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NIGERIA: Ports Reform and Fortunes of Dock Workers, Stevedores

 After decades of exploitation  by  the system and attendant trade crimes which earned them bad reputation and the name ‘wharf rats’,  dockworkers are currently counting their blessings  in a  much transformed stevedoring industry occasioned by reforms in the  nation’s ports, reports  Francis Ugwoke

The condition of service for dockworkers several years ago was nothing to write home about. It was so bad that most dockworkers were seen as common rogues  who survived through vandalisation of goods belonging to importers in the ports.    They worked hard  but were not well remunerated. Even when they were to get payment, their leaders cornered what was meant for them. It was a survival of the fittest. To survive, most dockworkers turned to near beggars, soliciting help from crew members as ships arriving the ports. Others took up arms against the system. They pilfered goods under their care with impunity and earned the name ‘wharf rat’.
This explained why there were many cases of vandalised consignments before the reform came to the port. An average income for dockworkers then was   less than N8,000.00 total take home pay at the  end of every month. To meet up with challenges, what some dockworkers were doing then was to steal as much as they can on board vessels that they were supposed to discharge. They had sharp instruments  which were used to cut keys of some containers especially if they ascertained  the type of goods inside.

Some would while on board ship hire a speed boat which would be on standby to pick cartons or bags of stolen items being thrown down  from vessels. The boat   takes the goods to agreed places  where the dockworker would collect them later. This was sometimes done regularly without the security in the ship even discovering. The boat is also at alert to move once a signal is given. And  if the security guard  gets information on such operation, he is simply settled to keep shut.  

There were  also other cases where some dockworkers would  go to stacking areas to vandalise goods in  the custody of Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) as terminal operator and landlord then. The pilferage was such that usually embarrassed the NPA management which was supposed to pay for the damage but did not,  leaving the  consignee to suffer the losses.

The picture painted above  was  the scenario  shortly before the   ports were concession  to private investors in 2006. It was a period when  there were several  stevedoring companies competing  to be given contracts by the NPA.  But now, the situation in the ports as far as dock labour industry is concerned has changed. This followed the concession of the terminals with operators left with the choice to either retain or do away with the stevedoring firms and their workers manning the berths allocated to it.  Under the reform, the federal government had to pay off all the dock labourers  to be able to create a free environment for the terminal operators to totally make fresh arrangement  that would be in line with the reform programme.

Stevedores and Dockworkers
  Stevedoring business  is all about   cargo handling  in the ports. The job of the company is to arrange to discharge vessels or load them on arriving or leaving any port. Stevedores employ dockworkers who work on board ships. Until the reform came, there were many of such firms. But soon after the ports were handed over to the terminal operators, many of them could not survive as  new owners of  terminals  went into new arrangements of creating  departments that could handle   dock labour  jobs or engage   contractors to handle their stevedoring operation.

Changing Fortunes of Stevedores, Dockworkers
The port reform transformed  both the  stevedoring business and  the dock labour.  Although, the stevedoring firms are now few, they are said to be earning more revenue now than was the case before. This is the case for dockworkers   with the introduction of payment by tonnage. THISDAY checks reveal that unlike before,   dockworkers   are now paid   as much as N150,000.00 per month, depending on the  terminal and tonnage handled for the month.

Former President, Association of Nigerian Stevedoring  Companies, Alhaji Auwalu Ilu,  who spoke to THISDAY  said the stevedoring industry and the dock labour have all been transformed as a result of the reform in the ports.  According to him, “The attitude of the dockworkers was worrisome before the reform. They were like mini-gods. They never liked to obey rules and regulation. There was too much exploitation  in the system. The  system was not  very productive. There was  this ‘cancer’ that was called ‘Akube’ ghost workers where people were paid  even though they never  worked, while the people in the system were not paid well. All that has  been eliminated with the introduction of payment by tonnage. This was payment  based on performance”. Ilu  added that with the reform,  the dock labour industry and  operations of stevedoring firms were organised to embrace change and offer efficiency.

“This in turn has made stevedoring business a very well respected business. This also changed the status of dockworkers  unlike before when they were considered  ‘port rats’. Now, it is a dignified job, dockworkers go home with reasonable amount at the end of the month to be able to take care of themselves and their families. Now, almost half of the dockworkers have their own houses or will be able to rent a good accommodation unlike before when many of them never had places to sleep and had to sleep inside the ports,”.

On what  dockworkers are currently paid as salaries, Ilu said, “ it depends on the area where the dockworker is working and the  amount of cargo handled as it is now payment by tonnage”. He added, “Before, dockworkers used to earn  between N3,000 and N7,000 a month. But this  has changed and now it is between N35,000 and  about N150,000 a month. This depends on where the dockworker is working and the amount of work done. This is  a very remarkable  improvement”

Ilu who is also the Managing Director of Stallion Stevedores Limited, a specialist stevedore, also told THISDAY that  the type of blackmail  employed by leaders of dockworkers to extort money from stevedoring firms, shipping companies, among others was over.   He said,  “ the current leadership of  dockworkers, Maritime Workers Union from  the last to the current leadership are progressive  people…. They are working in the interest of  their members. Before, some of the leaders worked only for themselves, extorting  every operator, including the terminal operator which was NPA then, shipping companies, stevedoring  companies and even the  dockworkers. Now they  see themselves as leaders of the people.

“Every two years, there is a review of the rate of income for the dockworkers. The dockworkers today have  been contributing  to the pension fund where the employers and employee will pay something at the end of the month. At the end of the year they have something to go back to. In the old system, there was hardly anything for the dockworkers”. According to Ilu, such good welfare  arrangement has  helped in checking   cases of vandalisation of people’s cargoes as was rampant in the past. “The era of  extortion and profiteering  is gone with this welfare package in the system”, he said.

Stevedoring  Business After NPA as Terminal  Operator
Ilu also  told   THISDAY that so much changed after the NPA handed over terminal operation  in the ports to the new investors.  He said that the reform introduced   new models to the stevedoring business as against the system under the NPA.

He said: “sometimes, the terminal operator employs the dockworkers directly and  they earn salaries at the end of every month whether they work or not. Some of the terminal operators create  their in-house stevedoring  while they have subsidiaries handling stevedoring. Sometimes, some terminal operators outsource it completely because they don’t want to be involved in the day to day running of the stevedoring services. Whichever  of the models is being used by the terminal operator, each has its advantages  and disadvantages. But all the three models are working because the primary concern is the cargo delivery, the efficiency, the welfare and the condition of those who are working”.

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