The Management of Bristow Helicopters (Nigeria) Limited and Caverton Helicopters Limited is currently in problem. Its Nigerian workers are battling with it over issues bordering on wages and staff welfare.
The problem manifested on Thursday, February 1, 2018, when the workers under the aegis of National Association of Aircraft Pilots and Engineers (NAAPE) grounded operations of the airline by sealing its offices in Lagos, Port-Harcourt and Warri where the airline has its operating base for offshore flight services.
The grouse of the workers are mainly the disparity in wages between indigenous pilots and expatriates by Bristow as well as illegal deductions of pension from staff salaries without remitting them by Caverton Helicopters Limited.
Armed with placards with various inscriptions expressing their anger, the protesting workers sealed off the Bristow office in Ikeja leaving its passengers stranded.
Some of the inscriptions read: “Racism in Bristow must stop,” “We say no to force labour,” “Nigerian jobs for Nigerians” and “Stop abusing and violating our rights.”
In order to give the protest the needed bite, the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) stopped the supply of aviation fuel to the aviation companies and insisted that the embargo would stay until the demands of the aggrieved workers were approved.
The National President of NAAPE, Abednego Galadima, who led the picketing in Lagos with the support of the General Secretary of a faction of the Nigeria Labour Congress, United Labour Congress, Didi Abodo, said NAAPE and Bristow had been in frosty relationship in the past four years over labour matters despite the interventions by the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority, NCAA , Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment and Ministry of Interior.
On Bristow, he accused the airline management of discriminating against indigenous pilots and engineers in terms of wages which are skewed in favour of expatriates. He also accused Bristow of violating Nigeria’s expatriates’ quota law.
According to Galadima, Bristow management had continued to deny qualified Nigerian engineers promotion into senior positions while continuously training expatriates to man the positions perpetually.
“By the records, the expatriate national ratios in their bases are as follows: Escravos, 20-1 for both pilots and engineers, NAF Base, 3-1 for pilots and 4-1 for engineers; Lagos, 3-1 for pilots and 7-1 for engineers and Eket 2-1 for both pilots and engineers.”
Galadima added: “This gross disequilibrium in favour of expatriates cannot by any stretch of imagination show any semblance of compliance with Nigeria’s expatriate policy which requires that there shall be two Nigerian understudies for every expatriate position. Therefore, the least position acceptable in the law is ratio 1-2 in favour of Nigerians.”
Citing an instance of the alleged discrimination, he said recently the management of Bristow fired the Training Manager, Captain George Santos (a national) and replaced him with Captain Matt Newman (an expatriate) to prosecute its ”racist tendency” even when Santos had not been found wanting in his work.
He said that the union had been having a long drawn battle with the management of the Bristow group on pay disparity and other staff matters but the issues in contention had remain unresolved till date. According to him the latest action manifested after they had exhausted their patience.
He explained that in order to continually engage expatriates, Bristow Group, refused to train Nigerian pilots and engineers while 50 expatriates were recently engaged by the company despite the availability of Nigerians to efficiently carry out the jobs.
“In the Bristow Group, 18 Nigerian engineers who obtained their Diplomas and Licenses over four years ago have remained without type rating, contrary to the subsisting Conditions of Service. Similarly, the fate of 13 other engineers who obtained their Diplomas and Licenses over one year ago remains in limbo. These engineers ought to, by now, be at the level of Engr. 3 if they had been properly designated as Trainee Engineers at entry in accordance with the CoS.”
“The management has, however, refused to designate and type rate these engineers appropriately just to disable them from growing their career. This is a disingenuous way for the management to continue to hire expatriates under the guise of the absence of local expertise. Also, the management continues to deny qualified national engineers promotion into senior positions while continually training expatriates to hold same positions in perpetuity.”
He added that in the same vein, 10 national pilots who obtained their flying licenses from Florida over four years ago also remained in limbo.
The management, he said, had refused, up till now, to designate them as First Officers.
“If they did, pilots could have become Senior First Officers by now. Instead, the management has applied for over 50 expatriate pilots to fill the same position, which smacks of racism,” he argued.
The union’s president said the management of the airline also refused to implement the negotiated conditions of service, and had arbitrarily declared some Nigerians redundant without any justification. He also accused the management of victimising union members through sack and therefore called on the Federal Government and its agencies to intervene by looking into the affairs of the Bristow Group in the interest of the development of the aviation sector.
On Caverton Helicopters Limited, Galadima said the union picketed the company due to its management failure to remit pension deducted from staff salaries in the past two years.
Another case against Caverton is the management’s refusal to renegotiate the conditions of service which had already expired despite several appeals by NAAPE.
But the management of Bristow in a statement argued that the allegations made by the leadership of NAAPE against it to support their action especially on pay disparity were inaccurate.
It stated: “For the record, Bristow has acted and will continue to act in accordance with all national laws relating to its operations and with respect to its personnel. In addition, since its inception, Bristow continues to be the leading recruiter and trainer of national engineers and pilots in
“Bristow pays a national pilot N56 million per year and a national engineer N40 million per year. This is the highest pay within the aviation industry and Bristow has never delayed in paying salaries to its employees. Many of them have since progressed to take up very senior executive positions within the Bristow Group and other companies operating within Nigeria and internationally. “We will continue with our resolute commitment to the promotion of Nigerian local content, capability and capacity within our industry, despite the very challenging economic climate.”
The aviation workers union after several meetings and negotiation with the management of the two companies with intervention of the Federal Ministry of Labour and Productivity suspended the strike on Monday February 5.
The suspension of the strike which began on February 1 was announced by the General Secretary of NAAPE Aba Ocheme .
Ocheme said the strike at Caverton had been fully suspended, while that of Bristow was temporarily suspended, to enable the union engage in further dialogue with the management.
“We have signed an agreement with the management of Caverton, and the strike has been called off.
“For Bristow, we will still be meeting with the management this week, to iron out some issues affecting our members, but in the interim, we have directed our members to resume at their duty posts so that operations can continue.”
Mohammed Tukur, an airline operator and former Assistant Secretary Airline Operators of Nigeria, AON, said the issue of disparity in expatriate salaries with Nigerians had been an age long problem that was even in practice with conventional commercial airlines that had expatriate pilots and engineers.
He said that was in line with the mentality of Nigerians that they felt more comfortable with an expatriate pilot. He however said all that had gradually faded away as the portfolio of Nigerian pilots and engineers had grown proportionately in the past 20 years.
He said the staff were justified in airing their grievances if it was true that the disparity was as high as it was claimed by the union. He said the issue of enforcing the quota issue on expatriate in the aviation sector had been a vexed one over the years and it still continued. He however wants the Federal Government to look into the issue of quota law that the union are laying claim to, that Bristow has violated.
The Next Edition gathered that the issue of disparity between Nigerians and expatriate salaries had been a lingering issue between the union and Bristow workers over the years. It could be recalled that in 2016 the union had embarked on a two-day warning strike on the same matter. Before the union grounded operations of the aviation company, they said they had made several correspondences to the management but nothing positive came out of it.
Bristow which is one of the few airlines that still has expatriate pilots in its employment operates onshore and offshore charter services for oil companies like Shell and Chevron with their operating base in Lagos, Port-Harcourt and Warri and Eket.