The surreptitious moves by which some telecoms service providers are replacing Nigerian firms handling some aspects of their operations with expatriate firms, mostly from the Asian countries of India and China, may soon pitch the Federal Government and organised labour against the affected firms.
Industry sources who described the development as untoward told THISDAY that it came to the fore when Airtel Nigeria decided to severe its relationship with Nigerian contractors handling the mobile telecoms' call centres.
Airtel management was said to have disengaged with the Nigerian contractors when it dawned on them that two Indian companies recently registered in the country could offer the same services at lower costs.
Airtel Nigeria Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer Mr. Rajan Swaroop had recently confirmed the engagement of the Indian companies-Spanco and Tech Mahindra- shortly after the latest change of ownership at the mobile phone firm.
According to sources, the engagement of the two Indian firms by Airtel is gradually becoming a template for other mobile phone operators in the industry, as the management of MTN Nigeria is said to have also opened discussions with some Chinese firms in a move, which labour sources said could cost about 10,000 Nigerian jobs.
The organised labour, THISDAY learnt, is piqued by the development.
It was learnt that labour union's grouse stemmed from the loss of jobs caused by the resultant decision of Nigerian contractors to throw out some of their own employees since their services were no longer required by the new Airtel management.
Sources disclosed that although Spanco and Tech Mahindra still rely on some Nigerians to do their jobs, the conditions of service and the salaries being paid to them are said to be appalling.
The two companies, it was gathered, do everything for Airtel, from hardware installation, equipment procurement to fibre and cable installation.
Airtel Corporate Affairs Manager Emeka Opara declined to comment on the issue when our correspondent sent an SMS message to his phone having failed to pick his calls.
In his response to the text message, Opara merely said, "I wonder why this issue is so topical at the moment in the face of the monumental developments and accomplishments in Airtel."
When THISDAY sought the position of MTN on the reported discussions with some Chinese firms allegedly positioned to take over jobs being handled by Nigerian firms, the company's General Manager, Corporate Affairs, Corporate Services Division, Mrs. Funmilayo Omogbenigun, neither denied nor confirmed the report.
She said, "The principle of outsourcing certain services to competent third parties is well established all over the world. As a responsible corporate organisation, MTN Nigeria is committed to observing international best practice in the area of outsourcing."
The President of Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Engr Gbenga Adebayo, who would not apportion blame, however, canvassed a situation where local skills are developed in the country.
He said, "It is a worrisome development because we need to protect local skills and develop our manpower so that they can provide support for global firms in Nigeria.
"Nigeria has good knowledge base and Nigerians have what it takes to do the job."
He said there was need for stakeholders to uphold local knowledge.
But a source who is an executive of a mobile operating firm asked: "How can a company bring an Indian firm from New Delhi to come and lay fibre in Adamawa? Must everything be handled by expatriates?"
He drew the attention of THISDAY to an investigative report on the US national security issues posed by Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE, saying it is risky for the federal government to allow foreign firms to take over the entire telecoms industry.
Director, Public Affairs of the National Communications Commission (NCC), Mr. Tony Ojobo, in his defence of the commission, said it is not part of NCC's regulatory responsibilities to determine how operators recruit their staff.
"We don't determine who they employ or sack," he said.
He, however, explained that the commission has as one of its mandates to monitor change of ownership in the telecoms firms.
Ojobo said the commission was still waiting for detailed complaints from the affected Nigerian firms although he acknowledged that NCC had been noticing a change in the employment profiles of some operators.
He expressed the determination of the commission to investigate the matter and make necessary interventions.
Labour Minister Chief Emeka Wogu, who spoke with THISDAY, said the issue of expatriate quotas in Nigeria is under the purview of the ministry of interior although he recalled that his ministry had had to wade into a labour crisis that engulfed Airtel recently.
"There was a time Airtel had challenges with the labour union and we went into the matter. Based on the issues presented, the issues were resolved with the support of the NLC," he said.
He said his ministry was working in partnership with the ministry of interior to address the issue of local content in the telecoms sector like the one already in place in the oil and gas sector.
According to him, a committee made up of representatives of the two ministries has already been constituted, although it is domiciled in the ministry of interior.
When contacted, Minister of Interior Abba Moro said "Expatriate quota is approved on prescribed application that includes category and qualification of people needed for hiring. This is because approval is not country based; they can come from any country. Efforts are made to ensure that only people with skills not available are approved for hire.
"Appropriate mission officials abroad certify qualifications."
Moro said because of cry of abuse, the process is under review and that when unskilled labour are hired and discovered, they are repatriated, although he did not specify the number of such people that had been sent packing in that light.
Concerning the issue of telecoms firms engaging foreign firms, he said; "When that happens and the ministry discovers, appropriate regulations/sanctions will apply."
Recently, management of Airtel began the process of winding down the operation of its call centres in the Federal Capital Territory.
The operation of the centre is being transferred to Ibadan, and as a result of this, 700 workers in the call centre normally referred to as agents have lost their jobs.
According to a the source, the movement to Ibadan would see the workers get a massive salary cut, from around N70,000 a month to about N26,000 as a result of which most workers opted not move to Ibadan.
The source said out of 800 workers, 700 opted out and took the severance option. Only about 100 remained and those ones are ready to go to Ibadan under a scaled-down salary scheme.
According to a report, the company has already hired 400 call centre agents in Ibadan in preparation for the movement, which may take effect in December."