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Tanker driver action brings governments and oil giants to the table


On May 21 petroleum tanker drivers sent shockwaves through the Ghanian economy with a nationwide sit-down strike. Less than a month later, tanker drivers also took to the streets in Nepal. Despite taking place in countries 10,000 kms away, these strikes were similar in form, content, and in the way they ended, with government authorities and oil companies agreeing to workers’ demands. Unions affiliated with the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) led both actions to their successful conclusions. 

The ITF is getting ready for a ‘Safe Rates Action Week’ at the end of August during which road transport workers will come together globally to demand safe and fair standards. To help us prepare, we interviewed Osman Ibrahim, Senior Industrial Relations Officer & Head of the Industrial Relations Unit of the General Transport Petroleum & Chemical Workers Union of Ghana (GTPCWU), and Ishwar Lama, President of the NETWON Nepal Petroleum Tanker Drivers’ Union (NPTDU) about the recent strikes and their significance.

Tanker drivers – essential and insecure  
Tanker drivers play an essential role in both Nepal - which imports fuel by land from India - and Ghana, which relies heavily on petroleum exports. Yet in both countries, fuel transport is highly informal. Workers face poor pay and conditions, and general insecurity. 

“The workers face precarious working conditions here in Nepal,” explained Lama. “They only get paid when they make trips, with no paid leave. They can be fired from the job at any time and have no protection after retirement.” 

“There has been no pay increase since 2017”, noted Ibrahim. “However, the nature of the work is very demanding, tedious, and risky. Workers drive for long hours across the country, sleep outside for days, and face frequent harassment by police and other security agents at check points. And all these conditions come with low remuneration and no social protection, while drivers are slapped with penalties in the case of theft or damage to the product.” 

Both union officers noted the dangers that arise when tanker drivers work under such poor and insecure conditions.

Driver fatigue is a common problem since there are no spare drivers to take over during work trips,” stressed Ibrahim. “They are driving in poor health and with a general lack of mental stability. This, together with the bad road network, poor vehicle maintenance, and a lack of retraining, makes drivers prone to often fatal crashes.” 

Nepal similarly experiences frequent tanker accidents. “In these cases, the family members of the victim receive no compensation, while the union has to cover police and court fees and provide food for drivers taken into police custody,” said Lama. 

Bringing government and oil giants to the table
The highly informal, insecure, and dangerous nature of the industry were the impetus behind the strikes in both countries. 

In Ghana, where earlier strike actions have raised public awareness about drivers’ plight, drivers’ union, the GTPCWU- Ghana National Petroleum Tanker Drivers Union (GNPTDU) had already negotiated a ‘Petroleum Tanker Drivers and Driver-Mates Remuneration Framework Agreement’ signed not only by transporters (employers), but also by the National Petroleum Authority, (NPA), the Association of Oil Marketing Companies (AOMC) and other stakeholders in 2023. The framework agreement provides for transparent employment contracts, and details comprehensive standards for pay and working conditions. Implementation of the agreement had been delayed, however, due to objections by the AOMC, who bawled at the NPA’s plan to reflect remuneration costs in the Unified Petroleum Pricing Fund Scheme (UPFF) – Ghana’s system for setting petrol prices based on distribution costs.  

Drivers and their mates reported for work but refused to move their vehicles in protest against the delay in implementing the framework agreement,” explained Ibrahim. “After three days, the strike brought all stakeholders to the table. They updated the framework and agreed in very clear and unambiguous terms that it was adopted, and implementation would begin by end of June 2024.” 

The struggle of tanker drivers in Nepal is less advanced. However, the strike action similarly brought government and the apex company – the Nepal Oil Corporation – to the table. An agreement was reached to form a stakeholder committee that will develop a plan to improve pay, conditions, and job security within fifteen days. 

Even though they are technically employed by their respective transporter employers, they must also be seen as workers of the powerful Nepal Oil Corporation, and the corporation must take responsibility for them,” stressed Lama.

Sources of workers’ power 
Where do these informal workers in developing economies get the strength to force the hand of government and oil giants? Their position in a key supply chain and their solidarity, say both union officials. 

“The government called an official meeting with the National Oil Company the very next day. This is mainly due to the unity among our members as they refused to supply petroleum goods in the capital. Solidarity messages from the tanker drivers’ union in India and our connection to ITF through our federation NETWON also helped us win this achievement,” noted Lama.

By virtue of these drivers’ location in the downstream petroleum and gas value chain, their collective action can easily cause disruptions in the economy. As members of GTPCWU, these workers speak with one voice and act in unison,” said Ibrahim. 

Next steps
Aware that the fight is not over, both unions are educating members about the agreements reached, and building their bases while preparing for continued negotiations with their respective governments, oil companies, and employers, and further collective action if necessary. 

“We are in unchartered territory now and will seek to organise workers in new oil depots and meet with our counterpart in India to strengthen our solidarity. We will be mobilising our members and team up with the Indian tankers union during the ITF Safe Rates action week,” said Lama. 

We are poised for further action if necessitated due to unsatisfactory conduct by any of the parties, especially the transporters, the NPA or the AOMC. The union will also undertake a survey of its membership and all drivers in the coming weeks. During the ITF action week, we will call on the government to similarly adopt safe and fair pay standards for all road transport workers,” said Ibrahim. 

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