The ports workers’ strike

ON July 3, Nigerian ports were literally shut down as dockworkers began protests against the refusal of the International Oil Companies (IOC) to pay what they called all outstanding stevedoring entitlements to their members that had mounted over a year. The shutdown of what is clearly Nigeria’s busiest port, Apapa and Tin-Can ports, ensured that all vehicular movements were restricted, even though later, the seaport workers were said to have softened their stance by allowing only private vehicles into the ports. The workers however barred all container trucks from entering into the ports. The situation literally caused a bedlam in the ports, grinding all activities. However, the three-day strike which was embarked upon by MWUN was later suspended. President General of the union, Adewale Adeyanju, who confirmed the development to journalists, said the action was suspended due to the intervention of Permanent Secretaries, Ministries of Transportation, Labour and Employment, stakeholders, especially the Managing Director of Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Director-General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Executive Secretary, Nigerian Shippers Council and Chairman, Seaport Terminal Operators Association of Nigeria, (STOAN) among others.

In Adeyanju’s own words, “We have decided to suspend the strike, pending the outcome of the meeting scheduled to take place next week between with managements of NPA, NIMASA, NSC, NNPC and the IOCS.” Normal port activities have also been restored, with a thin veneer of industrial peace and harmony that umbrellas Nigerian ports. However, critical issues of ports management are still hovering in the space, necessitating a holistic confrontation of this perennial ports dysfunction. Earlier, Adeyanju had explained that the association decided to down tools following the expiration of a two-week ultimatum issued by the union on June 13 due to the non-payment of stevedoring contractors. While giving the IOCs the two-week ultimatum, the leadership of the union had directed that members of the union should withdraw their services throughout the nation’s seaports effective from 06.00 hours on Wednesday, July 3, if the two-week notice issued on the matter, containing all their grouses, which would lapse on Friday, June 28, was not addressed.

The shutdown of ports operations over unpaid wages to dockworkers is indeed a recurring decimal in the Nigerian labour industry. The implication of the shutdown of this gateway of the Nigerian economy is indeed depressing. On a daily basis during the shutdown, Nigeria was said to have lost billions of naira. For a country that has almost nil production capacity and depends largely on imports, shutdowns at the ports eat deep into the economy. Workers are the engine room of operations at the ports and it is inconceivable that the IOCs would owe these hapless workers for a lengthy time as one year. MWUN claims that many of its members die out of lack while putting in their all to ensure seamless operations at the ports. There seems to be a fundamental lacuna in the thinking of Nigerian employers which necessitates their not connecting with the plights of workers and allowing them to grind operations of the workplace before they wake up to the conditions of these workers.

It will appear that the primary grouse of these dock workers is not strictly against the government. However, it is unconscionable for government and its regulatory agencies not to affirm and defend the rights of Nigerian workers who are the cows that supply the milk to these giant oil companies. Nigerians are, for example, bemused by the fact that the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) stood by while these foreign oil giants accumulated salaries and allowances of the workers for this long. If this culture of owing workers had not become a national pall that every sector of the economy bears, the NPA would have noticed the aberration and the inhumanity behind the action. It is also alleged that many of the regulatory agencies simply watched while this inhumanity goes by because they are in dalliance with the foreign oil companies in terms of underhand dealings which take away any propensity to bite the foreign companies once they make any infraction. That all the stakeholders had to frenetically scamper to get the workers call off the strike action is the usual fire brigade approach to issues that Nigerian government and their agencies are adept at.

Even the holy writ frowns at the action of any employer owing its workforce. It is strictly of the opinion that labourers are deserving of their wages. If not for lackluster labour, welfare and enforcement policies of regulatory agencies in Nigeria, which of the international oil companies dare commit such crime of non-payment of wages in their native countries? But because they are aware of the policy and empathy lacuna in Nigeria and the peremptory manner Nigeria treats her citizens, they have no choice but to abet government and its agencies in looking down on the workforce. It is heartless and inhuman to owe these workers – loaders, off-loaders and ancillary workers – who expend energy everyday at the ports. It is no doubt a continuation of the vicious cycle of labour slavery in Nigeria where emphasis and attention are not paid to the productive segment of our economy.  There is no doubting the fact that the lax regime of the regulatory agencies in the country is what is allowing this literal rip-off of Nigerian workers. The economy feels the negative impact of strike actions like this suspended shutdown of Nigerian ports as there occur mounting demurrage issues to be absorbed by individuals, companies and agencies, with its coterminous effects on businesses that would be adversely affected. Already, the Nigerian business environment is inclement and this certainly adds to the biting economic straits which the country is battling.

The government needs to go beyond the façade of this temporary resolution of the imbroglio at the Nigerian ports and permanently resolve the deeper issues involved urgently so that the country’s precarious financial situation does not get even worse.

  • Adebayo lives in Ibadan