Mass sack looms in oil industry over picketing

Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu

Several thousand jobs are on the line as the confrontation between white collar workers union, Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association (PENGASSAN) and petroleum industry service firms enter attrition stage.

It is not clear what specific actions the oil companies will take, but inferences are strong that massive staff change out is imminent in most of the oil service firms recently picketed by PENGASSAN.

Indication of drastic staff reorganization follows the outcome of ongoing consultations among oil service companies in the country in response to routine picketing by PENGASSAN over alleged refusal of some of the oil companies to allow workers unionise.

Leaders of umbrella Petroleum Technology Association of Nigeria (PETAN) who met in Lagos over a spate of widespread picketing on the group’s members are currently exploring potent strategies to permanently deal with labour issues across the service segment of the petroleum industry.

From legal determination of labour activism boundaries to internal reorganization and staff contracting, the oil service firms are working together to ward of common hindrance to the growth of their business before it stabilizes as a tradition, inside sources said.

Chairman of PETAN, Mr. Bak-Antony Okoroafor, who spoke on the outcome of the meeting, said PENGASSAN has refused to play the role of patriotic partners in the pan-industry effort to sustain the Nigeria Content Development programme in the face of the prevailing downturn in the industry.

“It is difficult times for the oil firms, not just the service firms but also oil firms that are facing the headwinds in the oil market. Some of them are finding it difficult to pay for jobs delivered by service firms. So, they owe us. We don’t go to war with them because we know what the industry is passing through.

“Most of the contracting firms are owed. So, they are justifiably in debt, and the banks are chasing them. And you go and shut them down because you want to unionize. That is insensitivity! Now, if these fledgling firms go down completely where will your members work? The biggest losers would be the workers PENGASSAN pretends to be fighting for,” Mr. Okoroafor pointed out.

He made it clear that apart from worsening the situation in the industry, picketing could be fatal on small fledgling companies.

In talking to members of his group, Mr. Okoroafor advised them to create internal communications channels that would enable workers at all levels understand the business dynamics and state of affairs in the industry at all times.

Other PETAN sources who spoke on the outcome of a meeting hinted that the investors’ response would take multi-faceted approach that does not rule out massive re-staffing, which might involve well defined work place behavioural codes and activities that conform to acceptable local and international labour laws.

They expressed anger over the temerity with which workers have shut down operations of some members of the oil contractors’ group, describing it as totally unacceptable.

One of the chief executives said many third party labour providers abound in the industry to assist companies carry on with their businesses without PENGASSAN members.

He pointed at blurred lines in the Nigerian labour laws and unclear definitions between intrusion and labour protests as the major loopholes exploited by PENGASSAN leaders to invade private businesses and inflict killer losses on them.

Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, who had earlier decried the regular labour crisis in the industry as very disruptive to government’s economic growth polices also pointed out that the current crisis works against one of the key Nigerian Content policy targets to generate employment for hundreds of thousand students pumped out from universities yearly.

He faulted picketing as a key obstacle to government’s policy on ease of doing business driven by Vice President Yomi Osinbajo. Foreign investors that attended the launch of the Ease of Doing Business programme had pointed at frequent labour crises as key concern in taking investment decision for Nigeria.

Dr. Kachikwu added that the service sector of the petroleum industry forms part of the key segments that underpin government’s Economic Recovery and Growth Programme (ERGP).

It would be recalled that leaders of PENGASSAN have since last year embarked on relentless picketing of oil service companies in Port Harcourt, causing some of them to shut down, relocate from the country or suspend operations. Most of the oil companies under attack have lost several contracts, missed delivery times or defaulted in commitments to financial services providers as labour induced downtimes lingered.

Both President of PENGASSAN, Comrade Francis Johnson, and General Secretary, Comrade Lumumba Okugbawa, have consistently declined media calls on the crisis; but issued a statement in which, among other things, they deplored “anti-union posture by indigenous companies and marginal field operators, and therefore resolved to resist any management that infringes on the workers’ Rights to Freedom of Association and Lawful Assembly.”

The statement also has it that “The PENGASSAN condemned the excessive use of force by security agencies against our armless members during picketing and other legitimate industrial actions, calling on the Army and the Police to call men and officers to order and refrain from harassing innocent and armless workers, especially PENGASSAN members.”

But PETAN argues that PENGASSAN is constantly in breach of the right to freedom of movement and association by other parties. The group argues that every individual or group including employers also have the right to associate and dissociate with other groups and parties including workers and unions.

The labour picketing which started from altercations with few companies has since spread to many more companies, prompting the leaders of PETAN to summon an emergency meeting penultimate week to forge a common front in saving their companies from alleged sponsored attacks by PENGASSAN.

But whereas PENGASSAN leaders take fight to service companies many workers at the companies dissociate themselves from disruptive activities of the group. Some workers   in the affected companies who spoke informally expressed discomfort about the looming impact the dispute would have on their jobs.

One of the companies picketed by PENGASSAN, Ciscon Nigeria Limited, has since suspended its Nigerian business operations and stepped up activities in the United States of America where, according to the company’s Managing Director, Mr. Shawley Coker, workers are more diligent.

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