Fuel price hike: Planned labour protests splutters to incoherence

*Fuel

*Fuel

…As government forces play on divisions in labour movement

Oscarline Onwuemenyi

19 May 2016, Sweetcrude, Abuja – Uncertainty over the planned strike by organised labour in the country, orchestrated by a faction of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), over last week’s fuel price hike by the Federal government, on Wednesday, quickly sputtered to confusion and recorded no-show across most states in the country.

A faction of the NLC, led by Comrade Ayuba Wabba, had insisted on going ahead with the planned nationwide strike over the purported removal of subsidy on petrol and the hike in the price of the commodity, even as it faced mass defections among its ranks and despite a court order against such an action on Tuesday.

The court order came just as another faction of the NLC led by Joe Ajaero, and the NUPENG President, Igwe Achese, had a separate meeting with the federal government team, following which both sides reached an agreement to review the pump price of petrol, address the demands for a review of the national minimum wage, and hold discussions on the palliatives expected to cushion the effects of the economic hardship in the country.

The uncertainty from the previous night was heightened owing to a division within the NLC and the decision by the NLC faction and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) to back out of the planned strike.

The NLC reputed to be the largest trade union on the continent, became factionalized in March last year at the 11th Delegates’ Conference of the union when Ajaero rejected the results of the election, which produced Wabba as the current NLC president.

However, Ajaero insisted that he had won the election, subsequently broke away from the union, and declared himself president of the faction that was to emerge, while Achese became his deputy.

The division was quite glaring yesterday when a faction of the NLC led by a former Deputy President of the NLC and General Secretary of the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE), Mr Joe Ajaero, first met with the federal government team led by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr Babachir Lawal.

The faction subsequently said it would not embark on the planned strike and announced instead that a committee would be set up with the government to review the current price of petrol, address demands for a review of the national minimum wage, and the palliatives to cushion the effects of the economic hardship in the country.

However, at another meeting held last night between government and the NLC led by Ayuba Wabba, both sides failed to reach a last-minute compromise. Following the disagreement, the leaders of the NLC walked out of the meeting with the government, saying they would mobilise their members nationwide for an indefinite strike starting from today to protest the fuel price hike.

Wabba, in a statement after the stalemate, noted that “As of today, this is our position as NLC: we have to discontinue the meeting, so this is a walkout and dead end, because the demand cannot be made within the mandate.”

He said that the NLC had not received any court process stopping the strike, adding that, “We have not been served, we are not aware, we have not been put on notice.”

However, the TUC, which had threatened to mobilise its members to go on strike, said it would no longer do so and would tell its members to report to work today.

TUC President Bobboi Kaigama said, “The issue of minimum wage should be on the front burner, while the template for the petrol price should be monitored. Consequently upon this agreement, we hereby suspend the planned industrial action that was supposed to take place effective midnight today. We urge our members to report to work today and go about their normal duties.”

Also briefing the press after the meeting, the SGF confirmed that the TUC had decided not to proceed with the strike.

He said, however, that in the case of the NLC, which is factionalised, one faction agreed to shelve the strike, while the other insisted on going ahead.

“Aside from the NLC, a number of individual affiliate unions had long indicated that they would not participate in the planned strike. So government is fully assured that tomorrow (today), there would be no strike,” he explained.

Lawal also said that the government and unions that decided to shelve the strike had frank and honest discussions, during which they reached an agreement on the broad issues of the price of petrol, the minimum wage and the palliatives to cushion the effects of the economic slowdown.

“So we agreed to set up a 15-man technical committee to work out a framework on the minimum wage. This technical committee will report to the committee of the whole within six months.
“Government also agreed to set up a committee to study the components and make recommendations on the composition of the board of PPPRA within a period of two weeks,” he said.

The SGF, in a statement Tuesday night, also said he had directed all ministers, permanent secretaries and heads of government agencies to invoke the provision of “no work no pay” in respect of workers who participate in the planned strike by a faction of the NLC.

Advising workers to shun the exercise in their own interest, Lawal also called on security agencies to beef up security and ensure that protesters do not prevent workers from gaining access to their offices.

Earlier on Tuesday, the National Industrial Court (NIC) had issued a restraining order stopping the unions from embarking on the strike.

Justice Babatunde Adejumo of the NIC granted the restraining order after the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice Abubakar Malami sought an ex parte application stopping the strike.

In his ruling, Justice Adejumo held that “the defendants are hereby restrained from carrying out the threat contained in their communique issued on May 14th pending the hearing and determination of the motion on notice filed on May 16”.
He ordered that the status quo be maintained and that the processes in the case be served on the respondents within 24 hours, and the proof of service be filed in the court.

“It is the order of this court that none of the parties shall engage in any act, conduct, overtly, covertly on this matter pending the hearing and determination of the motion on notice,” Justice Adejumo further held.

The judge transferred the case to another judge of the court, saying that he would be engaged at the National Judicial Council and would not be able to take further proceedings on the matter.

He stated that his preference was for the dispute to be resolved amicably, but that he was constrained to issue the order ex parte because the respondents were not before him.
He also said he granted the order to make sure that Nigerians were not subjected to avoidable hardship.

“I decided to take this case this morning because it is on an issue that will affect everybody. I don’t want people to be subjected to hardship. There will be scarcity of food, people may die, students will engage in all sorts of activities. This is why I have to grant this order,” he decreed. His order will lapse in seven days except it is renewed.

Emerging from the meeting with the government team, Ajaero, who led electricity and oil and gas workers to the meeting, said a committee would be set up to look at labour’s demands.

He added that it would be chaired by a nominee of the federal government and has a two-week timeframe to submit its findings.

He said that the committee would look at the issue of the N500 billion social intervention fund included in the 2016 budget and the reconstitution of the board of the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA).

The committee was also mandated to review the new pump price of petrol announced by the government last week, he explained.

Ajaero disclosed that his faction was against the nationwide strike declared by the NLC faction led by Wabba.

“We insisted that there was no way we could mobilise, sensitise and even start an action tomorrow (today). We would rather negotiate and it is when that collapses that we take the option of going into any action,” Ajaero said.

Members of the government team that met with Ajaero and his team included Edo State Governor Adams Oshiomhole, the Minister of Labour and Productivity, Chris Ngige, Minister of State for Petroleum Ibe Kachikwu, Minister of Budget and National Planning, Udo Udoma, and the Minister of State for Solid Minerals, Karu Bawa Bwari.

Oshiomhole said the report of the committee would be submitted to the committee of the whole, with labour being part of the body to fashion it out.

The faction of the labour group led by Comrade Joe Ajaero and NUPENG President, Comrade Igwe Achese met with the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Babachir Lawal, Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr Ibe Kachikwu, Minister of Labour and Employment, Sen. Chris Ngige, Minister of Information and Cultural Orientation, Lai Muhammed and Governor Adams Oshiomhole of Edo State.

Speaking on behalf of government, Oshiomhole said: “We have all agreed, that is the labour and the representatives of the federal government under the SGF, have agreed on the following: That we will work towards setting up a framework for the review of the national minimum wage, because we all agreed that this have to be a tripartite body.

“Secondly that labour appreciates the decision of the federal government to set up half a trillion naira in the 2016 budget to cover what the Minister of Budget described as Social investment. Now with respect to the management of this social investment, and the various component of the social investment, the two parties agreed that labour should involve in this process. And come up with suggestion.

“Labour and the representatives of the federal government will meet within two weeks to discuss on the modalities to setting up the regulatory board of PPPRA. For its statutory responsibility, which is the issue in focus.

“This faction has agreed on these terms and that they will not be part of the strike.
Because they rather wait for the outcome of this above raised issues before embarking on strike,” Oshiomhole said.

“On the pact of the factional labour group, Ajaero told the gathering that “we insisted that there was no way we could mobilise, sensitize, and even start an action tomorrow. That we rather negotiate, and are it only when the negotiation fails that we will take the option of going I to any action.

“On the basis of that, we agree that a committee should be set up to among other things look at the issue of minimum wage, the 500 hundred billion social investments, PPPRA Board, and review the N145 new pump price of petroleum product. The committee is to report back in two weeks time,” Ajaero stressed.

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