Thursday, 28th September 2023

Between unionism and economic sabotage in aviation sector

By Editorial Board
09 February 2023   |   4:10 am
Whatever it is worth, the last industrial action by a section of aviation workers and attendant collapse of both foreign and local flight services smirk of reckless and destructive unionism that should have no place in a progressive society.

Aviation sector

Whatever it is worth, the last industrial action by a section of aviation workers and attendant collapse of both foreign and local flight services smirk of reckless and destructive unionism that should have no place in a progressive society. The aggrieved workers and their handlers crossed the fine line of decency, sliding into malicious economic sabotage by shutting down such essential service abruptly. The travesty should not go uninvestigated and culprits punished accordingly.

The Nigerian air travel sector, like others world over, is full of complaints. Several of those reported only get a yawn from the authorities and it is soon business as usual. But a case deserving more than a passing interest is the recent industrial action by workers of Nigerian Aviation Handling Company (NAHCO Aviance) over welfare issues, poor pay and breakdown in negotiation with their management. In a bizarre manner rarely heard of in global aviation, the private faceoff between workers and employer blew into a national embarrassment that shocked the world.
On that fateful day, a Monday, crew, booked travellers and in-bound airlines only arrived at airports to get the first hint of the strike action by NAHCO ground handlers. And in the 15 hours that the industrial action lasted, more than half of local and foreign airlines (all customers of NAHCO) operating in Nigeria, and their passengers were in complete disarray. Without ground handlers to offer logistic services at the ramp, local airlines were all grounded. Arriving foreign airlines took passengers to neighbouring countries. Qatar Airways returned to its base in Doha! Words wafted round the globe that Nigeria has declared a self-imposed no-flight zone!
Pilots and airport workers’ strikes are not unusual globally. They mostly bother on remuneration and heavy workload. However, never taken for granted is the effect such downtime would have on passengers, airlines and aviation in general. For that reason, concerned authorities are all too adept to issue Notice to Airmen (NOTAM), to inform on development for affected parties to activate contingency plans.
Shockingly, Nigeria did not send out NOTAM before the NAHCO strike and caught everyone unawares. Besides the frustration of those on ground, the crude action puts lives of those airborne at risk. Airlines like Air Peace estimated losses to the tune of N500 million. Catering services had the day’s packages wasted. Imagine how scandalised the country would have been had there been an aircraft coming in on emergency! Without mincing words, it was an act of economic sabotage of which corporate and personal losses are infinite.
Indeed, it is not the first time the aviation sector has been this knackered by those that should protect it. It was the same narrative when aviation unions picketed Murtala Muhammed Airport terminal II (MMA2) in Lagos last November, over labour issues between workers and management of Bi-Courtney Aviation Service Limited (BASL). The daylong exercise affected over 70 flights across the nationwide network, with attendant discomfort to travellers and loss of revenue.
There is no denying the rights of Nigerian workers, including those in aviation, both to be aggrieved and to ventilate grievances as necessary. The peculiarity of the aviation sector and its safety priority has made workers’ satisfaction equally important. A poorly paid mainstream or ancillary worker is always a disaster waiting to happen – which is always costly for all. It does not speak well of ground handling agencies to have careless staff damaging aircraft on the apron, being caught or suspected of conniving with drug cartels to smuggle consignments. Therefore, to see unions pressing for better remunerations, especially for ground handlers that have often been ignored, is faultless.  
Completely unacceptable, however, is the incivility of handling grievances. First, it is disappointing that the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) did not have a firm foothold on affairs of the ground handling agencies and only intervened after it had been caught flat-footed and the damage done. NCAA, which is the apex regulatory agency of the aviation sector in Nigeria, is statutorily saddled with safety and economic regulations of the industry. While its eagle eye has routinely preyed on the local airlines for obvious reasons, the ground handlers and their so-called family-affair should not continue to elude the NCAA’s oversight functions. Following the recent hard-fought review of ground handling charges accruable to the agencies, the likes of NAHCO has no excuse whatsoever not to pay salaries that are competitive in comparison. It is the responsibility of the NCAA to hold NAHCO, like others, accountable to safe operations, routine capacity building and welfare of its employees, to avert reckless and blind unionism shutting everybody down.
Following promptings from reporters, the Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, also condemned actions of the unions, though with the usual grandstanding mien. He was quick to remind all that the new Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) Act 2022 has prohibited strikes, lock-outs, pickets, blockades, service disruptions, among others around the airports, citing that aviation has been incorporated into the sacred list of essential services. The minister is right with the new provision; he however, missed the fact that being an essential service provider does not exclude workers of their fundamental rights to association, unionism and protests.
Beyond blowing hot air, the incident demands a thorough investigation and sanctions for reckless behaviour – be it on the part of unions that floated Industrial Court order or NAHCO that failed to notify appropriate authorities of the wayward conduct of its workers. The essence is to ensure that even grievances within the sector should kowtow the laid-down procedure. Similarly, there should be more responsive mechanisms of resolving worker-employer fracas without holding the entire sector or customers to ransom.
In addition, it is high time the various unions in the aviation sector had taken an introspective look at themselves, the industry and come up with more civilised approaches to managing differences without slanting into destructive arm-twisting that leaves the sector worse off. As employees whose means of livelihood depend on the airlines’ operations and the aviation sector at large, the workers are also stakeholders that should fight tooth and nail for its progress.
Certainly, there will be provocations from errant employers, but to keep disrupting efficient operations at the slightest needling is injurious to selves, the industry and the economy at large. A sector already on its knees needs the right stability and less aggressive behaviour for survival and to attract new investors that will create more opportunities for all. NAHCO workers may have gotten one over their management through the unfortunate episode but they have also given local and foreign airlines reasons to look elsewhere for reliable ground handling services. It is a case of being penny wise, pound foolish!