MOMAN, DAPPMA, others hoarding petrol to increase price –Johnson, PENGASSAN President

The National President, Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria, Francis Johnson, tells Okechukwu Nnodim why the association recently issued an ultimatum to embark on strike, among other issues

Before calling off your planned strike, you spoke about a labour dispute with a private oil firm, Neconde. Was it only about that or was there something more?

We have labour disputes with many oil companies, so it is not only Neconde. They include Neconde, Specialty Drilling Fluid, Ciscon, Cetco, Frontier Services, etc. We also have issues with the Nigerian Nuclear Regulatory Authority and the Petroleum Training Institute. But we believe that there are ways of doing things. If you look at the Labour Act, (you will realise that) we cannot fold our arms when we have companies and marginal field operators working in this country but think that they are above the law. Now, the disputes with Neconde and other oil companies are issues that have been there since February, March, April and June. During our synergy in Uyo in September, these issues came up; at our National Executive Council meeting, the concerns also came up and we issued a communiqué, which we published in two newspapers. We also sent copies of the communiqué to all stakeholders, including the Ministry of Labour, Department of State Services, Ministry of Petroleum Resources, other government agencies in the security and oil sectors and to all agencies that we know that are key to the resolution of these crises.

Now, we don’t just embark on strike without giving an ultimatum. What is the essence of giving an ultimatum?

The essence of it is that when we have issues, we send letters to all relevant stakeholders and we can show you some of these letters, but did they attend to the letters? The answer is no. We also said, ‘Let’s give them some time.’ For example, the issue with Neconde started long ago. Let me remind Nigerians that when this government came in, there was a strike over an issue with Neconde, although not a widespread civil strike. And we considered it then that as a responsible labour union, we wouldn’t want to be seen as an organisation disrupting the new government that just came in. And we looked for a way to leave the issue. It is also important to state that one of the things that led to the establishment of Neconde in OML 42 was that there was going to be a union in that place. We have members there and their rights must be protected. The union and management must collaborate because the union can protect the company when the need arises. But when the issues at Neconde started, they forced our members to leave the union; they forced them to denounce the union and promoted some of them to entice them to leave the union. You dismissed about 14 (workers) and then said you were moving your operations from Lagos to Warri. Then you gave notice to workers on Thursday, telling them that by Monday, unfailingly, they must report to work. This directive was given to people who have families, children and relatives. Is that how to run a business? For crying out loud, there are minimum requirements in any given job, you must discuss with your workers and see what they can do and start processing their relocation allowances. You never did that. The workers had limited options and so, they had to rush there. It was after a week or two that you now started paying their allowances. Is it proper? No!

But why did you choose to go on strike in December, towards Yuletide? It appears your plan was to make Nigerians go through hardship. Was that intentional?

The last time PENGASSAN went on strike was on July 12 last year. In fact, we didn’t even embark on strike; rather, we gave an ultimatum. And let me also say that for every labour union, you just don’t wake up and say you want to declare a strike. There must be a laid down procedure. We gave an ultimatum during that period and the issues had to do with the non-payment of cash calls that led to the massive redundancy in the sector, as almost everybody was getting rid of our members. And the main reason then was that government was not paying cash calls; it owed billions of dollars to oil companies. That was something this government inherited but you won’t say because your predecessor failed to pay, you will also fold your arms and not pay. If you do that, the debt burden will keep growing and our members will be crying. Now, what is the essence of the labour union? It is for the protection of workers and Nigerians. It prevents people from turning into vagabonds because when there is no job what will you expect people to do? However, I must give credit to this government because it worked out ways for the country to exit the cash call payments and it is also paying it. This reduced redundancy in the sector at that time. This happened in July last year.

Now, at what point do you go on strike?

You go on strike when you have done everything you can as a leader like crying for attention and calling for discussions and nobody listens to you. Mind you, you are leading people and you don’t want a situation where they will push you away because they do not have confidence in your leadership anymore. If you issue a seven-day ultimatum and you get a response on the same day, by the second day, a meeting will be called. Your members will know that you are meeting; Nigerians will also know that a meeting about the issue is ongoing. But it becomes difficult when after about five days that the ultimatum was issued to them, they now start running around and trying to take what we call the fire brigade approach. No country, government or association is run effectively like that. And the reason why Neconde was the focus of attention was that in June, it took the association to court after we gave the company a 72-hour ultimatum. And between June and October, we never did anything; we respected the laws of the land by keeping calm. On October 5, despite the court injunction, the company terminated the appointment of the chairman of the PENGASSAN branch that was in that place. We were monitoring things pending when we could get some stability. I can show you the letter; they terminated his appointment for no reason. By the end of November, they paid about N3m into his account as terminal benefits and we said these were issues that needed attention. So we thought: ‘let’s see how we can handle it peacefully so that it doesn’t lead to a situation where Nigerians will start complaining about PENGASSAN.’ Since October when that man’s job was terminated, we’ve been calling for attention. We know that there is never a good time to go on strike, but if that will force the government and every agency to discuss, then we should do it. However, it was an ultimatum that we gave and we never went on strike. If there was a strike you would have felt it more because labour (issue) in the oil and gas sector is very important. If we had embarked on the strike, the flow stations would have been shut down, there wouldn’t have been exports as crude oil terminals would have been closed and the effect on the economy would have been huge. But we didn’t want that and we don’t want that.

What is the latest on the issue now? Has it been fully resolved?

Other issues are involved and we have pushed it to January 2018. Let’s see how we can discuss and move forward. Well, the update now is that we must commend the labour minister, security agencies, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and others who came together to see how we could resolve the issue. All other issues with SDF, Ciscon, NNRA, PTI, Addax, Frontier Services, etc., have been pushed to the third week of January 2018. The guy at Neconde has been recalled unconditionally and the payment of his dues has been settled. He has been given his letter. But for any strike, there will always be a backlash and we have mandated our members to go back to work. I’ve gone round to make sure that things are done properly. But let me also say that the queues we see presently have been in existence before now. And let me say it here that the oil marketers are complaining, they’ve been looking for ways to increase fuel price. But the labour unions, Trade Union Congress, Nigeria Labour Congress, Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, PENGASSAN, are the ones who still fight and say to the marketers that you can’t do that. All of the marketers, Independent Petroleum Marketers Association of Nigeria, Depot and Petroleum Products Marketers Association, Major Oil Marketers Association of Nigeria, etc., have been agitating for the increase in the price of petrol. They give you so many reasons; they say the dollar is not accessible, they say this, they say that, but we tell them no, you can’t do that. And so, subtle hoarding begins to take place, they start looking for ways to force the government to increase the price (of petrol). That is the game.

So our ultimatum concerning the planned strike was issued when the fuel queues were still on and it was not PENGASSAN that caused the queues. I was watching one programme, called Journalists’ Hangout and someone on the programme was saying that whenever any of the members of PENGASSAN and NUPENG quarrels with his wife, they will just come out and declare to go on strike. And I say that is rubbish. We are all Nigerians and we protect the interest of this country.

Why was the DSS involved in the negotiation when the issue is not about a security threat to the country? Or is there more to the story than Nigerians know?

Most of the security agencies were involved; it was not particularly about the DSS. When we talk about reaching a peaceful resolution, every agency and apparatus of government comes in. The Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency, NNPC, labour, DSS, and everybody was involved. This was for the interest of the country and to also avoid security concerns. This is because hoodlums could hijack the strike action and we didn’t want to be seen as being insensitive and lawless.

Do you know that grounding a critical sector like the oil industry at this time for the reasons given can be considered as economic sabotage?

We never embarked on a strike action; we only gave an ultimatum of our intention to go on strike. And what did they do to avoid it? To avoid it, you ensure that there is an intervention. So when we give an ultimatum, what you do is to nip it in the bud and have it resolved. Why wait till we start or we are about to start the strike to act? Talking about economic sabotage, depots were still loading as of Monday, but Nigerians engaged in panic buying. Economic sabotage may only happen when we shut down the flow stations, the crude oil terminals and wells. But we did not want to do that. Members were forcing us to adopt that measure, but we said no, we couldn’t go ahead to shut down such stations and terminals. There must be a gradual process and that is just it.

People say the union should have explored other alternatives over the matter instead of holding the country to ransom. What do you think?

As a journalist interviewing me right now and based on our discussion so far, what is the other alternative that you think we should have explored? Do you want the guy to remain sacked and his family thrown into suffering and those depending on him to be lamenting?

Since PENGASSAN knows it is significant to the economy, why won’t it use that power to get the government to do important things for the sector like repairing the Apapa Road, fixing the refineries, ensuring the passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill, and so on?

We are important to the sector, I know. There is a depot in Mosimi (Ogun State) and for you to go through Shagamu or Ikorodu to get to that depot is not possible. The roads are bad. We have the Ogun and Lagos State governments there. Can’t they look at it and say what is it that we can do to repair this road? Whatever they spend on it can be paid back to them by the Federal Government. We have roads in Satellite, Ejigbo, and the one that leads to the Warri refinery. Those roads have been there. Are they not priority areas that should be given adequate attention? What of Port Harcourt and Kaduna? Access roads to those operational areas should be prioritised so that tanker drivers will stop complaining. Why are these drivers always complaining? Why are they demanding for bridging cost? It is because when you take those roads, no matter how cautious you are, your vehicle will get damaged. If they can fix all those roads, then yes, something has been achieved. For PIB, we’ve talked about it at every forum. However, we must commend the current National Assembly in that area because they have shown some level of commitment to see how they can pass the bill.

If they can pass the PIB, address labour issues, address the concerns of host communities, address the issues that have to do with refineries, vandalism, crude oil theft, fiscal policies, joint venture cash call matters and others, then there will be headway in the sector. However, some of these things can be addressed by passing the PIB. Then look at the issue bordering on refineries, the workers at the operations departments are not happy that they are doing nothing. But if the refineries were working, that wouldn’t be the case. So there is a need for partnership to make the facilities work.

How can we get out of the problems, fully develop the sector and get local refineries to work and provide more jobs in the sector and so on?

If the refineries are fully rehabilitated, we should also look at entering into partnerships to ensure sustainability. We can get out of some of the challenges when we partner with the right investors.

There is the argument that groups like PENGASSAN that are capable of grounding the economy should be scrapped. What do you think about this?

Instead of coming up with this kind of argument, people should commend labour. I say this because during the regime of the late Military Head of State, Sani Abacha, was it not NUPENG and PENGASSAN that insisted that we must have democracy? Our general secretary and some executives were incarcerated during that period. Like I told you earlier, left to the marketers, Premium Motor Spirit (also known as petrol) will be selling at N500 per litre because they are there to make profits. They say they don’t have access to crude oil, they lack access to dollars and that it is only the NNPC that is importing (fuel). We said go and import, but they said if they must do that, fuel should be increased to N170 per litre. Now it is the same labour that says ‘no’. How can you do that? Some of us work with international oil companies and as a member of staff, I can say be selling (PMS) at N200 per litre and out of money, I’ll say this is my entitlement. But we know that an increase in fuel price will definitely have a spiral effect on the cost of almost everything in the market and on the economy. And this is why the union said ‘no, we can’t take that because we have those who also depend on us.’ These are the issues. Let us collectively say to the government and marketers – no to price increase. We have also stated that going forward, in 2018, we don’t want to issue an ultimatum and we hope nothing will prompt that. We also want all the unions in Nigeria to collaborate and work together for the benefit of the various sectors in the Nigerian economy. That will make the government and companies sit up, knowing that the unions are united and are working together to defend the interest of workers.

This Interview was originally pUblished in Punch

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