Chevron converts graduate trainees to ‘casual’ workers, triggering standoff

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An industrial action is underway at Chevron Nigeria after over a hundred staff laid down tools in protest against being used as casual labourers after years of graduate traineeship with the company.

The strike is its third week now and intervention by the National Assembly and, reportedly, the International Labour Organisation have failed to get the company to reach a truce with the workers.

PREMIUM TIMES learnt Chevron has instead made efforts through representatives of development associations of the oil producing communities not to suffer further lock down of its installations.

Chevron told PREMIUM TIMES it would only convert the trainees to full staff when there is “organisational needs and business requirements.”

Controversy

At least 101 graduates from different locations of Nigeria’s oil producing communities began a vocational training programme(VTP) on March 4, 2013, courtesy of Chevron Nigeria Limited’s programme of providing job opportunities for graduates within its area of operations.

The programme was planned to last for 18 months in which the graduates would be trained in areas of maintenance and operations in the oil and gas sector.

The trainees, besides the skill acquisition and work experience, and the opportunity of being converted for full employment at Chevron on completion of the training programme, were also to be awarded an Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organisation(OPITO) certificate, which makes them employable in the industry.

It has gone past five years since the graduates, referred to as VTP5/OPT2 completed their training at Chevron O&M training at Ogere. Their dream of becoming chevron’s employees or receiving a certification that makes them employable remains an illusion.

Without fully engaging the VTP5/OPT2, who had completed their training, the company also enlisted another 50 graduates, known as VTP6 in 2014. They were trained and qualified to man the various installations of Chevron. However, their fate has remained unchanged since the end of their mandatory 18-month training three years ago.

PREMIUM TIMES gathered that the trainees are effectively deployed to man critical installations of Chevron Nigeria Limited, discharging technical responsibilities, but not as permanent staff years after.

This dilemma was captured in a paragraph of the VTP5/OPT2 trainees’ response to a memo in January, 2018 by PACE, the training vendor, directing them to complete and return the forms for the extension of their training period for another six months.

“Sir, we all received the extension letter and would have signed, but for the under listed concern from the OJL extension, we need clarification on these issues,” the letter signed by all the trainees, read.

“1. What stage of OJL(on the job learning) are we currently in because from the stages of OJL highlighted during training, the last stage within programme is stage 3, known as competency. The last we can remember of this stage is that we have completed and signed out stage 3 long ago; your record for date of completion can ascertain this statement.”

The contract extension letter, obtained by PREMIUM TIMES and titled Extension of OJL Contract, dated 2nd January 2018 and signed by Ngozi Kalu-Umeh, the Human Resources and Admin Manager for Prime Atlantic Cegelec Nigeria Limited(PACE), detailed a contract extension for six months, covering 1st of January, 2018 to 30th of June, 2018.

“All terms and conditions of the initial contract given to you remain unchanged,” the letter read in part.

“If you are in agreement with the above outline, please sign the enclosed copy of this letter.”

This will not be the first extension of the trainees’ contract with the collaborating companies. Documents available to PREMIUM TIMES show that the contract was first extended in April 2015 for a period of one year. Then a second extension came in January 2017 for a period of six months ending in June 2017.

Then came yet another six months extension, from July 2017 to December 2017, the trainees were helplessly made to sign another extension from January to June 2018. The offer of extension of contract which would last another 20 weeks has been subtly made to the “trainees” who are in the operations section, sparking the industrial action.

Protest

The trainees and their unions have since protested Chevron’s decision.

In a petition to the House of Representatives, dated May 10, 2018, the National Association of Ilaje Graduates, alleged that Chevron Nigeria had resorted to permanently casualising the graduates from the region through subtle extension of their training period.

Similar petitions were also filed at the House of Representatives by the associations of Ijaw and Itsekiri graduates.

According to the petition, the graduates are still regarded as trainees five years after completing the training programme, for the purpose of exploiting them as casual labourers contrary to the agreements of the training programme.

“Chevron Nigeria Limited is not an exception and should not be an exception. it is now over three years after the completion of the training for the category five (5) of the vocational training programme (VTP5) while it is now over two years for the VTP6 yet Chevron Nigeria Limited has kept the trainees without giving them their certificates or in the alternative converting the trainees to permanent staff which was the purpose of their Vocational Training Program. These trainees have been under training in Chevron for over Five (5) years now,” the NAIG stated in the petition.

Petition to Buhari

The trainees, comprising VTP5, OPT2 and VTP6, in a separate petition to President Muhammadu Buhari complained that they were daily exposed to “98 per cent sulphuric acid, carcinogens, reactor confined spaces, chemicals that cause impotence and general deterioration to health after a long time exposure, yet were not provided with a comprehensive medical coverage.”

“A fatality was recorded with one member of a previous set of trainees and strange enough Chevron denied him, claiming he was not their employee even though he was recruited and sponsored to the training by chevron,” the trainees alleged.

“The training vendor PACE equally rejected all responsibilities asserting he was not their staff which incidentally is true.”

The trainees further claimed that the Chevron NMA employment training policy for O&M technicians chapter 5.4 detailed the vocational training as the basis for their being in the programme and hence the expectations to become regular employees, but the company had denied any connection with the trainees.

“We have been paid stipends since we started this training in 2013, which has continuously been taxed, yet the training vendor – PACE has been unable to issue us tax clearance; all requests for same has always ended in a deadlock,” they said.

“We are sometimes required to bring our tax clearance in our respective endeavors but without having any means of enforcing PACE to provide it, we want the relevant tax clearance bodies to investigate same and help secure our tax clearance for upwards of 5years.”

The trainees urged the president to compel Chevron to regularise their employment.

Legislative Intervention

The House of Representatives had in February, considered the allegations and mandated its joint Committee on Labour, Employment and Productive and Justice to investigate and report back.

A motion sponsored by Mayowa Akinfolarin said Chevron’s action contravened Section 17 (a) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 which guarantees equal pay for equal work, and Section 7 (1) of the Labour Act, 2004 which provides that not later than three months after the beginning of a worker’s period of employment with an employer, the employer shall give the worker a written statement specifying the terms and conditions of the employment.

During the joint committee’s investigative hearing, held on May 17, 2018, the petitioners, including the respective associations of the Itsekiri, Ijaw and Ilaje graduates, along with officials of Chevron, PACE and Joint Venture Company, appeared before the joint committee to give their submissions.

The Chairman of the Committee, Onyewuchi Ezenwa, at the hearings, pointed out that PACE was practicing illegality when it offered contracts to the trainees since it was not duly registered with the Ministry of Labour and had not the license to issue contracts.

In reality, there are no specific laws against casualisation in the country. A bill against casualisation now before the House of Representatives is yet to be passed. Speaker of the House, Yakubu Dogara, at a function recently, stated that to casualise the Nigerian workforce was a crime against humanity and that bill would receive speedy passage.

Company’s defense

Chevron, in its presentations, admitted that the trainees on the VTP 5 and VTP 6 had had their programmes extended every six months since after their initial completion of the 18months programme because they could not be absorbed by the company.

Chevron’s General Manager on Government, Policy and Public Affairs, Brikkinn Esimaje, justified the extensions of the training programme of the graduates on the grounds that it was a better option for the time being while awaiting job opportunities, instead of asking them to go.

He also denied that there was any agreement to convert the trainees into permanent staff ab initio, saying that it was only Chevron’s attempt to provide the needed capacity for the nation’s oil and gas sector.

He also blamed the non-conversion of the trainees into permanent staff on the economic situation plaguing the oil industry which had resulted in the dearth of new projects in the oil industry.

“At the time the VTP 5 and the VTP6 were going to graduate, it became clear that business got very rough, projects were not improving, the economy became very bad and we explained to the community leadership about the situation,” Mr Esemaje told the committee.

“By 2016 it became clear that we will not be able to provide employment. There was the notion that as soon as you complete the programme, a job was sure, but that depended on how viable the business would be. So we needed to explain to the community leadership that this is really very rough.

“And we understand the situation with the trainees, where their predecessors had the opportunity to get jobs. But in a situation where business became rough, it became bad business for everyone. And we came to a point where we were at the verge of telling these folks to go because of the problem.

“We engaged the community leadership and said we need to see how we can provide some buffers within the threshold of the training agreement to provide some extensions over a period of time, because we are still ready to make our facilities available for the training opportunities for them as time goes on.

“These folks really started getting agitated over this. Over time the training consultants had had to review their pay; provide medicals. It is not true that they are not provided with medicals. Each of them I think earns about N207,000 every month with a N920,000 given to them every six months.

“We are very magnanimous and very compassionate about how we have handled this set of trainees over the period of time because everybody understands what the general economy is.”

On the Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organization (OPITO) certification, Mr Esemaje noted that the training vendor was processing some of them who had met all the requirements and forwarding same to a UK-based institution which would issue the certificates.

The statement by the chevron Public Affairs Manager that there was no commitment by the company to hire the trainees after their vocational training contradicted the policy thrust of the company as documented in its Operations &Training Organisation Governance Model, paragraph 5.4, page 22 of 68, issued March 31, 2015.

“Designed for new employees, the vocational training element was anticipated to be of three years duration. The first year is spent at the Training and Conference Centre, Ogere. Graduates from the centre will have attained a Level 2 qualification certificate(CQ2) based on the cogent standards and endorsed by OPITO,” the model partly read.

“The objective for the O&M Vocational Training Programme is to recruit and use the best-qualified Nigerian national personnel to sustain current and to support future operations.”

Meanwhile in an e-mail response to PREMIUM TIMES request for Chevron to explain its failure to meet the demands of the trainees, Mr Esemaje reiterated that the company would only convert the trainees to full staff when there is “organisational needs and business requirements.”

His response reads thus: “Chevron Nigeria Limited (CNL) is an equal opportunities employer and does not discriminate against anyone based on race, gender, religion, color, age, ethnicity, disability or any other basis. Employment into the company is dependent on organizational needs and business requirements.

“CNL’s effort to sponsor trainees for the Operations and Maintenance (O&M) Vocational Training Programme (VTP) was a corporate social responsibility initiative intended to help build the skills and capacity of the participants from the local communities, to be capable of delivering world-class O&M performance in the oil and gas industry. With the skills acquired from the programme, several of the participants have been able to get employment within the oil and gas industry. CNL did not represent or guarantee that it would hire the trainees at the time of graduation from the programme.

“CNL will continue to encourage as many people from the communities around the areas of our operation, who are qualified for employment, to apply to the Company whenever there are vacancies. Unfortunately, these opportunities do not exist right now.”

Stand-off

The trainees since June 1 have taken their destinies in their own hands, vowing not to work again until the demands to be fully absorbed by the company were met. The strike which has entered its second week has affected chevron’s operations as the staff of the company have been directed to work for additional in a month to fill the gaps created by the industrial action.

The chairman of the House Committee Mr Ezenwa, in his response to inquiries by PREMIUM TIMES, said the committee would make its report available to the House when it concludes its work.

Also reacting to PREMIUM TIMES inquiries, the Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Information, Abdulrazak Namdas, said via a text message: “I confirmed that investigation into the matter is ongoing. The parties have met, but it is under investigation.”