The National Association of Air Pilots and Engineers of Nigeria (NAAPEN) organised a warning strike which shut down Bristow helicopters operations in Lagos and Rivers states for 2 days at the end of March. The strike was called to protest discrimination in pay packages with expatriate pilots being paid much more for the same job.
The strike was called on March 30 and was to be for three days. The pilots and engineers did not just refuse to work. They occupied the premises of Bristow helicopters in their numbers, singing solidarity songs. They however returned to work in the evening of March 30, following an intervention by the Minister of Labour and Productivity, Dr Chris Ngige.
NUATE and ATSSSAN, which along with NAAPEN are the unions in the aviation sector, had earlier decried institutionalised racism in international airlines, as Socialist Worker reported in the January-February edition. Bristow a civil helicopters services operator established in 1953, which is now part of the United States-based Bristow Group.
It specialises in providing offshore helicopter services, mainly for multinational oil companies, in Nigeria. Transportation of workers to and from oil rigs, is mainly provided by Bristow helicopters (Nig.) Ltd and the Pan African Airlines which is also owned by the Bristow Group. It thus occupies an important place for the bosses’ exploitation of crude oil. This is exactly why the ministry of labour and productivity showed such prompt concern over the warning strike.
NAAPE had taken the issue of significant pay disparity between expatriate pilots and local pilots and engineers with the company time and again. Comrade Isaac Balami, the NAAPEN leader in Port Harcourt reflected the anger of the pilots when he pointed out that “For the past ten years our pilots and engineers working with Bristow Helicopters have suffered untold hardship due to discriminatory and slavish policies of the management of Bristow Helicopters. They treat them like they are in a slave camp”.
According to Comrade Ocheme Aba, the union’s General Secretary, this practice which he rightly describes as “acts of injustice”, is actually a “contravention of Bristow Code of Business Integrity (COBI)”. With management being recalcitrant, a dispute was declared over the matter a year back. The ministry of labour had nothing to say about it then, until the workers stood up to fight, by downing their tools. NAAPE and the workers in Bristow have to be wary of the ministry’s intervention. The concern of the state is hardly ever for the workers. The ministry and all state apparatus represent first and foremost, the interests of the bosses.
It also has to be stressed that the disparity is not out of Bristow’s love for expatriate workers. The bosses exploit all workers. There are essentially two reasons for the disparity. First, it shows that local pilots and engineers are being super-exploited, since even the better paid expatriates are equally being exploited. Second, the bosses thrive on the principle of “divide and conquer”.
By playing up racial, ethnic, regional and religious differences in different contexts, the bosses seek to divide the working class. They realise that the workers united cannot be defeated. Thus, trade unions across the world, particularly those in the aviation sector, including the Global Union Federation they belong to (the International Transport Federation, ITF) should lend their voice and support to the demand for “equal pay for equal work” which is a supposed to be a fundamental principle that unions worldwide stand for, in the world of work.
Socialist Worker supports Bristow workers. It is not over until it is all over. NAAPE should not be deceived by the ministry of labour. The struggle must continue if the workers’ legitimate demands are not immediately heeded. NAAPE, NUATE & ATSSSAN also have to team up to collectively fight against racism and discrimination in the aviation sector.
by Nnamdi Ikeagu