NIGERIA: No employer can abolish trade unionism in power sector, says labour

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IF everything goes on as planned, soon the nation’s Power sector will be fully private sector controlled following the recent agreement between the Federal Government and Labour over payment of terminal benefits for workers in the sector. In this interview with Labour Vanguard, General Secretary of the National Union of Electricity Employees, NUEE, Comrade Joe Ajaero, speaks on issues of job losses among others, declaring that trade unionism has come stay in the sector.  Excerpts

IT has been argued in some quarters that privatization

will lead to massive job losses and ultimately weaken the influence and strength of the unions in the sector. What is your response?

I am happy you are a labour correspondent and you have been in practice for a long time now, check the unions that have over a million members, their influence is not as big as ours. You know that the influence of trade unions in most cases is not based on members. Check all over, when Comrade Adams Oshiomhole became the President of Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, even till today, textile union was nowhere in terms of membership.

It is not based on the population of the number you control. If the influence that I have is that I am doing my job, I promise that I will continue to do my job. I want to tell you that as we discuss here, rather than diminish, the number will increase. If the influence they are saying is our mode of operation, which some of you in media will attest to, is that we have transformed this union from what it was before now to something higher.

We are moving higher and higher. We have repositioned in such a way that if we are paying staff salaries, the union can pay the same salaries for the next three or four years without collecting any dime afresh as check-off due. I mean if there is no check-off dues coming into the union for the next three or four years, this union will pay staff salaries and claims without any problems.

If you check in NLC before now, we hardly could pay N200, 000 or N500,000, but today, we pay at least three million as check-off dues every month. It has been parts of our transformation preparatory to this process. So, if any operator says we will not collect due, it will be fine, but such operator will equally not operate.

We are not going to be lawless and we are not going to antagonize anybody. But those who accept the unions would do better in the sector. There are one or two investors that have been around for some time now and they know what we are capable of what.

NESCO in Jos has been working with us for several and there has never been any shut down there. It is a private sector company. Every two years, we review the condition of service there. When they are having tough times, we see reasons with them and look at the percentage of what we demand. So, those that will be labour friendly will be the better in the sector, but those that do otherwise will face the music.

We did not learn boxing during their time. We learnt boxing before them, if they decide to go into the ring to fight us for no just cause, they would face the consequences. We will insist that the dictates and tenants of the Nigerian constitution and all international conventions the nation subscribed to are respected as regard unhindered trade unionism. So, we do not anticipate any problem.

According to the agreement all the workers would be paid off and those to be retained would start a new condition of service with new owners. What will be the fate of trade unionism in the sector?

We are not worried about that for now. It is first thing first. The interest of workers today is our major concern, even if tomorrow they are no longer workers. While they are still workers, we will give them service.

None the less, the future of trade unionism in the sector is very bright. The process that is happening cannot abolish trade unionism. In fact, we are saying everybody should be paid off. If they agree with us, everybody would be paid off and the next day you would no see anybody on the duty post.

But that will equally mean that the next day, the whole country would be thrown into darkness. But if they manage the process very well, it is a question of transiting and that does not in any way hinders trade unionism. Trade unionism is guaranteed in the constitution of Nigeria and other international conventions. So, that is not a problem.

Should the new owners insist there would not be unionism, what will you do?

Where does that happen? If they insist, they will not even be there in the first place because they will not take over the place. They have no choice than to obey the laws of the land. It is not going to be a new practice because there is trade unionism in the sector.

If you are saying because you want to take over a place, say Ikeja and you want to abolish trade unionism, you will operate from America. Not only that, you have to equally abolish the Nigerian constitution and all other relevant known laws and conventions that Nigeria is a signatory. If they try it, they equally know what will happen.

From the beginning of the negotiation to end, besides the intimidations, harassment and arm-twisting, were there other means employed to force or compromise you into submission?

That is a question that I will not answer maybe satisfactorily. I do not think we should go into that.  However, everything thing they adopted was a strategy for them to achieve maximum result for the principals. Some of them have one principal, but I have about 50,000 principals.

For the 50,000 principals, if I open my telephone now, per minute, or per hour, you cannot imagine the number of calls and text messages I get and they are influencing me. If we are going for meetings some people will be sending text messages, warning, you people should not collect bribes, this and that.

So, you have to adopt every method including that of scaring people. I bet you that most people would be afraid to ask Ajaero to come and take soft drink for the fear that he may tell the whole world that they are trying to bribe him. If one has succeeded in creating that niche, you have tried to some extent to protect yourself in serving your principals.

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