria) told the News Agency of Nigeria that: “The wholesale sack unambiguously conveys (ExxonMobil) management’s disdain for the highest court in the country and mocks its ruling on the subject.” He describes the action of ExxonMobil as “harsh and unlawful” and expressed PENGASSAM’s outrage at the sudden indiscriminate sacking of ExxonMobil’s Nigerian security personnel who had served the company faithfully for many years.
He insisted the ExxonMobil management should immediately reinstate the sacked security workers and pay them all the entitlements due to them. He also urged the management to immediately reinstate 16 employees purportedly sacked in December 2016 in similar fashion. He then demanded the immediate dismissal and repatriation of some 20 expatriate personnel recently engaged by ExxonMobil to replace the Nigerian workers, in defiance of extant Nigerian laws and security protocols.
Obe frowned at the indiscriminate dismissal of Nigerian workers by ExxonMobil, in order to replace them with expatriates, thereby taking from Nigerians jobs they have successfully performed for decades.
The newly-recruited expatriate personnel currently engaged at ExxonMobil’s security department are mostly ex-service men. Their employment in replacement of Nigerian workers runs contrary to the directives of Nigeria’s National Petroleum Investment Management Services, NAPIMS, and the Nigerian Defense Ministry.
The cost of keeping one expatriate security personnel in Nigeria would pay 100 of the local security personnel currently being repressed.
Reacting, Ogechukwu Udeagha, Manager, Media and Communications of ExxonMobil, said: “Following the recent judgment of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, Mobil Producing Nigeria would provide compensation packages for affected personnel, and it is offering human resource consulting services to assist them with employment opportunities with third parties. MPN typically retains security services through third parties who are best positioned to provide these core competences. We thank these individuals for their prior service in supporting the safety and security of our operations in Nigeria.”
This statement is a tissue of lies. At various times in the past, Mobil advertised employment opportunities for security guards for its operations. Nigerian workers applied for those jobs and were employed. The interviews for the jobs included physical checks, aptitude checks, and questionnaire tests. In all these processes, there was no third-party interference. The exercises were conducted by Mobil directly, although this was done before its merger with Exxon.
After their successful recruitment, the shortlisted workers were sent documents for confirmation. Later on, they were given uniforms bearing the company’s logo and insignia. They were also offered Mobil IDs, given Mobil medical tests, employment letters and were paid salaries and allowances.
But the after some years of working for Mobil, they were then told to proceed to Nigeria’s Police College Training Schools for Basic Guards Training. These trainings were done at various times and were independently-funded by Mobil. They often lasted 3 to 4 months.
After one of these trainings, when they returned back to Mobil for redeployment, the company suddenly gave them Nigeria Police uniforms and re-named them “SPY Police.” It then instructed them that thenceforth, their new employer would be the Nigeria Police Force, NPF. The workers were then given “Status Agreement Forms” to sign.
The Nigerian workers denied having anything to do with such agreement and refused to be party to it. Clearly, ExxonMobil, a non-Nigerian company cannot operate as a personnel recruitment outfit for the Nigeria Police. The constitutional provisions and laws of employment of the NPF does not permit such aberration. Mobil is an oil company, it is not a police recruitment firm. This action was pure and simple 419.
ExxonMobil took this unlawful approach out of a malicious desire to deny the workers their lawful entitlements. As a matter of fact, at no time did the NPF agree to take up Mobil’s responsibilities to these Nigerian workers. Therefore, the guards had no option but to seek legal redress.
At the court of first instance in the high Court, Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, which lasted between 2003 and 2006, some reliefs were granted to Mobil and some to the Nigerian workers, ensuring that there was no clear-cut winner. Therefore, the Nigerian workers proceeded to the Appeal Court in Calabar, Cross River State. After four years, judgment was delivered in their favour in May 2009. The Court expressly directed Mobil to accept that the workers were their staff (as was the case in the beginning when they were employed).
ExxonMobil was not satisfied with this ruling, therefore, it proceeded to the apex court in Nigeria, the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court delivered judgment after eight years on April 20, 2018. By a unanimous verdict of the five sitting judges, judgment was delivered in favour of the Nigerian workers.
The Supreme Court stated expressly that the security guards are employees of ExxonMobil; as such they could not be renamed as an outside outfit
called “SPY Police.” It directed that befitting uniforms should be given to them reflecting their integral relationship with ExxonMobil.
After the judgment, the workers resumed their duties at ExxonMobil, waiting for the company to implement the judgment. But ExxonMobil refused to comply.
On July 13, 2018, ExxonMobil took its most dastardly act. It asked the workers to gather at Victoria Crown Hotel Plaza for a meeting with the company’s representatives. When they arrived there, they were addressed by one Kayode Ashoga of ExxonMobil’s HR Department. He told them to be on the lookout for messages from ExxonMobil through their respective emails and other addresses they had given to the company a week earlier in a circulated document titled ExxonMobil Employee Data Update Form.
At the end of the meeting, which lasted less than 10 minutes, the Nigerian workers went back to their various places of work, only to discover that they had been locked out by ExxonMobil, with their personal effects and property still in the offices. In effect, the workers were deceived out of their stations and then sacked and locked out.
Similar meetings were held simultaneously by ExxonMobil in other locations, including Eket, Port Harcourt and Abuja. Over 500 ExxonMobil guards were locked out at the same time on the same day. They were all denied access to their belongings, personal effects, drugs and clothing still on ExxonMobil grounds.
The Nigerian workers have shown considerable restraint in their struggle, determined to be peaceful and law-abiding. Nevertheless, ExxonMobil still took the extra-judicial act of throwing them out like common criminals, sacking them for no justifiable reason in the attempt to circumvent the obedience of the ruling of the Nigerian Supreme Court.
Since then, the Nigerian workers have camped outside ExxonMobil House in Lagos with placards demanding that the company must obey the verdict of the Supreme Court. They are there day and night.
On 20th August, 2018, ExxonMobil took another unlawful step. It took the matter to the Industrial Court, Ikoyi, Lagos, asking that the court should stop the workers from picketing its premises and direct that they be forcibly removed from there. The Court rejected this request outright, affirming it is the lawful right of Nigerian workers to picket the offices of their employers during an industrial dispute.
ExxonMobil did not tell the court that it stood in violation of a Supreme Court ruling. It is certainly not acceptable for a lower court to vacate the judgment of the Supreme Court. ExxonMobil surely knows this. But its action shows the extent to which the company is contemptuous of Nigeria’s institutions.
Agenda for action
This struggle has gone on for long enough. It is past time for the Nigerian government to intervene on behalf of the affected Nigerian workers.
ExxonMobil should be cited for contempt of Nigeria’s Supreme Court. For this, a hefty fine should be imposed on this multinational bully. ExxonMobil must be made to obey the Supreme Court, reinstate the affected workers, (170 of whom have died in penury since their struggle began 18 years ago), pay them all their entitlements in full, and compensate them for unjust and unlawful dismissal.
This kind of arrogance by a foreign company should not be allowed to prevail in Nigeria. What is Chris Ngige, the Minister of Labour and Productivity doing. The message must be sent to ExxonMobil loud and clear that, as long as it is operating within the sovereignty of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, it must be subject to Nigerian laws. It cannot operate here in Nigeria as a law unto itself.