By Mwakera Mwajefa
Seafarers’ Union of Kenya (SUK) is facing the danger of being swallowed up by the hospitality industry that is currently running recruitment of maritime jobs instead of the union.
Fears were expressed during a one day Seafarers’ Consultative Forum that met at Koblenz Hall on June 17, 2023 where the conveners Alamin Ahmed and Andrew Mwangura shared information apart from inviting views/comments from seapeople.
Mwinyi Jahazi, a seafarer, expressed concern that protracted differences and infighting within the union had allowed ‘strangers’ to rope in and claim stakes that belong to them.
“For three years, we have fought each other over nothing while other stakeholders control us on matters maritime that we should be incharge,” he said urging his colleagues to unity and strengthen the union for their own benefits.
In his opening remarks, Mwangura said misinformation and misunderstanding among seafarers was dividing them giving ‘unscrupulous people’ chance to infiltrate their domain and steal their opportunities in the industry.
“As we speak, 5,000 of our jobs have been taken by people who have neither experience nor mandatory sea-hours before boarding sea vessels.”
The none involvement of SUK on matters of the sea or blue economy, according to him, has opened avenues for merchant levies to be either misappropriation or pocketed by corrupt individuals.
The convener, Ahmed, warned the seafarers unless they took matters on their own hands, there was a big chance they would be exploited by the wealthy or politicians out to get ‘a piece’ of the blue economy cake.
“Coast people should own the seafarers because this is our coffee, tea or sugarcane for those living in the upcountry. The sea, just like the coffee or tea must be managed to our satisfaction and benefit.”
According to him if the seafarers’ union puts its act together, it will go a long way to change the lives of its members in under-exploited maritime resources.
Mbwana Abdallah, guest speaker, told the seafarers that since 2018 Blue Economy Conference in Nairobi, a lot of Kenyans took intetest in the prospects and maritime opportunities that could turnaround the socioeconomic of Coast region.
In recognition of the importance of blue economy, Abdallah wants professionalism, internship and documentation to be factored in as core values of training to make Kenyan seafarers compete on equal footing globally.
“If Kenya wants to move in this industry, then, it must be ready to introduce professionalism in the seafarers’ training from recognised institutions but not those opening everywhere without proper mechanism to monitor them.”
At discursive plenary, most of those who spoke called on the seafarers to discard their differences and instead work together to ensure the Kenya’s 620 coastline crucial economic activites from Vanga (Kwale) to Kiungu (Lamu) were within their grip.
They acknowledged the role of seafarers as important for the country to achieve its economic growth that would change the living standards of its coastal people.
Identifying himself as Zuberi, noted that respect of seafarers had gone down compared to 60s, 70s and 80s when the profession was at its peak.
“But today our job has become a laughing stock because the government has abandoned us on matters maritime industry,” he said calling on the government of the day to rein them on every aspect of the industry.
On disputing dates for the union’s election of office-bearers, it was disclosed that June 24, 2023 will be the reckoning day for seafarers.
SUK is facing a leadership crisis due to the power struggle among different factions and lack of substantive leaders ready to eat the bullet and oversee its operations.
The SUK’s executive board has the overall responsibility for direction, organisation, administration and programmes of the seafarers and its absence has negatively impacted on the union.
Since the 2018 conference and under current Kenya Kwanza Alliance (KKA) administration, the government has entered into recruitment deals of seafarers and seaboard training of sea cadets without the involvement of the union.
Apart from this, the government has also spread its tentacles to the seafarers’ wages council (SWC) as social partners in contravention of international maritime labour standards and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) instruments.
Within a period of five years, Kenya government has entered into seafarers replacement and recruitment deals with MSC shipping, Kenya National Shipping Line, CMA CGM Container Shipping, BAHRI Shipping and Celebrity Cruise Ships, Royal Caribbean Cruises and the Danish shipping, DetForenedeDampskibs-Selskab (DFDS).
BAHRI, one of the largest owners and operators of very large crude carriers (VLCCs) in the world and owner of chemical tanker ships in the Middle East, currently owns 93 vessels, 40 VLCCs, 37 chemical tankers, six multipurpose vessels and 10 dry bulk carriers.
MSC, on the other hand, has 756 ships out of which roughly two-thirds are chartered from lessors with world’s largest container shipping controlling about 18.6 per cent of global container ship fleet.
DFDS operates a network of 25 routes with 50 freight and passenger ships in the North Sea, Baltic Sea and English Channel under the name DFDS Seaways.
The government also entered into maritime education and training programmes with the Kenya Commercial Bank, Higher Education Loan Board and Youth Enterprise Development Fund without involving SUK or SWC.
According to the conveners plans are underway to also rope in Equity Bank in maritime education and training programmes without again involving the union.
The government has also entered into several MoUs for replacement and recruitment of seafarers and seaboard training deals with CMA CGM, MSC, BAHRI, DFDS without SUK’s participation or contribution.
With the approaching June 24, SUK, now on its knees, will expect its registered trustees – John Hussein Zappa, Matari Mwinyi and Atie Swaleh Ramadhan – under the registrar of trade unions’ office to steer its ship to dock safely.