Comrade Tokunbo Korodo, Chairman, Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, Lagos Zone, in a chat with FEMI AYODELE, expatiated on the cause of the lingering fuel scarcity in the country, the controversy between the NUPENG and Shell Nigeria Limited and how government can reposition the petroleum industry
The rancour between NUPENG and Shell has been on for a while and is yet to be resolved. Why is it so contentious?
We have a lot of issues with Shell. Among these issues is the non-recognition of contract workers in Shell because most of the employees of Shell are in the category of contract workers. In August 2011, we contested the maltreatment being given to Shell contract staff. They are hired at will and fired unduly without considering their plight or offered their entitlements. These workers came to the national body to be inducted into the union. This is part of their fundamental human rights and nobody can contest that. We admitted them and since then we have been calling for their recognition. The implication of instituting an in-house arm of the union is to facilitate engaging their employers/contractors into a meaningful Collective Bargaining Agreement, CBA, negotiation. But the Shell management bluntly refused to recognise them. They must also have good welfare packages. Shell knows the interpretation of this and that is why they refused to recognise the unionised workers and prevented any meaningful CBA negotiation to take place.
As if that was not enough, in the course of our agitation, Shell went on a divestment policy whereby some departments in the company were being run by a third party. In doing this, the union should be involved in the negotiation. But instead of Shell bringing in the national body of NUPENG, they went ahead to negotiate with their own local branch of NUPENG. (that is, the Shell branch of NUPENG) without considering the fact that the local branch did not get a mandate from us. We resisted this and called the Shell management to order but they turned deaf ears.
We are not against the divestment plan but the argument is that the national body should be in the picture because after a while, the in-house members would no longer be in service; hence they can’t sign such an agreement displacing the national body. That means the union will not be able to move on after their exit. To ascertain what went wrong, we decided to set up an investigative panel to investigate the activities of our union members in Shell who engaged in that negotiation. We suspected – and, of course, found out – that they have been bought over. In going into divestment, it takes an expert to adequately negotiate and consider the plight of the affected workers. To the best of our knowledge, the in-house union has little or no knowledge of how to go about this. But the management somehow succeeded in having their way to shortchange the workers. They even encouraged some of the in-house union members not to appear before the investigating panel.
To us, this is unacceptable. It is the dog that wags the tail and not the tail that wags the dog. As a result of this, we dissolved Shell’s in-house branch of NUPENG. We set up a caretaker committee to replace them and funnily, the management of Shell bypassed them to romance the dissolved union executives. They also sponsored and backed the chairman of the dissolved in-house executive body to go to court and hire a senior advocate, while the new caretaker committee members were also sacked.
This sent a bad signal. Other followers of the caretaker committee quickly opted out to keep their places in the new contract. But the committee chairman insisted he would stand on the side of the union. If the union was sinking, he decided to sink with it. Our position was that guy who stood to be the only recognised member should be reinstated. This we made known to the Shell management but they were foot-dragging. That was why we went ahead and picketed them. We even had another meeting in Abuja on this where they were still adamant. Later, we were notified that the man would be reinstated tomorrow (Tuesday 4 December 2012). That was why we couldn’t embark on our strike last week. We were waiting for the total reinstatement of the chairman before we totally called off the strike. If that is not done, nobody should blame us if we embark on another strike.
Does the saga in Shell have anything to do with that of Chevron?
The Chevron issue is a different one entirely. But the similarity is that they are both multinational companies and the two companies are known for labour malpractices. As the Shell issue was unfolding, that of Chevron followed suit. It was designed to hit and destabilise the union. But we saw all these coming and were long prepared to resist them. As it is, we have succeeded in the struggle against Chevron because government called them to order and we had a meeting in Abuja where all the issues were adequately addressed. We are still discussing.
Chevron had sacked all its own contractors without telling us. We knew the same thing might happen to the casual workers because they are not direct employees of Chevron. Irrespective of this, they are members of the union and their plight gives us concern. We protested this and shut down their operations. They saw the handwriting on the wall and later reverted the issue. They claimed that their contract agreement had expired and that was why they sacked the contractors. They also promised to pay all the entitlements of the affected workers working with the sacked contractors – about six of them. But we stood against throwing them into the labour market again and succeeded in making sure the new contractors absorb them, that is, roll them over into the new contract because they are trained workers. We are negotiating their existence in the last contract and their transition into the new contact. The contentious issues with Chevron and Shell are almost resolved anyway.
How would you react to the raging battle between AMCON and Capital Oil?
Capital Oil is an indigenous company that went and borrowed huge money and invested it in the oil and gas industry. By that investment, he employed a lot of workers; 1,000 direct workers and 3,000 auxiliary workers. These workers are registered members of NUPENG and whatever happens to that company will definitely affect the workers. Government failed to provide the enabling environment for the private investors to strive to recoup and pay back their loans. This, coupled with other reasons, made it difficult for the company to service the loans as and when due. They shouldn’t have allowed AMCON to wade in because AMCON came with the intention to take over the company. Capital Oil is so strategic to the petroleum industry because all the PPMC loading points have collapsed and Capital alone handles 35 per cent of petroleum distribution of NNPC nationwide. Though the issue is in court, our interest is that we, as the umbrella union that covers the workers, will react to anything that goes against their interests and our reactions might have economic implications. We implore the federal government to quickly wade in and resolve the issue, even out-of-court, if possible.
What has been responsible for scarcity of petrol?
There are lots of factors responsible for fuel scarcity in the country. First, is the issue between the federal government and the private depot owners. For some time, the PPMC was the sole importer of petroleum products to service the nation’s huge consumption rate. But it shouldn’t be. It takes the collaboration of government and the private depot owners. Even the NNPC makes use of the facilities of the private depot owners to distribute because of the collapse of their own depots. The fact that government refused to pay subsidy and the disclosures that followed have made some of these private depot owners to refuse to bring in products. This, as a result, has now put Nigerians at the mercy of the NNPC alone. The NNPC alone cannot cater for the total consumption rate in the country and this has drastically reduced the distribution of petrol.
Another factor is the vandalisation of the Arepo pipeline. That pipeline plays a very significant role in the distribution chain of System 2B of the PPMC. System 2B is located at Mosinmi, Sagamu, Ogun Sate and the vandalised pipeline solely handles supplies from Atlas cove to System 2B headquarters in Mosinmi, where Mosinmi will pump to Ejigbo in Lagos. Mosinmi also pumps to Ibadan, Oyo Sate, and then Ibadan will supply Ilorin. Mosinmi also supplies the depot in Ore. This is the chain distribution of System 2B and for over a year now, this is the only system that controls the distribution of petroleum products in the country because other systems have collapsed as a result of vandalisation. Since the Arepo pipeline was vandalised, government has not succeeded in repairing it. I don’t know if hoodlums or criminals are more powerful than all the Nigerian military forces. We expect government to forcefully mobilise engineers and security men to repair the pipelines. When the PPMC on its own tried to repair the pipelines without considering the safety of its engineers, four engineers were killed. It took us weeks before we could retrieve their corpses. Due to that attack, the PPMC is unwilling to take the risk of sending another set of engineers to fix the pipelines while government is not ready to deploy its military arsenal to help the issue. Instead of doing this, government now asked all the tanker drivers in Ibadan, Ilorin, Ore, Mosinmi and Ejigbo to move down to Apapa in Lagos. And that is the reason we have quite a large number of trucks in Lagos. If not for the understanding of the Lagos government, things would have been worse, because if the drivers were chased away, we would have been forced to react.
These are the two major factors. Now, we depend largely on the importation of fuel. The refineries are not working to maximum capacity. Warri refineries were closed down and only started working recently. Another setback is the shutting down of Capital Oil which I earlier talked about. That company, I repeat, controls 35 per cent of the petroleum distribution of NNPC.
Why is it difficult for refineries in Nigeria to work at full capacity?
I’m not part of the policy making process because the policy makers and those implementing them are in the best position to answer the question. But my take is that people who benefit from war will never pray for war to end because they know that is the end of their business. Whosoever is gaining from importation will never allow the refineries to work so that their business interest will not cease. If government is serious about repairing the refineries, they should reduce importation of petroleum. That was why we kicked against federal government’s kind of deregulation. In as much as we believe deregulation is good, the kind of interpretation the Nigerian government is giving to its kind of deregulation is in contrast with what is good for Nigerians. We don’t want deregulation that is import-driven, and that was why we forced government to repair the refineries in Warri. Maybe if we continue to deploy labour actions, government will fix the refineries and even encourage private investors to invest in the refineries.
What is the position of your association on the removal of fuel subsidy?
The removal of subsidy, to us, looks laughable because there is more to it than what the ordinary Nigerian eyes can see. In fact, what are they removing? Is there subsidy at all? Even if government wants to remove subsidy, it should not be based on importation-driven. Importation of petroleum products will only go a long way in developing those economies that are exporting them to us. While they will be smiling to the banks, our people here will be losing their jobs. This will lead to total collapse of operations in the refineries because the importation business will look more lucrative.
Our position is that some palliative measures be put in place if government wants to remove subsidy. Turn-around maintenance should be done on all the four refineries. All ruptured pipelines should be repaired and made functional. Income from subsidy, when it is not import-driven, can remain in the country and invested in other developmental projects. Anything short of these, and the importation craze are a waste of resources.
Your body created a business arm of the union – NUPENG Ventures Limited. What is the idea behind it?
The idea behind NUPENG Ventures is not far-fetched. When you talk about power or influence, it boils down to numerical strength. We realised that our membership has reduced because a lot of companies are closing down and as a result a lot of people are losing jobs. We just felt there is the need to re-invest our revenues so as to strengthen the financial base of the union and add to its economic value. We’ve invested so much in trucks and tankers acquisition and in other developmental projects to create job opportunities.
Do you believe passage of the much-talked about PIB will bring transparency and accountability into the oil industry?
We’ve seen in this country different versions of the PIB. The Executive has its own version, while the lawmakers hold another version. Even the IOC has another version. Recently, we held a seminar on the PIB to take a position on it. We are aware it has passed through second reading. But our position is that any law that is anti-worker or against their interests will not be welcomed. Our primary goal is to protect the interest of our members. Where we felt there is need for amendment, we’ve made it known to the President. We are waiting for the final draft of the bill.
What are the challenges confronting the industry and how can it be repositioned?
It is one problem to the other. Even production has reduced drastically and a lot of people are more interested in importing fuel than engaging in real production because you can quickly make your gains. On how to reposition the industry, government should do everything in its capacity to ensure all the refineries are working at full capacity and encourage local investors to invest in them. We can even have mini-refineries run by private investors. Some countries that are not as big as Nigeria or don’t have enough petroleum resources as we do are doing this, so why is our own difficult? All anti-labour issues must be resolved because where oil workers are not happy or well-fed, they won’t do their jobs maximally. Government should reduce importation rate to wade off gold-diggers who do not care killing the nation just to earn cheap money.