25 January 2015, Lagos – The President of the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association, Comrade Francis Johnson, says oil companies in Nigeria should not retrench some of their workers in response to the slump in crude oil prices
How does the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association view the recent downward review of fuel pump price by the Federal Government?
It is a welcome development. We appreciate the effort the Federal Government has made to effect the current downward review of the fuel pump price. This is done in view of the slump in the price of crude oil. Since last year when the price began to take a downward spiral, we had called on the government to reduce the price of fuel in the country in line with the global trend in the oil market. We are happy something has been done. And we will continue to engage the government in such a way that it responds to the yearnings of the people and the global oil market trends. Having said that, the pump price of fuel should be reviewed further down below the N87 per litre price we have now. In other words, we will want the Federal Government and the petroleum ministry to ensure that at all times the fuel pump price reflects the true decline in the global crude oil prices. What the petroleum ministry should do now is to let the pump price reflect the true decline in the global oil price. It’s even unfortunate that the filling stations have yet to change to the new price. We urge the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency and the Department of Petroleum Resources to strictly ensure that all these stations start selling fuel at the new price. We expect the FG to further reduce the pump price. The Nigerian people need to benefit from this global slump in crude oil prices; why should the Federal Government deny them this opportunity? And if the prices go up, it is fine, we will bear the impact. But right now, let Nigerians enjoy the full benefits of the oil price slump.
The government has been accused of using the recent reduction in the price of fuel as a political gimmick. What is your stance on this?
Our position on this issue is very clear and we’ve been clamouring for a reduction in fuel pump price since December last year. It is not for us to say whether the eventual response of the Federal Government is a political gimmick or not. It is pertinent to mention here that what we are concerned about is the welfare of the people. Our association is non-political. If the timing of the government’s response is political that is left for the Nigerian people to decide. Our aim was to get the government to reduce the pump price. In addition, we cannot speak for the government on why they chose to adjust the fuel price at the time they did. Ours is to press the government to take action on certain issues which affect the oil and gas sector and the nation, we are not politicians.
Many Nigerians wished the price of kerosene was also reduced. What’s your take on this?
The issue of kerosene price is a bit complicated. The Federal Government says it is selling at a subsidised rate of N50 to the marketers. The real issue here is how much are millions of poor Nigerians paying to buy kerosene? Do they always see the kerosene to buy at the filling stations? Majority of the people in this country rely on kerosene to cook and light their lanterns. As it is, our association is an affiliate member of the Nigeria Labour Congress. The NLC is the umbrella body of many workers’ associations; part of its responsibilities is to look into the issue of the minimum wage. The same thing applies to the issue of pricing and availability of kerosene. The NLC will be in the best position to talk about this. In the meantime, we are watching the situation; very soon we will come out with a statement to express our position on this issue and other ones that concern our industry and the nation in general. Therefore, we hope to issue a statement between now and February on where we stand. Before then, we have to make consultations with other stakeholders.
In what way has the oil price slump affected workers in the oil and gas sector?
Unions all over the world, including the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers and the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association, are first and foremost set up to protect and look after the welfare of their members. Having said that, as it is right now, the oil and gas sector is apparently the most affected by the decline in the prices of crude oil. I am not sure anyone can be held responsible for this global development. But be that as it may, PENGASSAN has the obligation to protect its members and we will not fold our arms as some companies in the oil and gas industry are planning to reduce the number of their workers, but that is not the best thing to do. And you can be sure that we’ll make known our position on the planned retrenchment by some companies in the oil and gas sector. In the coming days, we are going to come out with a statement on that. They can’t say because the prices of crude oil are going down, therefore the next thing to do is to render some of our members redundant. If we decide to go on strike now, some people will begin to say, we are doing all this for selfish personal reasons but it is for the common good of the society. For instance, if we have 5,000 workers and each of these ones have at least 15 dependants; what will happen to the workers and their dependants if they are laid off? They will say we are too eager to go on strike whereas we always give adequate room for negotiation. We want the public and the government to understand this. By the time we start talking and we issue an ultimatum, they will say the union has started. They will say they (union) are being used by some individuals; that they are being used by some external forces.
What’s your view on the recent and ongoing strikes in the country?
People think we derive joy in embarking on industrial actions. No, we don’t. We always give the authorities sufficient time in which they should meet our demands or needs. Look at the health workers’ strike; people are suffering and dying. Recently, the judicial workers too went on strike. Where is this country heading? It doesn’t matter which union or association one belongs to, we all go to hospitals. This is a matter of life; health is wealth. We are not just concerned about our issues as oil and gas workers; we are much worried about the general situation of the country. We are all Nigerians, we have dependants and we have relatives and most of us use public hospitals.
Don’t you think the current National Assembly may fail to pass the Petroleum Industry Bill, before its tenure expires?
We are still hopeful that before the end of the tenure of the current National Assembly, the bill will be passed into law. The Senate President, David Mark, had also given the assurance that the Petroleum Industry Bill would be given adequate attention to ensure its passage after the elections. I hope and pray the general elections will hold peacefully without any major crisis.
The issue of oil refineries in Nigeria has remained contentious. What do you make of it?
The issue of not having functional refineries that perform at optimum level can be attributed to the poor maintenance culture of the government. In this country, we are known to let facilities, especially public infrastructure, rot. The same problem is bedeviling our refineries. Proper maintenance would have saved us from the headache we face in the oil industry. The issue of maintenance should not be something difficult to approach. It is like having a car or two; if one has a car, periodically he or she has to get it serviced. Failure to do so over a period will eventually lead to loss of manpower and money. Besides, much has been said about privatising those refineries. The questions are: Are the refineries in Nigeria properly maintained? Are they made to undergo turnaround maintenance as when due instead of leaving them for a long period of time unattended to? How old are these refineries? If they have become too old for turnaround maintenance to be carried out on them or are gulping too much money maintaining them, should they be retained or shouldn’t new ones be built? And what has happened to all the money realised from using these refineries that part of their revenues cannot be used to build new ones? How much have the refineries made and why are the figures not published? If the government does what is legitimately expected of it, everyone will be happy. Those are the issues.
Are you against the planned privatisation of the refineries by the government?
If you look at the past position of the union, the refineries can work if there is sincerity on the part of the government. Those refineries do not have to be privatised. Like I said, the problem with us in this country, not just about the refineries or the oil and gas sector, is that our maintenance culture is poor. If the turnaround maintenance is being done regularly there should not be any major problem with the refineries. It is not as if PENGASSAN is against privatising refineries, but the point is if things are done the way they should be done will there be a need to privatise the refineries? If the refineries are properly fixed, everyone will be happy. The workers there are dedicated and hard-working. They are not happy being paid and not having much to do. They will be productive and the refineries will be profitable. And we need to begin to look beyond the Premium Motor Spirit; there are other by-products from crude oil, what is the government doing about them? People tend to focus too much on only the PMS — the same thing with journalists. You need to be asking the Federal Government about what happens to the other by-products generated from the crude oil. We should not get carried away thinking that crude oil is only about fuel.
Why do you think the country continues to experience pipeline vandalism and crude oil theft?
These are oil communities-related issues. It’s very unfortunate that we’re still talking about the issue of pipeline vandalism and crude oil theft in Nigeria despite the fact that we have capable hands in the military, police and other security agencies. I will just urge the Federal Government and its security agencies to show more commitment and willpower to deal with those stealing and damaging the nation’s precious resources. The government has to critically consider these issues and proffer lasting solutions. They have to consider whether the security operatives manning these oil facilities have not become compromised in their duty to secure those facilities, among other things. The incident of crude oil theft is very rampant. We cannot progress economically if that continues as millions of dollars are being lost to oil theft.
Ahead of the general elections, what does PENGASSAN expect politicians and the electorate to do?
For there to be peaceful conduct of the elections, for there to be crisis-free transition, I call on the electorate to eschew violence and negative comments that can heat up the polity. More importantly, I urge all politicians not to see the coming elections as a do-or-die affair. They should restrain themselves and their followers in terms of violence. If both the politicians and the electorate are committed to peaceful, free, fair and credible elections they will not do anything that can scuttle the electoral process. Everyone should ensure that by his or her action Nigeria remains one united country even after the elections have been won and lost.
How has the Boko Haram insurgency impacted on your association and its members?
The devastating effects of Boko Haram’s violent attacks are felt by the whole country. We have said it before and we will continue to say it that we are appealing to the Federal Government and to all well-meaning Nigerians to support the Nigerian troops to execute the war against terrorism in the country. It is obvious that the current insurgency is taking place largely in the northern parts of the country. Nevertheless, what affects one part of the country affects all of us. Apparently too, that part of the country is not populated by only the northerners. We also have southerners — people from the other geopolitical zones living in that area. It is not just about some of our members who live or work there. It is about any Nigerian who lives and work there.
– The Punch