By Chinelo Obogo
There was chaos at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport as early as 4am on Monday, as staff of Nigerian Aviation Handling Company Plc (NAHCO)
embarked on an indefinite industrial action, leaving passengers stranded.
As a result, Royal Air Maroc and Qatar Airlines passenger flights were turned back, while Virgin Atlantic, dropped passengers without workers to handle the clearance.
On January 16th, the National Union of Air Transport Employees (NUATE) and the Air Transport Services Senior Staff Association (ATSSSAN) wrote a memo signed by Ocheme Aba(General Secretary) and Francis Akinjole (Principal Deputy General Secretary) to their members explaining that they have been in negotiations with the management of NAHCO for the review of current salaries since June, 2022 without any headway.
The memo read: “As the ultimatum issued by our unions have gone unheeded and the management continues to play on our intelligence through scheduling of purposeless meetings, we have come to the conclusion that the management is clearly decided against hearkening to our cried for fairness and equity, despite overwhelming evidence in support of our demand.
“In view of the above, NUATE and ATSSSAN have no choice than to take definite steps to press home our demands. In the above regard, all staff of NAHCO are hereby directed to withdraw all services with effect from Monday, January 23. This action shall be indefinite until otherwise directed by the secretariats of the unions.”
Following the directive given by the aviation unions, NAHCO staff who handle check-ins, boarding and ramp services for several international and local airlines including Air France/KLM, Qatar, Ethiopian Airlines, Delta Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Turkish Air and Air Peace, among others, downed their tools on Monday morning.
The General Sales Agent (GSA) for Virgin Atlantic Airways, John Adebanjo ,said that the situation had already put its passengers in a panic mode as the airline was optimistic that the situation would be resolved and passengers allowed to board for their 10 am flight, while Air Peace sent a message to its members saying that some of their flights across their network will be disrupted as a result of the strike as it has affected all the operations of all airlines being handled by NAHCO.
The Ministry of Aviation is yet to comment on this development but the chairman, House Committee on Aviation, Nnolim Nnaji, urged the management of NAHCO to immediately enter into dialogue with the leadership of the unions to avert further disruption of flight operations across the country.
He equally appealed to the unions to show understanding, saying their action would cause pain for Nigerian travellers both locally and internationally.
He said downing tools at this time the elections are already close could cause severe consequences to campaigns and movements of sensitive materials by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
He further assured the workers that his Committee would reach out to the management to see how their grievances could be urgently addressed.
Meanwhile, NAHCO management has said it is engaging the unions to bring an end to the industrial action.
In a statement in Lagos Monday, NAHCO acknowledged that some of its clients have been put through a difficult situation by the insistence of some staff to embark on strike action despite a subsisting order of court which restrained them from doing so.
The Group Executive Director, Dr. Olusola Obabori said: “The Company is already engaging the Unions and other stakeholders and are positive the situation would be resolved within hours.
“We understand the power of negotiation. The Company which has arguably the best welfare package among the local players in the aviation industry will do all that is absolutely necessary to make its workforce happy even as it delights its customers.
“This situation would be resolved speedily as it is detrimental to the staff, the Company and its esteemed clients.”
The Company which said it just promoted about 2,000 members of its workforce asked that accelerated negotiations with the unions be continued in February to enable it stabilise from the financial effect of the recent promotions.
But the unions gave the notice of strike prompting the Management of the Company to seek for court intervention to prevent the industrial action while negotiation proceeds in a serene and conducive atmosphere.