Passengers who arrived at the general aviation terminal base of Arik Air to catch the early morning flight to their various destinations were shocked to find a horde of aviation union workers barricading the entrance to the airline’s ticket counters.
The union workers, drawn from the National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE), National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE) and Air Transport Services Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (ATSSSAN), protested against non-payment of workers salary as well as the airline’s alleged anti-labour practices.
The protesters displayed placards some of which read ‘ARIK owes staff seven months’ salary, defaults in taxes and other statutory deductions, criminalizes trade unionism and union membership: Sacking union executives at will,’ ‘No salary, No flight Arik Air,’ ‘Modern slavery/ apartheid in Arik Air: We say no to slavery,’ ‘Every worker has the right to protection against unjustified dismissal in accordance with union laws and national laws and practices,’ among others.
Some of the workers who spoke to News Gazette on condition of anonymity said the workers had been putting up with anti-labour practices for a long time and “this is just the climax.”
“There are so many things to talk about which are not for public consumption. What you hear us say today in the open are just snippets of the goings-on in the company. We have been suffering in silence for so long and we want an end to it. This is Christmas time and we have not been paid for seven months. How does the airline want us to cope at a time like this? We have our families; we have bills to pay, children’s school fees to pay and so many other responsibilities. It is ungodly to hire people and at the end of the month you don’t pay them,” he said.
Another staff who also craved anonymity said a labourer is worthy of his wages and wondered why the company would not pay its workers “but will threaten staff with sack and other sanctions at the slightest provocation.”
As at the time of filing this story, the airline’s domestic, regional and international flights were totally grounded and its passengers were taking to Air Peace, Dana, Overland, and Med-View airlines as no Arik official was on sight to assuage their feelings.
Some who did not have enough money to book another flight resolved to go by road.
“I have gone to the other airlines’ counters but they are full. I cannot stand such crowd; I have resolved to go by road,” said a Port Harcourt-bound passenger, Ms. Ify Okechukwu.
Another passenger, who gave his name as Obinna, complained that he has spent about N70, 000 on tickets to fly to the east and the flights were cancelled yesterday “only to come out today to meet this disheartening situation.”
“I have no choice; I will have to go by road because I do not have any more money,” he added.
Addressing newsmen, the general secretary of the National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE), Mr. Olayinka Abioye said: “This is a long awaited strike in the sense that several months back, we initiated industrial action against Arik management and they quickly invited us to a meeting to sort out some of these things. It seems the man that was asked to interface between management and labour failed in the dispensation of that exercise.
“We felt we need to cry to higher authorities in Nigeria to safe our souls. We cannot imagine that there would be an airline in the country’s aviation industry that would be owing workers for seven months and nobody cares about it. We cannot imagine that taxes are being deducted from our members and they are not remitted; we cannot imagine that there is going to be an organisation as Arik that would be violating the rights of Nigeria.
“Fundamentally too, the rights of our workers are being breached now and then. Workers have the right to belong to any union of their choice; this has been bastardly denied them. Workers are expected to associate with friends and like minded people; this has been denied them and also those who joined the unions are being sacked without due regard to the labour law of Nigeria. We are calling for their immediate re-instatement and payment of staff salaries fundamentally before we start any discussion with the management.”
Abioye also accused the management of dilly-dallying in its numerous meetings with the unions.
“The last one that happened was in October in Lagos where we tabled our grievances verbally and officially. Capt. Ado Sanusi who is the vice president of the airline who stood in for management promised to look into the matter within one week and get back to us, which was not to be.
“That was about two months ago. Our doors have always been open to management, but what we can deduce is that this management is hell bent on frustrating our efforts and it’s intentionally traumatising its workers,” he said.
In its reaction, Arik Air expressed “dismay” and “disappointment” that a group of aviation unions “have ambushed and disrupted the operations of the airline by occupying its head office premises and preventing staff from gaining access to their workplace.”
In a statement signed by the airline’s spokesman, Mr. Adebanji Ola, Arik Air said the representatives of the protesting unions also prevented the staff of the airline from gaining access to the general aviation terminal and the international wing of the Murtala Muhammed Airport, disabling the checking-in of passengers for both domestic and international flights.
“Access to the airport terminals is fundamental to the airline’s operations for movement of its personnel to ready and dispatch our aircraft for various flights.
“The aviation unions under the aegis of NAAPE, NUATE and ATSSSAN are protesting the non-unionisation of Arik Air staff who are not members of any of these protesting unions,” he said.
He recalled that the union leadership had earlier written a letter to the management of Arik Air on their grievances and a meeting had been scheduled between the two parties for tomorrow (Wednesday).
“The unions however did not wait for the scheduled meeting or the outcome of the meeting before embarking on such disruptive and strong-arm tactics against the airline.
“The unions have demonstrated total disregard for the laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria by interfering in the operations of the airline and preventing airline staff from carrying on with their duties of handling the passengers booked for today’s flights.
“The decision not to join the aviation unions is that of the generality of Arik Air and the management of the airline is not involved in any manner and neither can it influence such individual decisions in any form since Unionism is a free will and not a matter of compulsion,” he said.
The airline therefore appealed to the security agencies, the minister of state for aviation, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Nigeria Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) and all the other stakeholders in the industry to “prevail on these aviation unions to allow for operations to commence immediately since this unjustifiable disruption by the unions has already inconvenienced the travel plans of thousands of passengers today.”