Monrovia - It has been more than six months since President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ordered a restructure of the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL) in an effort to prevent bankruptcy. With that came the redundancy of more than 100 employees.
The decision sparked a serious dispute between the workers and company over severance payments. To this date about 25 redundant employees are still fighting to get their full severance. Many are skeptical that they will ever get their money. “The management of NOCAL is trying to set a new precedent when it comes to severance benefit,” says James Kpargoi, a former assistant public affairs manager who was laid off and fighting for his full severance.“To be frank with you I am in a state of enigma. I have absolutely no confidence in the management of NOCAL to pay our [remaining] severance benefit.” The dispute arose when NOCAL tried to force a lower payment onto the workers. Liberian Labor Practices Law says, “An employee whose employment is terminated because of economic reasons is entitled to four weeks of severance pay for each completed year.” The law also provides that in the case of bankruptcy the firm and redundant employees may reach a decision on how and when severance pay would be paid. Three months following the redundancy in September 2015 NOCAL claimed it had no money to pay the redundancies and proposed a payment scheme that would compel the redundant staff to waive nearly all of their severance pay. “NOCAL told us that out of our severance pay, they were going to make available five percent for the months of December and two percent as of January 2016 until April, upon which time they were not going to pay us any more money again,” explains Urias Taylor, who worked with NOCAL as a petroleum engineer between 2011 and 2015. “We rejected their proposal. Even the Ministry of Labor told them that that was not best way forward. The Ministry of Labor told them that 25 percent would be better but they came back and told us that they could not do anything, except the national government came in to rescue the situation,” Taylor further explains. The aggrieved staff sought the legal counsel of Cllr. Tiawon Gongloe, a former Minister of Labor. A deal was finally brokered through Ministry of Labor that they would be paid a quarter of their severance in payments in each quarter of 2016. NOCAL made the first quarterly payment in January 2016 and the second is scheduled for end of April. However, some of the staff still think that NOCAL’s claim of not having the money to pay them is a politically motivated plan to get back at some employees or just using them as scapegoat. NOCAL was a huge contributor to the Liberian economy mainly between 2011 and 2013 when contracts were signed with major global oil companies Exxon Mobil and Chevron to explore for oil in blocks off Liberia's coasts. Nocal contributed US$14.07 million in 2011 and US$82.07 million to the national budget in fiscal years 2011/12 and 2012/13—the latter being almost a tenth of the annual budget that year—according to the Liberia Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (LEITI). As the global price of oil plummeted from $120 a barrel to $30 in 2014/2015. International companies’ interest in Liberia's oil sector vanished and along with it all that international income. By 2015 the company could not meet its payroll or pay its rental. In addition to the slump in oil prices on the world market and the Ebola crisis, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf blamed NOCAL’s leadership for mismanagement, including continued hiring for a US$7 million wage bill. President Sirleaf then instituted a reform of the cash-strapped NOCAL, announced in an address to the nation in late August 2015. Among other things, she retired the institution’s leadership, reconstituted its board of directors and ordered the redundancy of more than two thirds of its workforce. While other staff decline commenting, Kpargoi suspects that the delay in severance pay is deliberate. “I see an attempt by NOCAL management to deflect some of the blames for the woes that visited the company to some of us who had absolutely no hand to play in the crisis that took place there,” he says. “I see that as a deliberate attempt by the Government of Liberia to violate our fundamental rights, to apportion the blame for the financial mess.” “This is a deliberate attempt, in my mind, to apportion the blame for the [financial] disaster that befell the company on us,” he says. NOCAL has yet to comment on the matter. This reporter emailed the interim president of NOCAL, Cllr. Althea Cooper for NOCAL’s side of the story but got no reply. A previous attempt with public affairs officer Ambulai Mamey had also proven futile. Like Kpargoi, Taylor agrees and says he is not sympathetic at all, even amid external factors that affect the oil and gas sector globally as well as the dreaded Ebola epidemic. “It is squarely their fault,” Taylor says. “It that shows the level of management incompetence or a don’t-care attitude by management to ignore the plight of people they think cannot do anything to them.” Taylor's severance pay for the four years he completed in the employ of NOCAL sums up to US$23,000. He received a quarter of that in January. Some laid off staff have found a job such as Fabian Lah who worked in NOCAL’s internal audit division and now works with the Catholic Relief Services (CRS). But many other former staff like Taylor have not found a job and now find it difficult to make ends meet. To them their severance pay is more than just another payment; it is a lifesaver. “Right now, I am just managing by God’s grace,” Taylor says. “I have not found any job yet. I was, in collaboration with my wife, able to set up an inn. But it is just something to allow the today go and; it is not compensating for my monthly expenditure.” Taylor adds: “I have a background in geology. I have been trying to look back into the mining sector, where I started my professional career in geo-science and geology with the Ministry of [Lands], Mines [and Energy] and other companies. I have been trying to talk to colleagues and trying to send letters out to ministries and other private companies.” As the oil industry continues to struggle globally, the workers are not optimistic Nocal will find the money to make the promised payments. “We are still hoping that they can pay us but we know exactly what is happening in the sector,” says Taylor. “Companies are leaving, and management was depending on the sales of seismic data as a source of revenue. If those data are not purchased, it makes it difficult to have revenue coming in forth.” Oliver Clarke, who worked in NOCAL procurement division, is taking a more optimistic position. He is holding the leadership of NOCAL at their word and expecting his next payment “I believe them until they prove otherwise,” says Clarke. He will find out whether his trust is warranted in coming days. The payment is due by the end of this month. This story was produced in collaboration with the Thomson Reuters Foundation/New Narratives Liberia Oil Reporting Project, which is part of the Foundation's pan-African program Wealth of Nations (wealth-of-nations.org) See more at www.newnarratives.org