By Femi Aribisala
The message Chris Ngige delivered to ExxonMobil loud and clear is that it does not have to be subject to Nigerian laws. It can operate here in Nigeria as a law unto itself.
Last week, I complained that 860 Nigerian workers at ExxonMobil (Nigeria) are being treated like orphans in Nigeria; their home-country. They have fought this injustice with fortitude and resilience in the courts for 18 long years, during which 171 of them have died along the way (one more since last week).
In court, ExxonMobil denied that the workers are its employees. It claimed instead that they are “SPY Police” in the attempt to circumvent its lawful commitments to them. The Nigerian workers, on the other hand, maintained they are directly employed by ExxonMobil and, therefore, should be treated as ExxonMobil staff.
This case has gone all the way to the Supreme Court of Nigeria. In April 2018, the Supreme Court finally rejected ExxonMobil’s denials outright. It affirmed that the Nigerian workers are bona fide staff of ExxonMobil. Therefore, it ruled that they are entitled to every benefit applicable to other ExxonMobil personnel in other departments of the company and must be paid accordingly.
However, instead of abiding by this verdict of the apex court of Nigeria, ExxonMobil took the outrageous step of sacking 507 of the workers in one day; locking them all out of its building.
When the workers protested by picketing ExxonMobil outfits, the multinational had the audacity to take to the Industrial Court of Nigeria the same matter that had already been adjudicated by the Supreme Court. The Industrial Court also threw out ExxonMobil’s case, affirming the right of the workers to picket. Nevertheless, ExxonMobil as refused to budge.
I said last week: “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 Employment 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.”
However, the message Chris Ngige delivered to ExxonMobil loud and clear is that it does not have to be subject to Nigerian laws. It can operate here in Nigeria as a law unto itself.
Instead of fighting for the rights of the Nigerian workers in Nigeria, Chris Ngige, the Minister for Labour and Employment, is fighting for the rights of ExxonMobil, a foreign multinational in Nigeria.
On the very day my article was published last week, Chris Ngige, convened a hurried meeting of the parties in the dispute. However, rather than tell ExxonMobil it has to obey the verdict of the Supreme Court, Ngige presented a settlement package contravening the position of the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court said the Nigerian workers should not regarded as “SPY Police” but as bona fide Exxon Mobil employees. But Ngige said they should be regarded as “SPY Police.” This means they would be paid based on police or civil service structures instead of those of an international oil company. He then gave the workers 48 hours to stop their protest before any of the so-called benefits he itemized for them can be paid.
Contrary to what has been presented in ExxonMobil newspaper advertorials and in the circular of the Ministry of Labour and Employment, the representatives of the striking workers rejected in totality this one-sided intervention of Chris Ngige.
One of the striking workers said: “Dr Ngige is not our employer nor have we applied to work in the Ministry of Labour, therefore, our benefits cannot be packaged by him or the Ministry headed by him. Our representatives haven’t signed any document because those pronounced packages by the Minister are not in line with Mobil’s policy. We therefore resent, reject and discard such package by Mobil and the Minister of Labour.”
“For over 30 years we have been governed by ExxonMobil policies, guidelines, rules and company laws. So, we cannot be separated by a Civil Service Rule conceived by Mobil and implemented (planned) by the Nigeria’s Minister of Labour. The separation benefits as mentioned by Mobil and the Minister are unacceptable to us because Mobil bluntly refused to execute the judgement of the Apex Court of Nigeria.”
This immediately raises certain fundamental questions. What exactly is the job description of a Nigerian Minister of Labour and Employment? How does the honourable minister, Chris Ngige, understand the requirements of his job?
Is a Nigerian Minister of Labour and Employment supposed to fight for a foreign multinational in Nigeria against the interests of Nigerian workers; or is he expected to fight for Nigerian workers against a foreign multinational? Does a Nigerian minister have the right or the power to contravene a decision of the Supreme Court of Nigeria?
These questions are rhetorical because the answer is obvious. Chris Ngige as Minster of Labour and Employment must fight to protect oppressed Nigerian workers against oppressive multinationals like ExxonMobil. Chris Ngige is duty-bound to promote employment in Nigeria and not to preside over the indiscriminate dismissal of hundreds of Nigerian workers by a prejudicial company. Chris Ngige has no right whatsoever to contravene a decision of the Supreme Court of Nigeria; one that the workers fought for tooth and nail to obtain over a period of 18 years.
If Chris Ngige cannot fulfill the basic requirements of his job as Minister of Labour and Employment, he should resign.
Enemy of the people
What happens to Nigerians when we come to positions of power? Why are we so quick to forget our roots? Why do we so easily betray our own people? Why do we give preferential treatment to foreigners and discriminate against our own people, Nigerians, in our own land?
Chris Ngige is an honourable man. I know people who vouch for him. They claim to know him from his earlier humble beginnings. Some claimed to have been his neighbours when he allegedly lived in 1004 estate in Victoria Island, Lagos.
We watched as the grace of God took him to the position of Governor of Anambra State. We rallied to his support when he suffered persecution, even in that exalted position. When he broke ranks with his political godfather, Chris Uba, an attempt was made to kidnap and remove him from office unlawfully. A counterfeit letter of resignation from him was presented to the State legislature. We all rallied to his support on the grounds that such grand larceny should not hold in Nigeria.
Ngige went on to be one of the best governors in Nigeria. He has a legacy of populist programs as governor, particularly in the area of road construction. However, his stint as governor was truncated by an election tribunal that nullified his 2003 victory. Ngige appealed to the Federal Court of Appeal, but the annulment of his victory was upheld.
Ngige accepted the verdict of the courts in good faith. Why can’t the same Ngige insist that ExxonMobil must accept the verdict of the Nigerian Supreme Court? What happened to the Ngige of old who was a darling of Anambrarians and Nigerians? What happened to the Ngige who the people went on to elect as Senator of Anambra Central?
What happened is that Ngige became Minister of Labour and Employment and, judging by his recent action with regard to the matter of ExxonMobil and its Nigerian security detail, Ngige forgot his roots.
It would appear that the honourable minister has become another Adams Oshiomhole who was an energetic President of the Nigerian Labour Congress, fighting for the rights of Nigerian workers. But when he became Governor of Edo, Oshiomhole, also forgot and denied his roots. When a poor woman selling “peanuts” by the roadside appealed to him not to have her livelihood confiscated, Oshiomhole told her to “go and die.”
ExxonMobil is one of the most successful companies in the world, if not the most successful. But in Nigeria, it is notorious for maltreating its Nigerian staff. Most of them are disgruntled, but they cannot complain for fear of being sacked. Some years back, the company imposed salary cuts of 10 to 15% on its workers, on the grounds that there was a decline in oil prices. Since then, it has refused to go back to the earlier salary-structure. One of the workers said to me: “You don’t ask for increment in ExxonMobil or you will be sacked.”
ExxonMobil operates an apartheid policy between its contract staff and its regular employees. On the company bus, regular employees are given priority seating. Contract staff have leprosy. They are not allowed to seat with regular employees. They cannot even enter ExxonMobil buildings before the regular employees. So many benefits are denied them.
Some worked for ExxonMobil for over 20 years as contract staff, never confirmed as regular staff so that ExxonMobil could continue to deny them the full entitlements of regular staff. With the fear of the passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB), which stipulates that contract staff should not be left hanging without being offered full employment after 2 years, ExxonMobil now has the policy of firing all its contract staff within 2 years. The same contract staff are then re-employed so that on paper they are presented as new contract employees. This ensures they are not entitled to company benefits indefinitely, not even maternity leave.
ExxonMobil routinely fires its Nigerian staff without any notice. It fires some by email with immediate effect. Once fired, you are barred from the company’s offices and facilities. You are simply locked out. This is what happened to its security detail. It invited them to a decoy meeting in an outside hotel. It then told them to expect an email from the company. When they came back from the meeting, they had been locked out of their stations. They were not even allowed to collect the belongings they left behind.
Then there is the discrimination between whites and blacks. They call the whites experts, pay them more with mouth-watering benefits while the Nigerians are given second-class positions. But then the so-called experts have to rely on the Nigerians to tell them what to do.
Inside ExxonMobil, Nigerians with full status are pitched against contract-staff Nigerians in a classic policy of divide-and-rule. Outside the company, ExxonMobil relies on the Chris Ngiges of Nigeria to be its advocate in government in order to keep its Nigerian workers down.
I leave the final word to one of the striking Nigerian workers: “It is unfortunate that a serving Minister in Nigeria has joined forces with a foreign firm (Mobil) to deny Nigerians of our deserved benefits. The collaboration of the Minister and Mobil is certainly that of corruption. President Buhari’s avowed stance against corruption must be brought to the fore here!”