The Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige and the General Secretary of the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE), Comrade Joe Ajaero on Thursday openly disagreed over the legality of the strike action embarked upon by the union.
While Ngige insisted that as union in the essential service sector of the economy, the union should not have embarked on strike, but made adequate contact with his Ministry for proper conciliation of the dispute, Ajaero said the union gave the government adequate notice before commencing the strike which was later suspended after about 24 hours.
He said he was aware of an ultimatum to the Ministry of Power and copied to his Ministry for his information, stressing that what that meant is that he will have to monitor development to know when and how to step into the matter.
He said the Desk Officer attached to the Ministry of Power informed him that negotiation was going on between the union and government, adding that when negotiations broke down, the union leaders whom he described as “my friends” should have informed him.
He said “workers in the electricity sector are working for both government agencies and in the private sector. The Transmission Company of Nigeria is the only agency of government that is employing electricity workers most of them are senior staff.
“We decided to monitor what was going on when we discovered that they were negotiating with their employers. The Ministry of Power is not alone in this. Pension is involved and since pension has to do with money, the Accountant General of the Federation will be involved.
“The Ministry of Power decided to negotiate with them and they have trashed out all the issues involved. I will now take over the remaining negotiation and do what is needed.
“Let me say that I am highly displeased with what has happened. Electricity is an essential services and they know this. In Nigeria, it is number two after health. But outside Nigeria, it is even number one. If you withdraw your services abruptly, lives could be lost.
“The law spelt out how you deal with services that are essential in nature. They should have done what is necessary and allow us to apprehend the situation. I did not find what happened funny at all. The whole economy was shut down and the nation thrown into darkness.
“They even locked the Minister out of his office and forced other staff to run away from their duty post in the name of picketing. Picketing is not to forcefully stop the minister from entering his office or prevent others from working.
“I want this to be the last time this will happen. If you write a letter and copied me, there is a limit to which can act. They should have come back to me to say we have reached a brick wall with our employers. Even with a phone call, they could have reached me and I will apprehend this situation.
“The issues they raised have been there, but they are being addressed. My friends have offended me and they have to apologise to me”.
On his part, Ajaero said the union takes exception to the Minister’s use of the words abruptly and sudden withdrawal of service, saying a 21 day ultimatum which lasted one month can no longer be regarded as abrupt.
He said the issues in contention has lasted for six years without any solution, adding that to his credit, the Minister of Labour has tried to address one or two of the issues, but lamented that directives given and conciliations carried out by the Minister were not respected by companies in the sector.
He called for a review of labour laws in the country to give the Minister of Labour what he called biting power, saying “right now, the Minister of labour has teeth, but cannot bite”.
He blame the Minister of Labour for not taking steps to apprehend the strike, saying the law allows the Minister to step into any matter even he hears about it or sees it in the press without any formal notice.
Ajaero said it was not enough to say that they have signed an agreement on the disputed areas as they believe that the agreement will still not be respected as this was not the first time such agreements are not implemented.
Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila assured the union that the agreement entered into by the government and the unions will be implemented, adding that they House has resolved to be a witness to the agreement.
He said a copy of the agreement should be deposited with the leadership of the House while the union should keep the House informed in all their dealings regarding the implementation of the agreement.
He however disagreed with the union on the reason advanced for locking out the Minister saying “you do not have the right to lock out your employers. You also do not have the right to lock out the federal government. We have heard a lot about government signing agreements and not implementing them.
“We rather not sign any agreement that we cannot implement than signing one and not implementing it. If there is anything in this agreement that is not implementable, let us withdraw it now or fore ever keep our peace.”