Workers in the oil industry Monday vowed to shut down activities at the Onne Oil and Gas Free Trade Zone (FTZ) because of the failure of companies in the zone to obey Nigeria's labour laws.
The unions said they would embark on a three-day warning strike that would last from February 13 to 15, stating that if their demands were not met by then, they would embark on an indefinite strike.
The workers, under the aegis of Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) and Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN), alleged that the companies were engaged in enslavement, victimisation and other anti-workers activities that were affecting the welfare of the workers.
President of NUPENG, Babatunde Ogun, told journalists in Port Harcourt after a joint meeting of leaders of the unions that they had decided to shut down the zone at the expiration of the ultimatum issued to the Federal Government to compel companies in the zone to allow the workers to unionise and also respect other labour laws.
The Zonal Chairman of PENGASSAN, Friday Otono, said both unions had concluded plans to shut down all operations at the Onne FTZ facilities through a warning strike after which they would embark on an indefinite strike which would shut down the operations of the companies.
Otono said his union would not allow employers to enslave Nigerians, adding that most of the companies have been using divide- and- rule tactics to fight union leaders.
He also alleged that the companies had been using government officials to circumvent the labour laws and efforts of labour leaders to unionise.
"While we are not saying that the companies do not have rights under the labour laws, we shall not allow them to trample on the rights of the workers to join unions of their choices. The 10 years of grace allowed by the laws for non-protest, has elapsed and they have not woken up to realise this. We shall remind them. This is our own country and we can't allow anybody or group of people to enslave our people in our country. We are going to use what we have to get what we deserve. We have written to the Federal Government on this, even Governor Rotimi Ameachi is aware of these problems. We have to shut down all the factories in Onne FTZ," he warned.
The General Secretary of NUPENG, Isaac Aberare, who also spoke on the situation, said; " It is erroneous for the companies at the Onne facilities to continue to argue that they have a blanket cover against unionism whereas the law only allows for non-protest for 10 years"
The Zonal Chairman of NUPENG, Godwin Eruba, explained that the management of the FTZ had in its bid to woo companies to the Onne facilities promised companies 10 years of non-union and protest-free operations in addition to other incentives.
He said following the incentives, more than 150 companies moved to the zone to avoid unionism, taxes and certain royalties.
Eruba said some of the companies even sacked all their workers before moving to the free zone.
He however said that even though the laws setting up the FTZ in the country allow for non-protests for 10 years, it did not preclude the workers from joining or forming unions among themselves.
"The problem is that the FTZ authority in Onne using extant labour laws gave the companies certain incentives and waivers. The law says that for 10 years after location, workers of the companies operating in the area shall not embark on strikes. The law did not say there will be no unionism," he explained.
Eruba also noted that out of the about 150 companies operating in the Onne FTZ, only five allowed unions, a situation he described as unacceptable and clearly not ideal for the welfare of the workers.
"It (non-unionism) will allow for poor condition of service, cheap labour, impoverishment and un-regulated condition of services. The employers will take advantage of these to further pauperized the workers"
Efforts to get the reaction of the management of the Onne FTZ were not successful. Calls placed to the gsm lines of the Managing Director, Hon. Victor Alabo, did not go through as his lines were said to be switched off.
However, a source in the zone said while the unions might jave issues with some companies, it would be difficult to shut the entire zone.
"The unions can picket some companies involved in unwholesome labour practices but they cannot shut the entire zone," he said.