Nigeria, like most countries, is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, and governments at the federal and state levels have taken measures to limit the spread of the virus, including directing the shutting down of businesses. The global virus pandemic has profoundly affected the world of work as we know it. In addition to the threat to public health, the economic and social disruption threatens the long-term livelihoods and wellbeing of millions. The International Labour Organisation, ILO, and its constituents – governments, workers and employers – know that there is a price to pay and a crucial role, in combating the outbreak, to ensuring the safety of individuals and the sustainability of businesses and jobs.
Understandably, the hospitality industry where aviation is a big sub-sector, is among the worst hit with many businesses struggling to survive. While many are cutting salaries and letting go some staff with full compensation, some others unfortunately, have unethically taken advantage of the pandemic to exact some sorts of vendetta on their workers by unlawfully and unjustly terminating their contracts without adequate compensation or provision of a soft landing for these employees in the wake of the harsh reality they are being plunged into. These companies’ actions go against the primary legislation on labour and employment matters in Nigeria as captured in the Labour Act and in other relevant legislation like the Trade Union Act, the Trade Disputes Act, National Industrial Court Act and the National Industrial Court Rules.
One such company is an aviation catering company, Newrest ASL Nigeria Plc., which operates at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos. Hiding under the guise of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company had in the month of July terminated the employments of 176 of its staff without proper remuneration or payment for services offered months prior their terminations.
Before the termination of these workers, the company had in a series of messages to its employees in March this year, said that despite the lockdown, full salary will still be paid for the month, which they did. However, in April, they asked the workers to sign that they will collect only 50% of their salary. The workers understood the times and attendant challenges, they did this without much ado and got paid that same month. But then, the company reduced the 50% cut further to 25% in May, without further consultation with the workers.
Obviously, in the wake of the disagreement, the company terminated the employment of many of these employees.
In the case of Olukayode O. (not full names), one of the ex-employees affected by the decision of the company, Newrest has refused paying him his full entitlements after the termination of his employment, a situation that has placed him and his dependents on dire straits. This is considering also that he has put in four years of his life working for the company.
This action is a breach of both contract of employment and company policy as stated in the employee handbook. It also runs foul of the relevant international best practice like Protection of Wages Convention, that is Convention 87 of the ILO. In many quarters, it is alleged that the retrenchment of most employees was carried out also because of Newrest’s disagreement with ‘NUATE’, and that the COVID-19 pandemic was a convenient excuse used to perpetrate the action.
NUATE is the National Union of Air Transport Employees. NUATE is the union body that has been representing employees of Newrest following the resolution of a meeting convened by the national president of the Nigeria Labour Congress with Newrest ASL’s management and the chairperson of the Nigeria Labour Congress, Lagos State Council in Abuja, as empowered by the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Section 40).
In view of that decision, pending matters in the National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN) have been mandated by the National President of the NLC to be withdrawn in favour of NUATE without hesitation. In a communique issued by the body, it had called for the payment of the pre-COVID-19 50% salary to be paid in full to all staff as agreed in the communique signed by the Newrest ASL management and the staff union executives on the 20th of March 2020.
According to the documents made available to Freelanews, it also requested for all the outstanding payments which include Annual Leave for 2019-2020, Long Service Award for 2019-2020 and The 125% Newrest Global Salary Increment of 2017 to be paid workers. Others include the payment of unlawful salary deductions from August 2019 to December 2019, accumulated union dues from November 2016 to date to be paid, all unremitted pension deductions should be remitted to the various Pension Administrators with proof of credit balance and that the old cooperative embezzled fund of 2010 should be refunded to the workers among other things.
This recent action by the company is not the first time it will get involved in a disagreement with NUATE over its employees ill-treatment. Just last year, the NLC and NUATE had led a protest where it picketed its premises over what it described as ‘inhuman, unjust and unlawful’ condition of work at the aviation company.
The group had stated that such conditions include but not limited to employment without employment letters, no terms of engagement or conditions of service, arbitrary terminations, victimisation of the basis of joining and holding office in a trade union, refusal to recognise a registered trade union and other forms of enslavement.
Four years ago in the month of March, 2016, the workers in the company downed tools following the sack of the chairman of the union, Sule Muniru and the Quality Assurance Manager, Habiliment Ehimien, who had spent 16 years in the company. The man was sacked for daring to fight for the welfare of workers, Freelanews was told.
An observer, who was present back then, said, “There is a crisis between the management and the union and the general workers in Lagos. Today, the management decided to terminate the appointment of the chairman of the union and we believe it is because of the crisis that is on or the collective bargaining that we have been doing with the management. We have been threatening to go to strike because of this, we have given the management ultimatum and the management failed to look into the matter. And all these while the management has been going about threatening the staff.
“The management has been monitoring the executive of the union. All these while we have been preaching peace to the management not to allow this to happen but unfortunately the management sacked the union chairman and a manager. We are fighting for a review of our condition of service, justice and incessant intimidation by the management.”
While socially responsible and ethically driven companies and organisations are busy being at the forefront of the fight against the novel coronavirus pandemic, Thomas Forcacs led Newrest ASL unabashedly sacked as many as convenient without proper remuneration. These are men and women with dependents. These are men and women who have to survive in the harsh economic climate we live in. The onus lies on the government and other stakeholders in the aviation industry to prevail on the company to do the right thing before its too late.