Just when the shipping community thought that all issues concerning dockworkers have been resolved amicably, a disturbing signal is coming from eastern ports where dockworkers are already threatening showdown with their employers; the terminal operators.
Reports from Rivers port indicate that there is palpable fear among port users as a result of the agitation by dockworkers for compensation on account of an impending mass sack by the terminal operators.
The terminal operators had cried out that they could no longer carry the burden of employing the almost- 1,400 dockworkers and that a large percentage of them must be laid-off. If the terminal operators are allowed to have their way, only 519 dockworkers would be left in Port Harcourt port. This is reminiscent of what happened in Lagos ports shortly after the private terminal operators came on board.
While the terminal operators in Lagos ports can be said to have started mastering the art of ‘managing’ their dockworkers, the same can not be said of the two terminal operators in Port Harcourt port who by current happenings have shown that they are being overwhelmed by the challenges of engaging dockworkers.
On our part and of course before the recent development, we had devoted ample time through our editorials to the plight of dockworkers. For instance, in our Volume one, Eight edition, the editorial opinion was “dockworkers strike: can we afford it” and in our Fifteenth edition of the same Volume one, the editorial opinion was on “port reform: how well so far”.
In the two editorials, we brought out the lapses in the celebrated port reform programme otherwise called port concession. While the eighth edition called on the government to address post-port concession issues, especially as they affect thousands of dockworkers, the fifteenth edition’s editorial undertook an in-depth but direct appraisal of the reforms. It pointed out that it is worrisome that the terminal operators are unperturbed about the allegations by dockworkers that they are slave- drivers.
The unease that is brewing in Port Harcourt has some degree of semblance to what led to a protest in Lagos and which was joined by dockworkers in all the seaports. In Lagos, the dockworker had alleged a plethora of wrongdoings against their employers and the government. These include: inhuman treatment, unionisation, non-payment of entitlements of about 1,400 of them.
The dockworkers’ branch of the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN) in Port Harcourt has put its foot down insisting that those to be laid-off should be given four months salary and a refund of their accumulated special dockworkers welfare fund of 6.5 per cent. But the terminal operators are reportedly insisting on paying only two months salary, that is, in addition to the 6.5 per cent.
Another curious middle-of-the-road option is that the union has agreed that its members could take two months salary, but it must be calculated based on =N=33,000 per month.
The development in Port Harcourt port is a clear confirmation of the fact that all is not yet well with some of the terminal operators, many of which have been finding it difficult to meet their commitments.
There are only two concessionaires in Port Harcourt port, namely: Port and Terminal Operators Nigeria Limited as well as Bua Ports Services and collectively, they are expected to meet their investment plan which is in excess of $107Million. This is apart from the multi billion dollars that they paid as entry fees.
The story in Warri and Calabar may not be too different from the scenario that is playing itself out in Port Harcourt port. It is becoming clearer and more convincing that apart from some of the concessionaires in Lagos and Onne ports which are smiling to the banks, many of those in other ports are not finding it easy to run the terminals and meet their commitments.
Curiously, the union is blaming the Nigerian Ports Authourity and the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency for the unfolding crisis in Port Harcourt port. They are being accused of partiality and not telling the terminal operators the truth.
From experience, we can safely alert that the 900 dockworkers who are about to be laid-off and who will not mind a paltry two months salary which amounts to =N=66,00 each will stage a come back into the ports once the money is paid to them.
We strongly advise that rather than be in a hurry to see these dockworkers out of the system, the duo of NPA and NIMASA should intervene and investigate the claim by the terminal operators that only 519 are needed.
The nation’s seaports can not be a hotbed for unrests any longer. The era of industrial unrests occasioned by dockworkers should not rear its head. To forestall this, both NIMASA and NPA should be actively involved in ongoing negotiations in Port Harcourt port to ensure that dockworkers that will be laid off are adequately compensated.
In addition, we think that what the terminal operators are offering is ridiculous and should be reviewed upwards.