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”.