General Secretary of National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE), Joe Ajaero, in an encounter with Linda Eroke, says a nationwide industrial action has become imminent in view of the unresolved labour issues in the power sector. He also opined that government did not factor in the cost implications of the privatisation of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) before embarking on the reform process. Excerpts:
Joe Ajaero is the General Secretary of National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) and a Deputy President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC).
The story of NUEE is incomplete without the immense contributions of the union’s spokesman who faithfully represented workers especially in the negotiation with the federal government ahead of the privatisation of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN).
Through dedication and the unparallel commitment of Ajaero, the union survived several upheavals and became the authentic voice of the workers in the electricity sector. Despite his achievements, the labour activist said, “the struggle continues as there are so many more battles to be won”.
In this interview, he bears his mind on the current challenges militating against the reforms in the power sector. According to him, “the agreements reached between federal government and the unions in the sector took effect from June 2012 but due to government’s inability to implement these agreements between June 2012 and July 2013, we are going to have a showdown with government soon”.
Amidst calls on the federal government to make funds available for the payment of the severance benefits to workers of PHCN in order to allow private investors successful takeover of the assets recently privatised, the government appears to be playing delayed tactics but the unions in the sector seem very determined to get their severance package paid at all cost as Ajaero said the union is well prepared to resist every attempt by government to transfer PHCN assets to private investors without workers’ benefits paid to the last kobo.
While the workers in PHCN reaffirm their conditional acceptance of government privatisation agenda, despite their preferred position that the PHCN should be allowed to remain and attempt should be made to improve on the facilities to make it work efficiently, the union scribe explained that the manner in which government was going about the reform process is a clear indication that government does not have a concrete agenda for the sector.
According to him, government did not take into consideration the cost implication of PHCN privatisation before embarking on the process of reforming the sector. He however warned that any attempt contrary to the agreement reached with labour would be resisted.
State of Plans
Speaking on the current position in terms of government laid out plans to offset workers’ benefits ahead of the transfer of PHCN’s assets to the private investors, he said: “Well the position clearly is that the federal government does not have money to finance reforms and if they do not have money to finance reforms, they are taking certain steps and actions that are capable of derailing the process while at the same time they are trying to shift the blame to the workers.
“Negotiations were concluded since last year and on daily basis they have been making claims of when they are to pay or whether they have started paying. Up till now nothing concrete has taken place. Rather, the meetings we have been involved in the last few weeks are meetings where they are trying to tell us that they do not have enough money. So, I think if they do not have enough money we have to sit down and review the whole process and how best to go about it.
But my own understanding as at now is that it appears Nigerian Government does not have money, and the proceeds from the sale of PHCN would not be enough to settle the labour liabilities in PHCN. So I think they should be more initiative and find out how best to go about this whole process.
Taking over PHCN Assets
However, government appears to be pushing ahead with the terminal date for the takeover of PHCN assets by the private investors. This, Ajaero said is not the major challenge facing the reforms in the sector but rather the undervaluation of PHCN assets and lack of transparency in the deals so far. He explained that government did not take into consideration the cost implication of the reforms in the sector before embarking on it.
According to him “That is not even the major problem that we have. It is not even the takeover, you know that taking over is dependent on settling the labour issues and in the whole privatisation process, all over the world and as contained even in the Nigeria Privatisation Process, you cannot take over the sector until all labour issues are resolved. So I would not know the extent they are pushing whether they want to take over without resolving the labour issues.
“Unless they want to do that, I cannot see any serious effort so far from their side. Because, come to think of it, somebody has paid for 25 per cent and 75 per cent is still pending. So, if you now hand over to a person who paid for only 25 per cent, in a situation where you even undervalued the sector to next to nothing, and then the person paid for only 25 per cent, you start to wonder which type of process is this.
Speaking further, Ajaero denied reports that the unions were dragging the privatisation process backward, stating that government not shown any commitment to moving the sector forward, and thus should be held responsible for the delays in the reform process.
He said “When an agreement has been signed and we are at the point of payment, is it labour that will pay itself? So those insinuations, if you see anybody making those insinuations, know that the person must be pure illiterate. Negotiations were conducted, agreements were signed and even in February this year, every Nigerian heard the Minister of Labour saying they will start payment the following day.
From February till now, you will be hearing either May, June from the same government, they have not paid. We were at the point of paying and they have refused to pay, so how is labour dragging it back? Is it the labour that will pay itself? So, you see when people fail to do what they are supposed to do first, it has a tendency to bounce back. I have it on good authority that the government did not assess the implication of privatising PHCN.
As at the time they were even asking us for negotiation, they did not know the cost implication; even some of the social implication is yet to be felt. The other day, the NLC came up with a release condemning tariff adjustment by PHCN, before long it will be unattractive for you to tell any investor who probably bought gas for N10 million not to sell it up to N10 million because he must remain in business.
As at today even PHCN is like it is receiving gas from gas companies almost free and if private individual now buys gas after selling electricity, such a person should be able to recoup the money for even buying gas. I am telling you that the cost of gas presently is almost higher than the cost of the tariff people are paying. So, we should be bracing up for higher tariff. However, I told you once that the unions would not talk again on the issue and that Nigerian people would talk last. I want to maintain that position.
On the issue of pension, the union scribe said all PHCN have subscribed to the Contributory Pension Scheme (CPS) but was quick to submit that there are some irregularities in the process which needed to be addressed.
He said: “Yes, we have subscribed to the contributory pension scheme, but it appears there is a deceit somewhere along the line and that is why we are going to engage them. Any moment from now we are going to engage them in a show down because the power ministry is chronically deficient in terms of acknowledging letters. You know we have written series of letters on certain developments in the sector but they have refused to acknowledge them or address them.
Now why did I say this? We ask our members to subscribe to the Pension Fund Administrators (PFAs), and they have subscribed to PFAs, in doing that, our agreements is clear. In the first instance, we have the ones contributed, maybe from 2004; the one government is going to pay up, and the one that management is going to pay up with current contribution, that has been calculated.
Government has given the workers a kind of pay advice, every worker in PHCN now understands how much he is collecting and by extension how much will go into the pension fund. Now as we discuss, government wants to pay because the negotiation is in two components. The one going to pension and the one the workers are receiving as cash. So, if you are receiving N10 million for instance and N6 million is going into your pension, and N4 million is coming to you as cash, the government is planning to pay you N4 million cash and tell the whole world that they have paid you N10 million.
We said no, the pension component should go into workers pension fund which they have opened and by the time government pay, workers will receive alert from the pension. It is not cash that they are receiving, when they receive an alert. When government now gets money it can pay the one that is cash. If government pay workers cash and ask them to go and it does not pay the pension, it then means that the government has deceived the workers. The government is not finding it funny and they wanted to eat our heads.
That was when we realised that there was more to it. In the first instance, you have not funded the arrears and secondly, government is supposed to commence deduction. Now they wrote a letter that deduction should be commenced, from June and we told them that they can’t do that because the agreement we had was that government should pay up and then when we go into the private sector, the private sector pays 7.5 per cent and the workers pay 7.5 per cent. We equally agreed that government should fund it because the circular they sent government did not fund the 7.5 that management is supposed to pay.
They now want to deduct the workers 7.5 per cent and the circular equally said it should be paid into dedicated account. So, if I have a worker who has his pin and he has opened a pension account, why will you pay it into a dedicated account? Those dedicated accounts who are the signatories to them? It then means that there are some plots behind all these. These are some of the problems we are having. The workers have pin numbers and they have subscribed to some of the PFAs, let us say Trustfund pension. Now their 7.5 per cent and 7.5 per cent of the management should go into that place. You can’t say deduct it and pay it into a dedicated account why must it be so?
Then say a worker’ s accumulation maybe N20 million or N10 million before which you have not even transferred into the worker’s PFA account and you are saying you will pay the worker this one that is cash, maybe gratuity and that he should go. I tell you, the main clash is still ahead. They are not handling this in good fate and it is really unfortunate.
On how prepared the union is to ensure that members’ entitlements are not shortchanged before new investors takeover PHCN assets, Ajaero said: “Well that is where we are now. Already, we have given them an ultimatum to address some issues. One we realise they were dashing some people promotions, even some they gave double promotions; from principal managers to general managers or to assistant general managers.
Fine and good, the Ministry of Power can give promotion from principal manager to assistant general manager, but then the normal promotion in PHCN takes place every June. Between June last year and June this year they refused to carry out that promotion exercise. Meanwhile, they are promoting people, which means promotion is not abolished. But the main workforce they refused to promote them.
Two, our agreements took effect from June 2012 and now because of their inability to implement these agreements between June 2012 to July 2013, there is 13 months service that is not computed. We are going to have a showdown with them and that 13 months service is not National Youth Service to anybody. Now, we have 13 months outstanding, how do you compute this and add to workers entitlements? That is the issue that is on ground now. Nobody will tell you after working for one year, maybe you worked for 10 years before and you worked for additional one year plus and you say that one year plus is free.
We have written to the ministry of power and up till now they have not acknowledged the letter, rather the Ministry of Labour has sent a letter inviting us for a meeting and we are not going to attend that meeting. The ministry of power should be able to address even a letter by replying us, to say we are not going to do what is in the letter. We have written not less than 10 letters that they have refused to acknowledge.