Government is not sincere about payment of severance package of PHCN workers — Ajaero

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Since the commencement of the privatization of the power sector in 2001 till date, the Federal Government and the national union of electricity workers have engaged in a protracted industrial dispute culminating in several delays in completing the exercise. Despite a highly celebrated transfer of the privatized firms to the new investors, the battle over settlement of workers’ severance package rages. Comrade Joe Ajaero, Secretary General of the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) in this interview with Olisemeka Obeche sheds more light on this epic struggle, its outcome so far and the way forward for the power sector. Excerpts: How far has the federal government gone in terms of payment of the severance packages of workers of the privatized power firms? To a very large extent, we can’t say that the level of compliance of the government is uniformed. It’s in various stages and dimensions. In terms of payment of severance, we can say conservatively that government has reached about 75 percent. Pension settlement is at about 60 percent while some other agreements we equally reached with the government are more or less at zero percent. For instance, no action has taken place so far on the issue of 10 percent equity share of workers. On the issue of calculation of entitlements between the time the agreement was signed in July 2012 and when it was implemented in November 2013, no kobo has been paid either in pension or severance. Also, none of those who retired before this time has been paid. And no action has been taken so far on the issue of death benefits. The disengagement of staff by the new private owners is a flagrant abuse of all known labour laws. So, on a daily or weekly basis, they are throwing up new issues for further industrial engagements instead of meeting their own end of the bargain. And it was on the strength of that we decided to give them another ‘two weeks ultimatum’ which the Christmas break affected. But we are following it up, though they have been trying to facilitate another dialogue (meeting) since the New Year. That is the situation of things. Although they are misinforming the public on this issue of level of their compliance, if they are sincere about their claims, that means there is need for proper investigation into what happened to the funds that were earmarked for the settlement of workers’ entitlements. Sadly too, neither the Power Minister nor the Director General of the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) or even the Accountant General of the Federation (AGF) and the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has been able to disclose the whereabouts of the fund and what has actually happened to it. You cannot claim to have paid people when in actual fact you have not paid them. So, something is fishy here. If this money has been kept somewhere, Nigerians need to know who fixed it and for what reason. They must also know the percentage of interest accruable from it. So, if the government is sincerely committed to this project, we expect them to set up a high-powered investigative panel to unravel these and other mysteries in the power privatization exercise. All these cannot be swept under the carpet. What does this seemingly unresolved severance pay issue portends for the sector? Are we likely to see another industrial showdown? We have worked assiduously to ensure that there was no industrial problem during the first few weeks that the private sector took over. But it appears we cannot help it anymore because we cannot sustain peace at the expense of people who have worked for many years and were forced to go home with nothing. If you disengage people and ask them to go, then you must pay them for work done to enable them continue their lives. Our agreement with the government is that nobody would be owed any kobo before being disengaged. But they violated that agreement by disengaging them without settling them and have refused to pay them. So, if anybody says that all is well in the power sector, that person is practically telling lies. However, the ultimatum we gave before the Christmas break was to notify that we would continue to demand for what legitimately belongs to electricity workers. And when we start the process, nobody should say that leaders of electricity workers union are trouble makers. Of course, we have tried our best in this regard. And when we start this demand-process, if they choose to call it ‘industrial crisis’ so be it, because we have sacrificed enough to ensure that peace is maintained in the sector. At a stage, we told them not to go ahead with the hand-over of the firms to the private sector until the matter is resolved. But because the private investors were in a hurry to take-over the firms they ignored our advice and went ahead with the hand-over. Now they have muddled-up everything. There is hardly anybody that has been fully paid and the private sector whom they handed over is not in the position to pay us; they are disengaging people who are yet to be settled. It means that at the expiration of our ultimatum, everybody (including the disengaged workers) would go back to their offices and continue to demand for their money. So, whatever may be the outcome, it is no longer our fault because for the past three months, some of these people have been disengaged without receiving their severance pay. They have no other means of taking care of themselves and families. So, waiting for government to make up its mind on when to pay us is no longer an option. The same way electricity workers rejected privatization of power firms, oil and gas workers seem to have forced the federal government to shelve its planned privatization of four national refineries. What is your take on this? If the federal government has yielded to the demands of the oil workers on the planned sale of refineries, so be it. That is cheery news. But I want to warn that when government soft-pedals on demands like this, that is when they do the worse thing. For instance, we have been in a battle with government over this power sector privatization issue since 2001. We have been blackmailed, threatened and subjected to all sorts of things before we got to where we are today. Well, I will advise my colleagues in the oil and gas sector to be wary, if it is true that government has soft-pedaled. This is because the so-called victory may not last. Besides, it is not the first time they are soft-pedaling on this issue of privatization of the refineries and the NNPC. And when you think they have forgotten about it, they prop it up again. I detest privatization because it portends a lot of evil to the average worker and to the poor Nigerians. There is no justification for contemplating privatization, either in the power sector or oil and gas. It is an admittance of failure on the part of government to say we cannot provide electricity and cannot facilitate domestic refining of petroleum resources. If we all agree that it is an admittance of failure, where then lies the issue of governance in this regard if it has become the duty of the private sector to provide electricity, roads, water, refinery etc.? That is the argument. I urge Nigerians to be careful in supporting government’s privatization programme, because it is the policy of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank Group that the government is implementing. And they are forcing it down on us in piece-meal. I’m saying this because I am in a privileged position to know what has transpired. It is not because these public institutions put up for sale are not making profits, but because the World Bank and IMF have said they should be privatized. This is the mandate all debtor nations must comply. Incidentally, all the lies they propound that, through privatization they will bring unprecedented foreign direct investment, technical and managerial expertise into the country have been exposed by what is happening in the power sector. It is on this trio: ‘FDI, Technical Competency and Managerial Expertise’ that the privatization concept of the federal government was developed. Of course, in terms of managerial expertise, no new (foreign or locally trained) managers have been brought into the system so far by the new private investors. They are still relying on the same set of people that manned the sector during the public sector regime. Likewise, the technical expertise are still the same Nigerian engineers who were part of the old regime. Sadly, we are yet to see the much advertised foreign direct investment in the sector. It is the nation’s wealth that top Nigerians mobilized to buy Nigerian power companies. So, not even a dime has been accrued into the economy of this country as a result of the power privatization. Indeed, all their claims are false. Did you foresee this scenario right from the beginning of this exercise, and what did you do to avoid it? Yes, I have taken time to study privatization models across the world and have engaged the government in arguments on why it is not the best option for Nigeria. But they did not want to buy our idea; instead, they preferred to intimidate us into submission by deploying soldiers across PHCN offices. The invasion of our offices with security men was to force privatization of PHCN on all of us. So, what they have done is privatization by force and not by superior intellectual argument. But government claimed it was done to safeguard vital power installations and forestall anarchy in the system. Is that not the true situation? If there was a threat to equipment, it is not in the office. The equipment consists mainly of electric wires, poles, transformers and power-substations that are used to transmit electricity across the country and if there is any threat to them, certainly, deploying security men across PHCN offices would not stop that because they are in fields not offices. Why didn’t government deploy those soldiers to places where the facilities were installed? Which equipment are they safeguarding in the office? Why must they put guns on the head of electricity workers if not to force them into submission? Where have you seen, even in the history of Nigeria, where workers destroy their working equipment or office with the intention of coming back to work after the industrial action? During the recent ASUU strike, did you hear that lecturers destroyed anything on campuses? So, that argument is false. Nigerians expected a remarkable improvement in power supply following the private sector take-over of the power sector, but to no avail. What is your take on this? I am not surprised at all. For the past nine years, we have taken pains to let Nigerians know what was about to befall them in respect of this power privatization but they refused to understand. Many people felt we were against privatization because we were afraid of losing our jobs. People even misconceived privatization for deregulation. Others succumbed to government’s propaganda and blackmail. And because of this, they called us names and supported government’s effort to intimidate us into submission. So, based on that, we said we would no longer talk about the likely consequences of privatization; and that Nigerians would be the ones to raise issues with it when the time comes. Incidentally, the people have not even seen the worst yet. They would realize what they have bought into when the private investors begin to jerk up tariffs. When they begin to taste the sour part of privatization, they would be the ones to cry louder, not us. But, it is too early for them to complain because they are still enjoying the period of (tariff) grace. And when the private investors decide to increase the tariff, you can’t stop them because they are out for profit maximization. And it would be criminal of any Nigerian to say that they (private investors) should not make profit from their investment.
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