…Opens Up on Giant Strides of Nigerian Seafarers Welfare Board
By DAPO OLAWUNI
Chairman of Nigerian Seafarers Welfare Board (NSWB) Otunba Kunle Folarin has said that the board is ready to extend its training activities to shipping agents in Nigeria, describing them as the most ignorant people today whose only concern is on sailing and berthing of vessels.
In this interview with DAILY TREND NEWS Editor, DAPO OLAWUNI, Otunba also spoke on activities of the welfare board, especially during Covid-19.
Other issues discussed are criminalisation of seafarers, their mental health, as well as Nigeria’s chances of getting on the IMO Cartegory C.
How would you say the Seafarer Welfare Board has faired in year 2021?
Thank you for that question, in actual fact, this is the time to do a round-up of the year, you know that last year was a bit challenging for seafarers in terms of the time they spent at sea, many ports could not berth ships because of Covid-19 fears.
The second issue was disembarking from ships, the crew change which is normally for a period of your contract which is every six months in order to reduce the stress, this also became an issue. The fact is that if the crew cannot come down from the ship, another person cannot take over from them, so there was a big problem of mental stress, and as a result if this, a lot of things were developing and we tried to manage it.
What we did in Nigeria was successful, we approached the Nigerian Immigration Service to issue shore passes to the seafarers so that they can walk around, some of them visited their embassy, some to the doctor and so on, the immigration service granted that request.
We also asked for disembarking, and you know that flight did not start until September and October, so even the seafarers that disembarked could not go home, those who replaced them could not also come onboard. There was an officer lady pregnant on one of the Indian ships, God being our helper we were able to get her down, the first flight that connected India, she was onboard, and the family wrote a lot of testimonies and thanked us for all our expenses.
Then, we have those seafarers that have been abandoned, it is funny that when people chatter ships, the crew would not know the clauses in the agreement and what they have signed, they just find out that they are stopped at a port where the ship is discharging cargo, there was an Indian seafarer that was abandoned because the charterer said he has no responsibility, the shipowner said that according to their agreement his work is finished, so, we had to accommodate him at one of these NIMASA pool around Kirikiri, Lagos. The funny part was that after we have finally gotten a flight for him, he didn’t want to leave Nigeria, we were feeding him, giving him cloths, medicine, so he didn’t want to go. Eventually we persuaded him that he didn’t have the visa to stay in the country, eventually he left.
This was a fall over into 2021, how do we now deal with mental stress of seafarers? We organized seminars for those who were here for three days for them to really know that they have to use their off work time to handle stress, and that this situation is not still clear, in those days, seafarers stay onboard for forty days and they disembark, three months or six months and they would disembark, but now, that opportunity is not as regular as before, so it brings some stress and create a new avenue.
The ITF (International Transport Federation) in London and our own affiliate International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) came in, and we were able to organise courses and educate them on how to handle their mental stress. In those days, they used to put medical doctors onboard ships, but those days are gone now, even now, most ships are handled by 11-crew members instead of 44 crew as seen in those days, we are talking of Automation today, it all started on the ships, a lot of manual driven processes are now automated.
This year 2021, we started thinking about it that, what should we do to create awareness for seafarers, both Nigerians and Non-Nigerians to realise the need to look after their mental health, then, the issue of Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) came in, it is signed every three years.
The challenge we have is, how do we get the same salaries with our foreign counterparts? You that a lot of Nigerian seafarers prefer to take roadside and slave contracts, after that, they would start grumbling.
The manning agents are not also helping the ships, they normally take advantage of the rush by the seafarers and their desperation, and they would offer one-third of what their foreign counterparts are getting.
You know that Nigerian indigenous shipping is not doing well, they are not getting the kind of cargo support they need, so they offer their crew one-third of the normal salary or nothing.
Our own welfare mandate does not include to go and negotiate the seafarers CBA, but when we go onboard for visitation, they would reel out all their challenges, and as human beings, we have to react, most of the seafarers cannot go home to their families, they are working long hours and so on, all these are against the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC 2006). The crew should be compensated for working longer hours.
In terms of recreation, we have a bus that we use to take the seafarers out, but we are always careful, they cannot go to night clubs as they would like to go, it is a risk with all the kidnappings going on.
We have a centre where the seafarers can call their families directly.
We also have the mission to seafarers established to carry out almost the same functions as you?
The mission to seafarers is a church function, it belongs to the Anglican Communion, there is still another one called Apostolics of the Sea which belongs to the Catholics, we on our own are non denominational, and we are registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC).
The Mission to Seafarers was closed down for more than 15-years because of the guy running it for the Anglican Communion. They removed him and put a new man in charge about three years ago, they are now trying to refurbish the whole thing now, the Anglican Communion supporting them is based in the UK, but because of the misuse of the properties. The gentleman managing it personified it, and for 22years that he was there, he actually run the place down, I am not afraid yo say it, everybody knows.
The UK people have standard, they abandoned the support they were giving them, the seafarers actually suffered.
However, the place is being refurbished under the leadership of Chief Adebayo Sarumi.
Under my leadership now we have gotten two busses for the welfare board, we got one from ISWAN and the second one we have locally is still running. We have our head office at No 15b Awolowo Street, this is where we do all the administrative work, we also have a training hall attached to it so that we can teach them.
We also want to extend these trainings to shipping agents, they are the most ignorant people today, they only know about berthing of ships and sailing ships, the welfare of the ship is not so much their concern.
We have reached out to the agents, it is even better here, when you go to Port Harcourt, what we go through is he’ll, because we also have branches in Port Harcourt and Warri. The period of stay for the ships calling at these ports are so short that you have to get the list of the seafarers in advance. Our chairman over there is very active and we are doing our best.
Our new focus now is that we are looking at the issue of welfare from four pillars. The first one is International Compliance, when talk about this, I mean what are the international rule of engagement? The MLC 2006 is the guide, I was in Geneva to sign the convention and it has been ratified by President Goodluck Jonathan since 2013, but up till now the National Assembly have not domesticated it, and if you don’t domesticate it, it means it is not in your law books yet. Secondly, the shipowners would take advantage of the fact that it is not a law in your country.
Why is there no push for the domestication of the MLC 2006 by NIMASA and the Transport Ministry?
Let me start with policy, NIMASA cannot do anything much except the Federal Ministry of Transportation, but our own lobby is to go through the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Productivity, this is a Labour issue and they are always claiming to be in charge. The process is like this, if we have such a document ratified by the Federal government, it goes through the National Labour Advisory Council (NLAC) which is a board of commissioners or country, we have never had another one in past six years until we started shouting this year, naturally everyone is hiding under the Covid-19.
They have held one this year, and this issue of MLC 2006 and seafarers welfare was discussed. Don’t forget that it is not only seafarers matters that was discussed, there are so many issues of Labour that are hanging, until the Advisory board meets and agree, the memo cannot go to the National Assembly.
But then, what about the memos that have been submitted the National Assembly before? What have they done? Nigeria is losing a lot.
The National Assembly must prioritise it, but most times they fail to do so because there is no money for them, they would not say it out, but the way they would treat you would show. Ordinarily, the first and second reading, they pass it to a committee, when the committee reports, they give it to the President to accent to it.
It takes as little as two weeks to finish that whole process, and yet Nigeria is losing, all the subsidy we would have been getting to support the seafarers, we cannot claim it, because the shipowners claim that it is not yet a law in our country.
Advocacy is another element in the four pillars, typically in Nigeria, if people examine any project or undertaking that has no financial reward, they won’t do it.
We do not get a penny at the welfare board, since I have been on the seafarers welfare, I can tell you that it is only NPA that supports us, the Agency directly to who has that mandate, which is Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) I cannot remember the last time they assisted, maybe under Dakuku Peterside or Akpobolokemi and it’s N1million for our annual event.
Soon now, we are going to be having carols, this is what the seafarers love most, especially those that are held up here, they come to our centre in Apapa and they are relieved they are happy.
We on our own attend all the ISWAN international Annual General Meetings (AGM) where they bring policy for the year.
We have employed a social worker who goes to meet the seafarers in prison, the prison visits is now more constant because of the criminalisation of seafarers, a seafarer does not have a say on where the ship goes or the cargo it carries, but when the law enforcement catches up with the ship they say all the crew are accomplices, they end up staying in prison for three to five years. Criminalisation of seafarers is another issue apart from the mental health, this is another issue we are tackling.
Going forward, how would you advise government in implementing the SPOMO Act? Many seafarers have been jailed since it was passed
The government prioritises what is their interest. All we hear government talk about today is 2023 election, only the commentators are now forcing them to talk about economy sometimes. The only time they embarrass them is when they ask how much money government is borrowing.
The anti-piracy law has been passed, NIMASA and not the Ministry is supposed to be the agency handling it and enforcing it. Look at the Deep Blue Project, how can the agency enforce anything? If it does so, it is to her peril because the Minister may not be pleased with him.
Most of the seafarers being criminalised do not have money, we are the ones buying provisions for them.
Without funds, you cannot achieve most of your activities and commitments to seafarers, we ordinarily expect NIMASA to be of help?
We have written to this present administration severally, although the DG has been in the system, but we still had to introduce ourselves and what we do, we attached our credentials and informed him, this is our activities for the year, and we would like your support in your chosen aspect of the year activity, but it is like they have gone to sleep, no answer.
Last year was the first time we got N1million in eight years from NIMASA, and sometimes we don’t say give us money, we tell you what we want to do, you just go and pay directly, we don’t touch their penny.
The only help we get mostly is from our network, because we are their member and we pay £1,500 as membership fee per year, I was the regional chairman for six years for all the fifteen countries in West Africa, we are the only country remaining now, most countries cannot pay their membership fees so they exit. On our part, we levy ourselves, we are now eighteen years in existence.
Why is Phasing-off of single hull vessels from Nigeria somehow proving difficult?
There is always a long notice to these things and compliance is not that impossible, I have been advocating for Implementation of this law because of efficiency, environmental impact assessment and maintenance. A double hull vessel maintenance is lower than that of the single hull, a double hull vessel has more nautical speed than a single hull. The IMO gave a long time for implementation, but like everything, we thought it would go away. We wrote to the maritime administration, if other IMO members are complying, while would they exempt you?
NIMASA is keeping quiet on this issue probably on two grounds, first is there are not many Nigerian vessels that would be affected.
Nigerian shipowners prefer to buy the discarded single hull vessels and they think the owners are silly by selling it to them? Most owners of single hull sell it to scrap yards, they add money to get double hull vessels.
The reason why IMO asked us to change to double hull vessels is not for fancy, there is a criteria for it, it is for efficiency, no ship must bring smoke again because of environmental impact, then there is cost of maintenance, you would never see the parts of a single hull vessel to buy again, they want everybody to be on same page.
Nigeria is seeking re-election into IMO Cartegory C In few days time, what is your advise for NIMASA?
Let me tell you, there is compliance for everything, IMO is not Nigeria is an international United Nations agency, the Secretary General cannot outline any rules, he follows procedures, rules and regulations approved by his council.
To be a member of the council, you must have something to contribute, you must also be qualified to contribute, I am not talking contribution by money, I am talking of contribution by competence, by way of compliance, how many IMO conventions have we ratified and domesticated? How many of the conventions can we enforce?
Small countries who are maritime inclined are very smart, the first thing they look is compliance, Cyprus has many ships under its registration than Nigeria, Panama, Bahamas and Liberia all have it, they are flag states. What is the tonnage of cargoes passing through the country, how many dry docks do we have.
All these noncompliance can actually worked against Nigeria at the IMO. For example, you take your cloth to a tailor and you cannot find any sewing machine his shop, won’t you count it against that tailor?