Last week, Nigeria’s fragile economy was confronted with further pressure as the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN) declared a nationwide industrial action over unpaid wages to dockworkers, among other issues. Addressing officials and a cross section of dockworkers at the dockworkers’ branch of the MWUN in Lagos, president general of the union, Adewale Adeyanju, threatened that the industrial action would not be suspended until all the outstanding payments accumulated for over a year were fully liquidated along with the resolution of other welfare issues. The declaration was sequel to the 14-day ultimatum issued by the union on June 11 to the Federal Government to compel the international oil companies (IOCs) to pay all outstanding wages to dockworkers or face nationwide industrial unrest.
According to Adeyanju, although the non-payment of government-appointed stevedores/dockworkers by the IOCs contravened the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) Act 2007, several efforts made to get the IOCs to comply, including a stakeholders’ meeting organised by the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), failed. “Some of the affected dockworkers have passed on prematurely due to economic hardship, while those that are alive have been forced to live like the destitute. As a responsible union, we cannot continue to fold our arms and watch our members die prematurely because of the nonchalant attitude of the IOCs toward their welfare. In view of the foregoing, we gave a 14-day ultimatum/notice to the Federal Government, through the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Transport, to prevail on the IOCs to do the needful by paying our members. Ahead of the expiration of the ultimatum, which was Friday, June 28, we issued a reminder letter dated June 27. The three-day reminder elapsed and we are, therefore, directing that all ports operations nationwide should be shut until all payments are made and other issues resolved.” Although the strike was later suspended following interventions by the Ministry of Transport, it had left a heavy toll on the economy.
Although the maritime workers drew attention to the NIMASA Act (2007) in stating their advocacy, the issues at stake clearly transcend legal matters. This is one case that illustrates the sad state of affairs in Nigeria where governance has been kept in abeyance for a long time even though the corridors of power have never been short of personnel. It is difficult to imagine any other country in the world where international oil companies or indeed any other group of persons would refuse to pay workers their entitlements for over a year, without any reprieve for the affected workers through government intervention. If it is saddening that the maritime workers had to resort to the use of ultimatums, it is more saddening still that their pleas and outcries fell on deaf ears. As we have often noted on this page, regulatory agencies in the country are often complicit in the suffering imposed on workers and consumers in the country, behaving like captured regulators while economic desperadoes suck the people dry. Pray, how can the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) and the Ministry of Transport allow dockworkers to go unpaid for over a year? How were they and their families expected to survive?
In our view, those who enabled this monumental rape of workers deserve to rot in jail while the erring oil companies should be given very stiff sanctions. Can the international oil companies commit the alleged crimes abroad? But that precisely is why the advanced countries will remain advanced: they do not toy with the rules, regardless of the personalities involved. It is distressing that Nigerians were made to feel the debilitating impact of a needless strike. In situations like these, there are demurrage issues and businesses that are just hanging on are adversely affected. And this is against the backdrop of the country’s already inclement business environment.
We hope that the authorities would not go to bed now that the strike has been suspended. As a matter of fact, this is the time to reciprocate the workers’ good gesture in suspending the strike in the national interest even though they have endured untold pain. In any case, it does not exactly help the government’s case that President Muhammadu Buhari, who was sworn into office for a second term on May 29, has yet to put a cabinet in place, and so there is currently no Minister of Transport. During the past four years, the president blamed the leadership of the National Assembly for allegedly slowing down the pace of his administration, but it should be sufficiently clear now where the fault really lies.
We urge the government to resolve the issues urgently so that the long-suffering workers can get their withheld dues. Any further industrial action can only make the country’s precarious financial situation worse.