The two-day meeting between the Federal Government and the organised labour ended in a deadlock on Tuesday, with the Nigerian Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress leaders vowing to begin a nationwide protest against the removal of fuel subsidy.
This came as oil workers under the aegis of the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association began an indefinite strike on Tuesday, citing inhumane treatment by the management of the Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission, an agency of the Federal Government.
The strike and planned protest by the organised labour slated for Wednesday (today) over the fuel subsidy removal by the Federal Government may shut down the country and paralyse the economy.
Oil workers had earlier on Tuesday staged a protest and shut down the commission’s office in Lagos, while also vowing to shut down the agency’s offices nationwide.
Speaking on the planned strike on Tuesday, the NLC President, Joe Ajaero, said the organised labour had no reason to suspend the planned national protests and strike.
Ajaero spoke a few hours after another round of meeting of the Presidential Steering Committee on Palliatives held at the Aso Rock Villa, Abuja, deadlocked.
“We have no reason to call off the planned protests. If we suspend or call it off, you will know. I can tell you that the mobilisation is very high,” Ajaero said in response to questions from journalists.
The Federal Government had in a last-ditch effort to avert the strike met with the NLC and TUC leaders on Monday but the parley also failed to reach any resolution.
The PUNCH reports that the Federal Government and the organised labour have been at loggerheads following the removal of fuel subsidy by President Bola Tinubu on May 29,2023.
In an effort to foster negotiations, the government set up a committee to look into the demands of the labour unions for a 300 per cent wage increase to enable workers to cope with the challenges imposed by the deteriorating economic situation that came with the removal of the controversial fuel subsidy, among other things.
Though the committee was given a total of eight weeks to come up with a suitable plan for workers and Nigerians at large, the labour leaders insisted that the committee has continued to show a lack of commitment towards their shared goal.
An earlier move by the labour leaders to embark on strike was stopped by a court order obtained by the government.
Speaking earlier after the meeting with FG officials, the NLC Secretary-General, Emmanuel Ugboaja, hinted that the congress would consider the government’s appeal for a peaceful resolution.
But he was countered by the Deputy Vice-President of the NLC, Titus Amba, who said there was no new development following the national broadcast made by the President, Bola Tinubu, on Monday evening.
Tinubu had unveiled a N500bn palliative which he said would be shared to manufacturers, small businesses and farmers.
He also disclosed plans to increase salaries and acquire 3,000 CNG-powered mass transit buses for all the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory.
However, the Assistant National Secretary of NLC, Mr Chris Onyeka, told The PUNCH that the protest was irreversible despite the appeal by the government.
“The planned nationwide protest is on, it is irreversible,” Onyeka told The PUNCH when asked if the organised labour would consider FG’s appeal to shelve the strike.
Similarly, the congress in a statement signed by Ajaero on Tuesday night asked Nigerians to ignore news about a possible suspension of its planned nationwide strike.
The terse statement which was posted on its official Twitter handle, @NLCheadquarters read, “Ignore fake rumors, NLC is never divided. We are one united and strong labour centre. The protest rally holds tomorrow(Wednesday) nationwide.”
Addressing journalists after the meeting of the Presidential Steering Committee on Palliatives, the TUC President, Festus Osifo, described the palliatives rolled out by the President as “grossly insufficient.”
Giving an update on the outcome of the meeting, he said, “About the protests, yes, they (FG) also appealed that we should shelve the protests. Our response was that we are going this evening to have a conversation around that. And you will hear from us at the end of that meeting.’’
Osifo, who addressed State House correspondents on behalf of the organised labour, maintained that the 3,000 buses were insufficient to serve the country.
“We think, for example, 3,000 bosses are not sufficient. By the time you divide 3000 by 37, you can see how many they can come up to. So, it’s not sufficient, grossly inadequate.
“Then, we also think that some of the measures put on the table are not far reaching. So, we are also going to demand for what we think will do so if we think 30,000 buses could do it; 40,000 buses could do it in the immediate. Yes, we’ll push it forward,’’ he added.
The labour leader noted that though the labour unions are pushing for the adoption of a minimum wage to match the economic realities of post-petrol subsidy, that goal appears far away due to the bureaucracies involved and the current absence of a subcommittee.
In the interim, the organised labour is pushing for wage awards which are implementable immediately.
He stated, “On our part, what we are demanding is wage award. So wage award, like for example, you’ve heard some states that have said, ‘we’re paying N40,000 minimum,’ so it’s more or less they are giving it. It is not the law. They are doing above the minimum wage.
“So for us we felt that the Federal Government could do, on their own, so much above the minimum wage, without much conversation, because the committee on the minimum wage has not been constituted. We want to be very clear on that. That committee has not been constituted.”
Shedding more light on what transpired at the meeting, the President’s Chief of Staff, Femi Gbajabiamila, said the FG informed the organised labour that Tinubu’s rollout was only a start of more to follow.
“Basically, we laid out a plan for the intervention of Mr President. As you all heard in his broadcast yesterday (Monday), we made it clear that this is just Mr President’s initial rollout of the interventions. These conversations will be ongoing.
“We appealed to labour on the protest of tomorrow. We found listening ears here and they did agree that they all accepted that Mr President’s broadcast was a welcome development and that they’ll go back home to talk to the other leaders that are not present here today. So, we’re hopeful that they’ll arrive at a good deal and call off the strike tomorrow,” he explained.
The NLC delegation was led by its General Secretary, Emma Ugbaja, and the TUC by its President, Osifo.
The FG’s representatives included Gbajabiamila; the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Labour and Employment, Kachollom Daju; the Special Adviser to the President on Energy, Olu Verheijen; the Group Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited, Mele Kyari, among others.
Meanwhile, the NLC has criticised Tinubu’s declaration in his broadcast that the review of the minimum wage was imminent.
The congress in a statement on Monday night noted that it was open knowledge that the review of minimum wage would commence in 2024 as stipulated by law.
It stated that the Tinubu administration had failed to show cooperation and dialogue with members of the organised labour.
The statement signed by the NLC president read partly, “Labour is disturbed that while President Tinubu in his speech lavishly praised the private sector for quickly dispensing wage award to their employees, the Federal Government has failed to do the same for public workers in its employment. This is a clear case of failing woefully to live up to the standards it has set for others to meet.
“It is open knowledge that the review of the national minimum wage is a matter of the law which is expected to happen in 2024. How would Nigerian workers cope with the current reality of hyperinflation and suffering unleashed by the hasty removal of the so-called petrol subsidy till 2024 when the national minimum wage would be reviewed? This is incredible!”
Speaking further on the negotiations so far, Ajaero said, “Organised Labour has been forced to negotiate with empty chairs on the Federal Government’s side as the Federal Government has not matched its public promises with firm commitment to negotiate in good faith with labour. As a matter of fact, the sub-committee on wage award has not been inaugurated and has not met.”
Speaking in the same vein, the Peoples Democratic Party described the President’s Monday address as ‘’a horrifying reminder of similar promises made by (former president) Muhammadu Buhari which were left unfulfilled.’’
The party added that the broadcast was a huge disappointment even for the supporters of the administration, ‘’many of whom are finding it difficult to cope with the hardship occasioned by the removal of petroleum subsidy.’’
Addressing journalists on Tuesday, the National Publicity Secretary of the party, Debo Ologunagba, said Tinubu’s promises were only aspirational, stressing that the management of subsidy removal is beyond the present administration.
“The speech shows the cluelessness of the APC. They should know that Nigerians have never had it so bad. If this whole thing is well managed, PMS should not sell above N150 per litre,” he said.
Despite the hardship being experienced by the Nigerians over the removal of the fuel subsidy, the leader of the New Nigeria Peoples Party in South-West, Bisi Olopoeyan, urged Nigerians to exercise patience with the current administration.
Olopoeyan, who was reacting to Tinubu’s live broadcast of Monday, in an interview with journalists in Ibadan, the Oyo State capital, said, “I also feel the heat, not just feel like that, I am feeling it very seriously. I spent over N60,000 on fuel from Ibadan to Lagos alone. I wouldn’t have even tried it if not for a business trip.
“Now look at the downtrodden market men and women, traders and the likes. So, the increment of workers’ salaries cannot help the situation. The palliatives cannot save it. The Federal Government should bring down the price of petrol. We should stop deceiving ourselves. The only immediate solution is for the price of petroleum to come down,’’ he insisted.
Angry oil workers
In a sign of things to come, oil workers on Tuesday shut down the Nigerian Upstream Petroleum Regulatory Commission’s office in Lagos as they sang and chanted solidarity anthems.
One of the protesters, Orlu Ezekiel, said the protest had the backing of the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria national president, Osifo, who also doubles as the TUC president, Festus Osifo.
According to Ezekiel, NUPRC offices nationwide have been shut down as the strike action will continue until their demands were met by the management.
He said, ‘’We have chosen to begin a nationwide strike today simply because our management has decided not to do the needful. They have decided to ignore the welfare of staff. Like we keep saying, these are politicians that have been imposed on us. They have taken the leadership of this organisation backwards.
“As you are aware, we used to be DPR, and from the advent of the PIA which split the DPR into two- NMDPRA and NUPRC, we are the upstream section of the sector; we monitor the IOCs and independent oil producers. The PIA clearly stated that we would not enjoy any employment conditions lower than what we used to enjoy as defunct DPR.’’
“But as we speak today, what we enjoy is less than what we used to have; and that is against the PIA. We should be at par with our counterparts in the oil and gas companies- the likes of Shell, Total, Agip, and Chevron.
“Of course, if I am the regulator monitoring these people, I should be able to get a better condition of service than they have. But right now, we are less paid, workers go for jobs and return without getting paid, and they keep bringing up policies and conditions of services that are completely inhumane and out of place. We are saying “No” to this,” Ezekiel declared.
He further complained about lack of working tools, offices and non-payment of salaries and other benefits.
The worker added, “The national president, Mr Osifo has given us orders to shut down the offices, and this is just the Day One of the protest. We would continue like this until the yearnings of the staff are being met.
“Every of our offices nationwide- in Gombe, Port Harcourt, Warri, Owerri, Lagos, and our Abuja headquarters have been shut down; and we won’t stop until every of our agitations are met by the top management staff.
“Our agitations are so numerous that we can’t exhaust them here. As we speak, we don’t have working tools to do our jobs. You can imagine coming to work and you don’t have a common laptop to do your job. We don’t even have sitting desks. Even the managers don’t have where to sit.
‘’And the government is spending so much money to see that we are paid, but the top management, commissioner and the chief executive are not doing what they are supposed to do to ensure that some of these things are provided for us.
But the Chief Executive, NUPRC, Gbenga Komolafe, kicked against the disruptive action by the workers, as he stated that “the scope of the protests had all the trappings of a premeditated action which suggests that staff welfare may just have been a facade and not the major reason behind the action.”
In a letter by the union, sighted in Abuja, it raised issues relating to pension non-remittance, non-conducive work environment, insufficient working tools and staff medicals as concerns that should be addressed by the upstream regulator.
The letter, which was signed by the local PENGASSAN Chairman, Okechukwu Anya, also identified other issues of concern to include the outstanding payments of 2023 upfront allowances, unpaid staff claims, unpaid staff on-call-allowance, and non-payment of outsource personnel.
The union stopped work activities in Abuja, as they closed the entrance of the headquarters, preventing the NUPRC boss and other senior management staff from gaining entry on Tuesday.
Reacting to the development, Komolafe said the shutdown of NUPRC offices by PENGASSAN came less than 24 hours after the management of the commission had, in a response to union’s letter delivered July 31, 2023, clearly addressed all the issues raised therein concerning staff welfare.
In a response to their demands, which he personally signed, the NUPRC boss explained that obligations relating to claims made by the union had been fulfilled and efforts were already in place to achieve closure on the pending items.
He outlined the stages at which all the stated issues had been addressed to date, stressing that contrary to the claims that pension deductions from staff emoluments had not been remitted to the various PFAs in line with the Pension Reform Act 2014, the commission had fully settled all pension deductions.
“Evidence was attached to the response for the union’s attention and verification,” Komolafe stated.
After listing out all the interventions made by the NUPRC in addressing the concerns of the union, he said, “It was therefore surprising that in spite of all the steps taken and explanations made, the local chapter of the union staged a disruptive action at the entrance of the commission’s headquarters less than 24 hours after submission of its letter of concerns.”
He said some of the commentaries made by the arrowheads of the protests were extraneous to the issues contained in the union’s letter of concern to the management.
“It is worth mentioning that since the commission commenced strategic moves to sanitise the oil and gas industry in the country, especially with the passing of some regulations to curb oil theft and losses through operational and administrative leakages, the management has come under intense pressure and harassment from some dissatisfied stakeholders using every available weapon at their disposal,” Komolafe stated.
In furtherance of the directives issued by the organised labour, the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria has directed its members in all ports, jetties terminals, as well as oil and gas platforms nationwide to commence immediate and total mobilisation for the protest.
The union announced this in a memo titled, ‘Notice of mobilsation for nationwide mass protest and rally against fuel price increase,’ issued by the Secretary-General, Erazua Oniha.
The memo read in part, “I bring to you fraternal greetings from the Central Working Committee of our union, MWUN. We are in notice of the decision of the meeting of the Central Working Committee of the NLC held on Thursday 27th July 2023 directing all NLC affiliates to mobilize and sensitise their members in preparation for a nationwide peaceful mass protest and rally scheduled to kick start on Wednesday, 2nd August 2023.”
The union said that the decision was reached following the government’s alleged insensitivity in addressing the high cost of living.
“This decision was reached in the face of the Federal Government’s seeming insensitivity to the need to urgently put the necessary instruments in place to cushion the escalating cost of living to which the Nigerian working class and citizens are daily subjected without respite in sight due to removal of fuel subsidy from the price of Premium Motor Spirit.
“Consequent to the foregoing, all our members in all ports, jetties terminals, and oil and gas platforms nationwide most especially, all districts and units are by this notice directed to commence immediate and total mobilization of our members to effectively ensure their participation in the nationwide peaceful mass protest and rally from Wednesday 2nd August as directed,” the memo concluded.
The NLC in Abia State said it was ready to hold street rallies to drive home the workers’ demands. .
The state NLC Chairman, Pascal Nweke Iheme, said, “We are prepared to engage in the protest tomorrow and it will be peaceful,’’ noting that it was not targeted at the state government.
Meanwhile, ahead of the labour unions’ protests, the acting Inspector-General of Police, Olukayode Egbetokun, has ordered watertight security nationwide.
The Force Headquarters on Tuesday said the IG was deeply concerned about recent developments regarding the planned nationwide protests by the labour unions.
“While being mindful of the right to peaceful protest as enshrined in our constitution, the IG urges all parties involved to ensure that the planned demonstrations are conducted in a peaceful manner to prevent being hijacked by miscreants, owing to the previous ugly experiences of such protests in most major cosmopolitan cities in the country.
“The IG, however, acknowledges the grievances raised by the labour unions and the importance of constructive dialogue, which is sine qua non in addressing these issues,” the police spokesperson, ACP Olumuyiwa Adejobi said in a statement.
The police boss also urged all stakeholders, including the NLC, TUC, and other civil society groups, to embrace peaceful dialogue as “the most effective means of resolving grievances,” while also re-emphasising that the police were committed to ensuring a secure and conducive environment for open dialogue, constructive engagement and mutual understanding for a seamless exercise of civil rights.
Adejobi further noted that the IG had also ordered the Commissioners of Police in charge of various commands, and supervisory Assistant Inspectors-General of Police to engage in fruitful discussions with the NLC and TUC leadership to foster understanding and reach common grounds on the planned protests.
He noted, “A peaceful and coordinated approach is crucial to achieving meaningful solutions and preventing any form of violence or disruptions to public order, should the protests persist.
“The Nigeria Police Force reiterates its commitment to ensuring the safety and security of all citizens during the period of the planned protests as all necessary measures to facilitate the peaceful conduct of these demonstrations have been emplaced.”
Warning against violence, the NPF said it would not tolerate any act that threatens the peace and well-being of the country, adding that perpetrators will be dealt with.
Adejobi added, “However, it is hereby reaffirmed that any attempt by miscreants to exploit the situation for violent purposes viz-a-viz vandalism, gangsterism, and extortion will be met with firm, professional and commensurate lawful approach. The police will not tolerate any act that threatens the peace and well-being of our country.
“In light of the potential challenges posed by the planned protests, the Nigeria Police Force is fully prepared to deploy all available resources to maintain law and order and to protect the lives and property of our citizens. The IGP therefore calls on all officers to be vigilant, professional, and uphold the highest standards of conduct during this period.”
In Kwara State, the state Commissioner of Police, Mrs Ebunoluwarotimi Adelesi has met with labour leaders, including commercial vehicle drivers and students in a bid to ensure a peaceful rally and maintain the peace in the state.
Meanwhile, human Rights Lawyer, Femi Falana, SAN, has replied to a letter from the Federal Ministry of Justice over its claims that the planned protests by the workers unions were illegal.
Earlier, the justice ministry through its permanent secretary, Jedda Agba in a letter addressed to Falana noted that the planned strike by the NLC was in violation of a court order earlier issued by the National Industrial Court.
Responding to the letter on Tuesday, Falana said that the exercise was a “peaceful protest” and that the court order did not speak against the conduct of a peaceful nationwide protest.
“Having tied the hands of our client, the Federal Ministry of Justice decided to frustrate the hearing of the motion seeking to set aside the ex parte order. As if that was not enough, the Federal Government abandoned the negotiations in spite of the fact that the court was informed that the parties were taking steps to resolve the subject matter of the strike amicably,’’ the letter read in part.
Justifying the labour unions’ right to protest, Falana said, “In view of the foregoing, you will agree with us that our client has not committed contempt by directing Nigerian workers to participate in peaceful rallies against policies which are inimical to the welfare of the people of Nigeria.
“We have advised our client to conduct the rallies peacefully. However, you may wish to advise the Federal Government to ensure that the negotiations are speedily concluded after the peaceful rallies.”
As the organised labour began the countdown to its industrial action, the Lagos State Parks and Garages Administrator has called on the NLC and TUC to shelve their planned strike and protests.
The agency also urged the labour unions and Nigerians to be patient with the Federal Government, adding that ‘’continuous payment of fuel subsidy would lead to economic doom.”
The Chairman, LASPAGA, Oba Suleimon Raji, in a statement issued late Monday by the Secretary of the agency, Alhaji Abdulrahman Amusan, pleaded with Nigerians to be “more patient and cooperative with government at all levels, to enable them to make subsidy palliatives available to Nigerians.”
Raji also asked members and officials of the LASPAGA not to join the planned strike and protest saying, “Strikes and protests will compound the already worst situation and make life more unbearable to Lagosians and Nigerians at large.”
LASPAGA, while pledging to stop arbitrary increase in transport fares by its members, appealed to the NLC, the TUC and civil societies to return to the negotiation table.
Less than 24 hours to the protests, 16 Northern-based civil society groups under the aegis of the Coalition of Arewa Civil Society Organisations have pulled out on the grounds that the action would damage the fragile economy and cause more hardship to the ordinary citizens.
The decision to pull out was contained in a statement jointly signed by Chairman and Secretary of the Arewa Coalition, Ibraheem Suleman Dogo, and Friday Luka Dalung.
According to the groups, the strike action was not the best way to resolve the problems emerging from the current harsh economic conditions caused by the removal of fuel subsidy.