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Analysis: Nigeria's labor woes

by Carmen Gentile

Labor unrest appears to be on the horizon in the Niger Delta as Nigeria's oil workers have threatened to walk off the job.

The country's leading petroleum union, PENGASSAN, has threatened to walk off the job in protest of ExxonMobil's recent decision to fire 100 union workers.

ExxonMobil officials have since denied any wrongdoing, saying that those employees let go were given generous compensation packages during the current round of restructuring.

Nigerian news sources initially reported the strike was set to begin Tuesday, though PENGASSAN representatives said no potential work stoppage would commence this week.

"One thing we said was that there was a looming strike. We have not żż taken a date for a strike," said Peter Esele, the union's president.

Until then, the union is scheduled to meet with government officials in an effort to avoid a stoppage, Nigeria's This Day newspaper reported Wednesday.

Were the talks to fail, labor leaders said a strike would kick off following Easter Sunday, March 24.

Talk of a work stoppage in Africa's largest oil-producing nation has already raised concerns of a global increase in oil prices amid further production shortfalls in the delta.

Oil production is already stymied in Nigeria due to ongoing unrest in the Niger Delta, where armed militant groups regularly attack oil installations both on and offshore.

Producing just over 2 million barrels a day, Nigeria's oil sector is experiencing a 20-percent shortfall from just a few years prior, before widespread militants began stepping up attacks on foreign oil installations and kidnapping workers.

Militants contend that the Nigerian government, along with the foreign oil companies operating in the delta, have benefited enormously over the years from the sale of the nation's oil and gas reserves, though they have done little to help the residents of the region who live in abject poverty.

Since the 1970s, Nigeria, Africa's No. 1 oil producer, has pumped more than $300 billion worth of crude from the southern delta states, according to estimates. But high unemployment in the delta, environmental degradation due to oil and gas extraction, and a lack of basic resources such as fresh water and electricity have angered some of the region's youth and incited them to take up arms.

Meanwhile, ExxonMobil is not the only foreign firm in Nigeria to experience labor difficulties of late.

Earlier this month the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions accused oil giant Mobil Oil Nigeria Plc. of unfair business practices and ill treatment of local union laborers.

According to Nigerian labor officials, Mobil in Nigeria fired those union leaders seeking a collective bargaining agreement for their workers.

"Mobil Oil Nigeria has betrayed our trust," said PENGASSAN General Secretary Bayo Olowoshile.

"These recent actions are premeditated attempts to victimize and harass union officers, frustrate legal justice, and they amount to a serious breach of our existing labor agreement, national industrial law, and global labor standards."

Others have also spoken out against what many perceive as the oppressive climate of unfair labor practices perpetuated by foreign firms in the delta.

"In all, corporate ethics are very weak in our clime, which means the Niger Delta problem is not that of the government alone," read a recent editorial in The Punch, a leading Nigerian newspaper. "Corporate culture must be strengthened along this line in Nigeria if we hope to achieve serenity and good business prospects in the Niger Delta."

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