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Nigerian oil and gas unions fight against precarious work

8 August, 2017Over the past 18 months, two IndustriALL Global Union affiliates in Nigeria have succeeded in organizing around 7,500 contract and casual workers in the country’s oil and gas supply chain with substantial support from a union project against precarious work.

The fight against precarious work by the National Union of Petroleum & Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) and the Petroleum & Natural Gas Senior Staff Association (PENGASSAN) has been an uphill battle with multinational companies in the sector opposing them at every turn.

The union project in Nigeria, supported by IndustriALL affiliates FNV (Netherlands), CSC-BIE (Belgium) and FCE-CFDT (France), is part of a wider precarious work project that also includes Cameroon and Senegal. It also included support for a NUPENG and PENGASSAN workshop in Lagos in July 2017, which aimed to reinforce organizers’ and shop stewards’ capacity to organize precarious workers.

Both NUPENG, which represents junior employees and PENGASSAN, which represents senior employees, have a long history of fighting against casualization and contract work in the oil and gas sector in Nigeria. Major oil and gas multinational companies present in Nigeria, including Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Agip and others, began outsourcing of jobs in the 80s and 90s. Today, agency and outsourced workers represent the majority of the workers in the oil and gas industry.

Herculean task

Organizing precarious workers in the oil and gas supply chain in Nigeria is a Herculean task. Multinationals and contractors prevent workers from joining the unions, while community associations negotiate recruitment and promotions for their members at the oil companies through intermediaries. This indirectly weakens the unions. Companies in the sector are using an increasing number of contractors which fragment the workforce. Some contractor companies are no more than letterbox entities, enabling them to avoid their legal obligations. Worse still, organizers are subject to attacks, and even kidnapping.

Multinational companies have replaced direct employment with third party contracts, destroying job security and permanent employment benefits and contributing to the further impoverishment of workers. Furthermore, these contracts were concluded for only three months, making it difficult for workers to join a trade union for fear of retaliation and non-renewal of their contract. In effect, multinationals operating in cahoots with third parties have tried to subvert Nigeria’s labour laws and limit the right of workers to join trade unions. Challenging this contract labour system is tough because of an ineffective judicial system in Nigeria, which delays the hearing of labour cases in the courts.

Due to a lack of investment, Nigeria has an out-dated refinery capacity meaning that jobs are lost to other countries in the export of crude oil, while state owned refineries are operating at less than 30 per cent of their capacity. More jobs are lost in the petrochemical sector due to on-going social and political conflicts, criminal activities damaging oil pipelines, and social unrest on oil related matters.

Putting the brakes on outsourcing

With a view to help each other in organizing agency and outsourced workers in the oil and gas sector into union branches, the unions created a joint platform called NUPENGASSAN. The project has enabled both unions to organize thousands of precarious workers in the downstream and upstream sectors of the industry. They also managed to secure permanent jobs for 200 contract workers in 2016. The solidarity of workers in the supply chain also played a special role in allowing NUPENG to support organizing of contract workers. For example, NUPENG mobilized tank drivers who arranged blockades in companies resisting the union’s efforts to organize contract workers. Thanks to the action of the drivers, management of the companies finally agreed to recognize the unions.

Company-based collective bargaining prevails in the oil and gas industry in Nigeria and, on that basis multinational companies in the sector do not recognize the right of contract workers to be protected by the collective bargaining agreements negotiated for direct employees. For example, PENGASSAN and Shell Nigeria have an agreement that only covers workers in the company’s core business (4,500 permanent employees); yet there are over 50,000 contract workers at the firm. In order to get round this practice PENGASSAN and NUPENG established multi-employer collective bargaining with the multiple contractors in the different multinational companies.

Both unions have been pushing for the establishment of labour contractors’ forums in companies in the upstream sector. These forums are an umbrella body in companies for contractors to negotiate with the union representing contract workers. In the downstream sectors, the unions are also conducting multi employer’s bargaining with marketers’ associations.

High unemployment in Nigeria makes it easy for companies in the oil and gas sector to exploit workers. Thousands of workers have been working for multinationals’ contractors for years with no employment contracts. There are huge disparities in the working conditions between employees and precarious workers. Core staff have access to many benefits including free medical treatment, maternity pay, Christmas bonus, leave allowance, profit sharing, a performance bonus and rent allowance. Meanwhile, precarious workers can earn as little as 10 per cent of the wage of permanent employees for equal work. Most of these workers have no access to free medical treatment and pension scheme nor do they benefit from the same health and safety protections.

Through the continued pressure of PENGASSAN and NUPENG, Guidelines on Labour Administration Issues in Contract Staffing/Outsourcing in the Oil and Gas Sector were issued by the Federal Ministry of Labour and Productivity in 2011. Even though the guidelines were not officially published because of the fall of the government, the document remains a point of reference for unions. The guidelines notably include provisions for the restriction of outsourcing of non-core jobs; respect for collective agreements; and mandatory collective bargaining between contractors and their employees. The guidelines also stipulate that contract staff under manpower/labour contracts shall belong either to NUPENG or PENGASSAN. The two unions are still fighting to get these guidelines adopted by the government but progress has been agonizingly slow. 

Kemal Özkan, IndustriALL Global Union’s Assistant General Secretary, said:

“The way the contract workers are exploited in the oil and gas supply chain in Nigeria is unacceptable.

Unfortunately precarious employment keeps on spreading, but we will keep on supporting our affiliates, like NUPENG and PENGASSAN, around the world to stop it. Our trade union networks in the oil and gas sectors prioritized the fight against precarious work in their actions. They will be active part of the protests against precarious work in October 2017 as per IndustriALL’s call for global day of action.”