Trade unionism is witnessing a new change and rebirth of activism with the involvement of more women in the sector. In an interview with NaijaVoxpop, Comrade, Mrs. Elo Victor-Ogbonda, Zonal Secretary Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) Port Harcourt, highlighted her numerous achievements and challenges faced during her three year tenure. Comrade Elo lamented the poor salaries being paid to oil workers mostly in the Service sector of the industry.
Good Afternoon madam, we are from NaijaVoxpop, our audience would want to know you.
“My name is Comrade, Mrs. Elo Victor-Ogbonda, presently Port Harcourt Zonal Secretary PENGASSAN.”
Can you please tell us about your achievements?
“Well Port Harcourt Zone consists of nine states with enormous challenges. First of all, I will tell you that it was not easy. After I got elected, I started by trying to put together the Association after the election fever, by trying to unite the sectors. We started by organizing meetings Know your Leaders, with a view to bringing members closer to their elected leaders.
After that, I started with the restructuring of Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBA) because I was not pleased with the ones I met on ground. There were no structures. Some CBA’s were just piece of paper, some addendum’s, and communiques. I had to start putting up a structure across board for the various sectors, mostly for the Service sector and Contract staff. The major producing companies already have structures for their CBA’s thereby enabling them to compare notes easily. I had to use the same pattern to develop CBA’s for newly inaugurated Branches of the Union and revise CBA’s for older Branches that were due. I started with NETCODIETSMAN in conjunction with the Branch executives. In that negotiation, I learnt that former officers would just come and give a blanket order without looking at the components, but in that negotiation, we were able to get 8 per cent as well as revised some components. I still remember how grateful the Branch officers were and that really encouraged me. I guess that was the highest they have gotten in recent times.
It resulted in the return of seven Branches, which include Baker Hughes, Exterran, DSV and Edisonchest. Some of them were actually paying their dues, but were not participating because they felt rejected that include Inspectorate Marine, Solar Turbine and Profield. A company like DSV felt totally betrayed by the Association. They went doing their own things without inviting the zone or the national. It was not easy but some how, we managed to convince them of the renewed spirit and brotherhood in the Association.
We created a directory consisting of all Branches, Chairmen and Secretaries for ease of administration. It is my belief that this would assist the incoming regime to perform efficiently. It was this directory that enabled us to discover that some of the Branches were not conducting elections after the expiration of their tenures. This was because there was no easy way for the Zonal Office to follow up on their activities, except they start carrying files one by one. You would agree with me that not only that it was cumbersome, it was also ineffective.
The first challenge anybody would meet in Port Harcourt is the Service sector issues. This sector is very important in the industry, but their CBA’s do not reflect it. I am not saying that it must be commensurate with workers in the producing sector, but it should be dignifying at least. Some of them earn as low as N40,000 and N70,000 and we still refer to them as oil and gas workers. The Chairman of Lagos Zone (PENGASSAN) was so disappointed about the poor remuneration in one of the Branch’s CBA negotiation, that he was forced to ask “is this an oil company or a palm oil company”? There is need to have a template for salaries for the industry. However, we tried to improve the CBA structure as much as we could considering other factors.
Another challenge is the inability of some of the Branches to interpret the Constitution, so as to be able to defend their rights as members of this great Association. As a Zonal Secretary in conjunction with the Zonal staff, we did push so many copies of our constitution into the Branches, hence I am not surprised at the high level of awareness everywhere. However, there is still need for more training and conferences for our honourable leaders. Trainings should not be jamboree, but should be targeted at equipping the union leaders with a particular skill that would be beneficial to us at all times.
How many CBA’s have you negotiated?
“In conjunction with the Branches, I have negotiated over 90 CBA’s. In some of them, I had the Zonal Chairman on the table with me. CBA’s are done every two years and wage re-opener yearly”.
How many Branches were unionized under your tenure?
“We unionized 11 new Branches. As I speak to you the number of Branches in Port Harcourt Zone today is over 70″.
As Zonal Zonal Secretary of the largest zone in PENGASSAN, what were the challenges you faced?
I had challenge with the capitalist management who do not want to pay salaries, except when they receive payment for jobs executed. I look forward to working with the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR) and NAPIMS (government agencies) to look at the kind of people we license to operate in the oil and gas industry. That is why you see people paying as low as N40,000 and then you are wondering where is the competition in the same industry where others earn a minimum of N250,000. I sometimes wish we can have a template for salary payment in the industry. There should be a minimum capital requirement to enter oil and gas business, which would enable them, offset their liabilities. In some of the service sector companies, workers are being owed 11 months salaries. It is the same N40,000 we are talking about. It cut across most of the indigenous companies. The replies from most of the companies over the non-payment of their workers, is that they are being owed. The truth is that if you look at the labour law an employer is not supposed to owe its staff having worked for that period. As an employer you do not have to base the payment of your workers on yet to be redeemed receipts from your clients. For example, if you have worked for AGIP, and it takes the company a year to pay, are you going to wait for that length of time to pay your workers? That is inhuman because these people have families and they depend solely on their salaries. They have to pay rent, school fees for their children and feed their families. This development makes the implementation of CBA’s very difficult, especially when the companies keep complaining that they don’t have money.
We need to have a salary structure and capital base for companies willing to participate in the oil and gas industry in order for us to overcome these problems of poor and non-payment of salaries. When former Central Bank Governor, Charles Soludo came up with the idea of bank capitalization, many people kicked against it. A lot of people thought it was a huge joke or witch hunt, but today, the economy is better for it. If you look at the Nigerian economy today, with the call by government for diversification to agriculture, you would ask where is the money coming from, certainly oil. Most of the allowances and entitlements of public officers are paid today from oil revenues, yet those who lay the golden egg are languishing from poor remuneration. At every little thing, the oil workers are the first to lose their jobs. Government should help to improve the socio-economic conditions of oil workers, by ensuring that these companies meet a minimum capital requirement before they are allowed into the industry. This would ensure that workers are insured from the vagaries of the industry. When it is time for redundancy, they should be able to pay. Oil companies should follow laid down procedures on redundancy and termination of staff employment. The workers should get at least an equivalent of a year’s salary, which would enable them search for another job or do something else. There is need for a salary structure. It is of great importance that oil workers entitlements are guaranteed because of the multiplier effects their pay has in the economy. The oil sector of the economy should attract government attention because it is the main source of its revenue; those who work there should not be looked down upon. We need government to partner with us to enact a law that would protect the oil worker.”
You have said a lot about what has been achieved by the Union under your stewardship as Zonal Secretary of Port Harcourt zone. However, the reward for good work is more work. Do you intend bringing your knowledge and experience to serve at a higher organ of the Union?
“Well, from the experience I have gotten in Port Harcourt Zone, I must tell you, that it has propelled me to replicate it nationwide. I have been on all tables, government agencies, producers, and service sector. I have come to understand most tables and how they work. There are some things I could not do as Zonal Secretary, for instance, ensuring that our members are insured. One of the challenges I had in Port Harcourt was because Management at every little disagreement with their staff would run to the National Industrial Court. It becomes a problem to the Union because of the huge financial burden associated with court cases. If these members are insured, we would be able to prosecute their cases at the Court. The Insurance Companies would recruit the best lawyers to prosecute our cases on our behalf. Out of the insurance claims, members could be paid some money while their case is undergoing litigation. Currently, we are unable to do much because of our meager check-off dues. We are supposed to pay members that are out of work N50,000, but we cannot, as a result of lack of funds. It takes a little money to insure everybody. This approach would increase the morale of our people, while they wait for their cases to be adjudicated. The poor worker needs to be defended because Management can afford to pay a lawyer to go to court on their behalf for up to ten years at the detriment of their employee. Workers welcomed the creation of the National Industrial Court, after cases kept lingering in the High Courts for years. Mnay workers even died in the course of seeking justice. Today, we have started seeing a repitition of such again, take for example the case of Aveon offshore, it lasted well over 4 years. Some workers lost their lives before the case finally came to an end. See what we are presently going through with SDF management. The list goes on and on.
I look forward to resolving the labour related problems facing the Union if elected as the National Industrial Relation Officer come June 29th. It would be easy as a National officer to take up these issues with the relevant authorities.”
We thank you very much for your time and wish you success in your future endeavor.