National Oil Company of Liberia Awaits Government for Severance Pay

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Monrovia – About 25 former officials of the National Oil Company of Liberia (NOCAL) appear likely to face a long wait for severance benefits they are owed after NOCAL missed a deadline to pay their latest agreed quarterly payment at the end of last month.

The workers were laid off in September 2015 and the payments were the result of a settlement with the cash-strapped company.

In an emailed statement NOCAL‘s Chief Operating Officer Cllr. Althea Sherman said the company cannot afford to make the payments.

“The oil price crisis has not abated and as a consequence, NOCAL continues to have financial challenges,” she said.

NOCAL and the aggrieved staff had an agreement brokered by the Ministry of Labour in late 2015, months after their layoff, where the company should have made the second quarterly payment by the end of April following the first payment in February 2016.

“To date, GOL has not provided any funds to NOCAL for the payment of redundancy or parting benefits to former staff or senior executives,” Cllr. Sherman revealed in the statement.

NOCAL paid a full severance pay to about 75 percent of staff laid off in 2015, and severance pay for the remaining 25 percent range between US$15,000 and US$60,000, Cllr. Sherman said.

NOCAL contributed significantly 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 acreage 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 leadership for mismanagement, including a US$7 million wage bill as the result of continued hiring.

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.

Cllr. Sherman urged the relevant former NOCAL employees not to grow impatient and promised NOCAL is doing all it can to have them paid.

“However, as demonstrated by all of our actions to date, NOCAL’s Interim Management Team is committed to making every effort to fulfil the redundancy obligations of the institution to the extent financially practicable,” Cllr. Sherman said.

But patience seems to be a scare commodity among the aggrieved former NOCAL staff, even for Oliver Clarke, formerly of NOCAL facility department, who appeared most optimistic in a previous interview with this reporter.

“I called the [Human Resource Manager] yesterday and told her ‘You people are reneging on the promises you made to us,’” he said. ‘“You gave us a schedule that you should have lived by and you did not live by that schedule.’”

Even after NOCAL made the first quarterly severance payment to them, many employees were sceptical that their money would be paid in full.

“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,” said James Kpargoi, who now works with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), in an interview in March.  “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.”

Fabian Lai, a former manager at NOCAL’s internal audit department, who now works with the Catholic Relief Services as finance operations manager is also furious and suspects the delay in payment could be part of a scheme.

“They also have to be grateful to their former employees and see reason to pay us,” said Lai who worked at NOCAL for six years. “Our gratefulness to NOCAL cannot be the waiver of our payment.”

Lai said he was afraid that severance pay will soon be made a domestic debt, which could take up to a five-year payment period, “where the government will pay what it can afford.” You’d better explain what you mean by this.

Urias Taylor, who was employed as a geologist at NOCAL before being fired agrees, and claims that even a lawsuit would work in line with the government’s alleged scheme not to fully pay the former NOCAL staff.

“Government is government. If we are going to choose the route of a lawsuit, it is going to be long and will probably run into the next government,” he said.

President Sirleaf will turn over leadership to a new President following the conduct of elections in 2017 as she is constitutionally barred from vying for a third successive term.

“To be frank, this is not a strange thing not to receive payment as scheduled,” said Taylor. “We’ll still wait to see if we are going to get paid, but there are a lot of uncertainties concerning management living up to the commitment as promised. It is strange to me. NOCAL has been one of the biggest agencies of government that contributed hugely to government budget. I don’t think that severance pay for ex-employees should be something that government cannot handle.”

Several former NOCAL employees have found jobs elsewhere, including with foreign firms as expats, while others languish about in hot pursuit of jobs.

It has not been an easy task for Taylor to make ends meet. As a petroleum engineer having earned a degree in geology, the job market does not currently favor him. Joblessness and unpaid debt owed him can have many implications.

“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,” Taylor explained. “We are just going to wait there when the crumps drop we are going to eat it.”

These former NOCAL staff seem to understand the terrain in which they find themselves, and are subscribing to hopefulness in what seems be a period of uncertainty, unpredictability.

“I have not found another job. I have been living by the grace of God,” Clarke said.

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

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