The company’s decision to fire the workers, who are of Niger Delta origin, was seen as a slap in the face of militants, two powerful oil workers’ unions, NUPENG and PENGASSAN, as well as the judiciary.
One of the sacked workers told our correspondent that he and other fired workers had each put in more than 15 years in the company. “The management used alcohol and drugs tests as an excuse to lay off about forty of us,” the source said.
A senior manager of the company, who said he was unhappy about the firings, told our correspondent that the company brought in doctors and lab scientists into the company’s boats in a military-style “cordon and search” operation to conduct tests on the affected workers in order for Lamnalco to evade paying severance benefits to the sacked workers. Some of the sacked workers served as officials of the Lamnalco branch of NUPENG.
The sacked workers include Captain James Yangaboi, Victor Urevbu, Bernard Amadi, Canbi Opeme, Dennis Zifa, and Nelson Usilo. According to the management source, “Lamnalco’s vessels are not known to have experienced mishaps arising from drug or alcohol intake by captains and crew members. Most members of staff targeted for sacking have rather seen the company grow from five vessels in 1992 to over 28 ocean-going vessels with contracts in the West African sub-region. So the drug and alcohol test policy had never been applied in the entire company operations spanning over 21 years in Nigeria.”
The management source added that Lamnalco’s actions arose from the workers’ refusal to comply with the February 8, 2013 verdict of the National Industrial Court (NIC) Lagos which ruled that Lamnalco workers can only be members of National Seafarers and Collaborating Unions (NSCU), but not NUPENG and PENGASSAN. The workers filed an appeal against the judgment.
“The company’s action is part of plot not only to sack Niger Delta workers but to deprive them of many benefits contained in the employer-employee Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA),” one of the affected workers alleged. He added that the plot began with the relocation of Lamnalco’s headquarters from Port Harcourt to Lagos. “The relocation achieved the twin goals of easing out office staff that are Ijaw/Niger Delta and forestalled protests,” he said.
Numerous workers asserted that, following the NIC verdict, Lamnalco declined to pay an automatic 5% increase in salary to senior staff as well as the leave allowances to junior staff. In addition, the company reportedly refused to negotiate with the workers’ union when the last CBA expired in May 31, 2013 and failed to pay any benefits under the subsisting CBA.
“Can Lamnalco claim to be obeying the rule of law when it is suspending the CBA and sacking NUPENG/PENGASSAN officials? Yet, there is a pending appeal of the NIC verdict. Should the status quo not remain till the outcome of the appeal?” queried a source.
A militant group known as the Coastal Revolutionary Forces (CRF) had in March 2013 warned Lamnalco against proceeding with its planned layoffs without offering benefits to sacked workers. CRF vowed that it would strike the company’s ocean-going vessels without further notice should its warning be ignored.
In a strike threat that was later suspended, NUPENG-PENGASSAN also accused Lamnalco of daily threats and intimidation of workers for refusing to change their union/association to the NSCU as demanded by the NIC verdict.
“The painstaking implementation of the NIC verdict by Lamnalco in the pendency of an appeal is believed to lend credence to the company’s alleged sponsorship of NSCU with N50 million in the suit that culminated in the verdict,” the union stated.
In an email response to our questions, Lamnalco’s Human Resources Manager, Ndubuisi Ibegbulam, said the company had begun dealing with the Seafarers Collaborating Unions and stopped all dealings with NUPENG/PENGASSAN in keeping with the NIC’s verdict. Mr. Ibegbulam refused to state whether unpaid benefits due staff before the NIC verdict had been paid or would be paid.
Mr. Ibegbulam said he was aware of a judicial appeal filed by PENGASSAN, but added that the firm did not regard the filing of an appeal as amounting to a superior court’s order to stay execution of the earlier verdict. He insisted that there was no ongoing sack exercise.
On the alleged drug and alcohol tests, Mr. Ibegbulam stated that, following an “audit by one of our clients, it became mandatory to strictly enforce the drug and alcohol tests.” He stressed that the tests were an international policy. He further dismissed insinuations that the terminations were based on union membership. He said there was nothing like NUPENG/PENGASSAN in Lamnalco at the time the NUPENG chairman, secretary and treasurer were sacked, insisting that their terminations were done in line with their contract of service.
Several workers told our correspondent that they lived in daily fear of being the next victim in a war in which they are not sure if NUPENG and PENGASSAN could save them from the hammer.