As we begin the gradual winding down of PHCN successor companies, against the backdrop of a successful privatisation exercise, it is delightful to observe that the relationship between Labour and Government has been one of constant dialogue. This relationship has been anchored on identifying issues, talking about them, resolving them amicably one after the other, and steadily moving on with a shared determination to keep the national/common interest in the forefront.
Not a few of the affected PHCN workers have expressed consuming fears over issues of job loss and severance compensation benefits. These fears are understandable given that new owners of privatized assets often prefer to start off on a clean slate, not bogged down with labour encumbrances such as earned workers’ entitlements including pensions. In the instant case, the conditions precedent in the sale of the PHCN unbundled companies require that the government settle all labour issues including earned entitlements and severance benefits, in order to relieve the new private owners of such weighty responsibilities, while at the same time, giving them the free hand to engage these workers on a fresh slate.
Government being mindful of the expected impact of the power privatization exercise on labour engaged in very serious negotiation with union leaders, resulting in far-reaching agreements on very favourable disengagement terms and conditions preceding the handing over of the physical assets to the new investors. The agreement includes mouth-watering severance packages exceeding mandated requirements usually provided for in labour statues. Equally, the reform process put in place a structure, the Nigerian Electric Liability Management Company, to absorb other liabilities of the defunct PHCN including pension liabilities. Owing to strong concerns and commitments demonstrated at the highest levels of government including the directives of President Goodluck Jonathan and Vice President Namadi Sambo, the concerned government agencies have gone the extra mile to get the new core investors to agree to retain a significant percentage of the workforce for a given time within the transition period.
In order to ensure that bona fide workers are the ones who will benefit from the exercise, the Minister of Power, Professor Chinedu Nebo set up a high-powered verification committee headed by no less a person than the Ministry’s Permanent Secretary, Ambassador (Dr.) Godknows Igali and comprising representatives of the PHCN labour unions and the central organized labour. It is gladdening to note that straight after a painstaking verification process, the Minister gave directive and indeed government proceeded to begin the payment of all owed entitlements and severance packages of the over forty five thousand authenticated workers whose biometrics have been captured out of the given number of a little over forty seven thousand. As I write, official records show that well over 90 per cent of the verified workers have been paid, some up to 100 per cent of owed entitlements and others between 40 and 75 per cent. Work is on-going to round off the validation exercise and capture the biometrics of a little over two thousand workers remaining to be verified.
It is pertinent to note that the amount of money meant to cover the severance is quite huge and capable of jolting market forces if released in one fell swoop. Hence, government’s caution in its approach to handling this issue, and the deliberate decision to spread the payment over a reasonable space of time to avoid precipitating unnecessary shocks in the economy. Government is equally concerned to protect the workers from undue exposure and associated security risks. Undoubtedly, the government is committed to meeting all its obligations within the given time and does not intend to conclude the hand-over of physical assets to the new owners without meeting this avowed obligation. As the Power Minister, Professor Nebo said at the hand-over of operating licences and share certificates to the new core investors, “The challenges ahead and the numerous unavoidable teething problems might appear enormous, but they will be surmounted speedily as we synergize to get Nigeria on the fast-track of industrial and economic development through this process.”
However, beyond labour’s fears and government’s deliberate actions to assuage the insecurity feelings, lie golden opportunities that are essentially the fall-outs of the PHCN privatization exercise even within the ambit of the electricity sector. For instance, the disengaging PHCN workers constitute the critical mass of skilled labour work force available for the emerging mega electricity market as there is no other ready, trained and experienced local labour market for the new operators of the Distribution and Generation Companies than this group. I do not see the new investors going to outer space to secure the needed workforce for their operations. And even if they wanted to attempt, Nigerians would be too much in a hurry to get light to wait for them!
Also, Apart from the DisCos and the GenCos, new NIPP projects are coming into completion. At the recent commissioning of the 434MW Geregu 2 Power Station, government officials assured that the remaining completed nine NIPP plants would also be commissioned to come on stream in quick succession. Furthermore, Greenfield independent power projects are springing up here and there. Allied industries such as cable and meter manufacturers will definitely also seize the moment to re-enter the market. In fact, the National Power Training Institute of Nigeria (NAPTIN) has estimated that the country needs additional seventeen thousand skilled engineers and technicians on an increasing annual basis to meet the envisaged leap in the electricity industry. This number does not include needed manpower in information and technology, marketing, administration, legal and other service areas required to drive the sector in the in-coming dispensation. In other words, only the unskilful, and/or indolent among the PHCN staff need entertain any form of fear.
Indeed, this situation is envisaged to be a double blessing for Nigeria’s electricity workers: They get their huge resettlement packages and still get an opportunity to be re-engaged. (Talk about eating one’s cake and having it!) This would make them the greatest beneficiaries of the privatisation programme. As President Goodluck Jonathan explained at the handing over of certificates and licences to new investors, the only reason why the workers appeared to have resisted the exercise was the familiar fact that man often resists change, for fear of what it portends for him. The President, on the same occasion, however called on the disengaging electricity workers not to nurse a feeling of displacement, but dwell on what he described as “tremendous possibilities that the privatisation of the sector holds for them and the future.”
The PHCN workers truly have every reason to look beyond perceived threats occasioned by the current changes, to the multifarious opportunities that they provide. In the words of Professor Nebo, “If you insist on calling the challenges ‘enormous’, permit me to coin the term ‘MEGANORMOUS’ for the opportunities therein.”
Kande Daniel, the Special Assistant, Communication/Media to the Minister of Power, writes from Abuja.