How government reacts to the recent protest by dock labour and other interest groups against a law set to replace the Nigerian Ports Authority Act must be a litmus test of the willingness or otherwise of the authorities to listen to the voices of the silent majority and also the ability of the bill to sail through legislative processes, writes Business & Maritime West Africa.
The Nigerian Senate and House of Representatives are stepping up efforts to give the country a law that seeks to replace the NPA Act of 1955 (as amended) with the Ports and Harbours Law. As expected, this development is already stirring huge controversy especially among employees of the NPA who are afraid their jobs would be in jeopardy. If passed into law eventually, the controversial Ports and Harbours Law would herald a re-enactment of the 2006 port concession exercise, even though meant to improve efficiency in port operations and the national economy, turned out to work against the interests of many staff of the NPA and others in the maritime sector as it took huge staff lay-offs on its wake.
Speaking through Senator Idris Umar, former Transport Minister, at the Nigeria Maritime Expo (NIMAREX) in Lagos, March 2014, ex-President Goodluck Jonathan disclosed government's intention to forward to the national assembly for passage into law four maritime bills - the National Transport Commission (NTC) bill, the Railway bill, the Ports and Harbours bill and the Inland Waterways bill. The bills, Jonathan said, were part of the Federal Government's efforts to ensure that the potentials of the maritime industry are maximized. However, the then national assembly could not expedite action on the passage before winding down. The onus of re-visiting and acting on it was then passed to the succeeding assembly.
The re-introduction of the bill came with some reactions that resulted once again in the disruption of activities in the ports.
It could be recalled that ports operators have witnessed two major disruptions in the first half of this year. The first disruption was caused by a joint protest unprecedented in the history of ports business in Nigeria.
For three days last May, freight forwarders, maritime truck owners and others involved in logistics operations in the sea ports effectively shut down activities in the major seaports in Lagos. The stakeholders' grouse was the refusal of the federal government to rehabilitate the ports access routes that have suffered neglect for many years. Government's reaction was swift and generally reflected the usual fire- brigade approach to critical national issues. This intervention, however, resulted in rushed moves to reconstruct the roads in question, an action that is yet to take off as promised.
Two months later, precisely the second week in July, two major labour unions in the port industry took their turn to ground operational activities at the nation's seaports in what was surely a replay of the above scenario. However, the difference in this case is that this shutdown lasted for only one day. The protest which was spearheaded by leaders of the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN) and the Senior Staff Association of Communication, Transport and Corporations (SSACTAC) at the Lagos Ports Complex (LPC) was attended by many angry, placard-wielding dock workers.
The demonstration was not limited to Lagos ports. It was held in all the seaports across the country as a warning signal to the government to stop the passage of a bill which the unions described as obnoxious and anti-labour. When passed into law, they said, the statute would whittle down the powers of the Nigerian Ports Authority ((NPA), destroy the nation's ports operations and render thousands of labour workers jobless.
As a result of the protest, human and vehicular movement within the port axis in Apapa were paralyzed.
PIX 1: Patrick Asadu,Chair, House Of Reps Committee On Ports Harbours And Inland Waterways
President General of MWUN, Comrade Adewale Adeyanju, who led the protest in Lagos said that there is urgent need for the National Assembly to reject the bill because it negates the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) Act of 1955 as amended.
If this bill is passed into law, Adeyanju noted, it will lead to massive sack of members of the labour union and most NPA staff as, being a private enterprise, the replacing agency would come with her own staff.
He recalled that "experience has taught us from what happened in the past when the seaports were concessioned 10 years ago. Government said nobody would lose jobs. But from what we are about to see right now, if this bill is passed into law, thousands of workers in the maritime industry (especially those in dock labour) will lose their jobs.
PIX 2: Hadiza Usman, NPA MD
"The bill, if passed, will dump dockworkers, seamen, shipping operators and staff of NPA into the labour market. The bill does not make provision for those who will not be absorbed because there will be no payment for them by the new Nigerian Harbours Authority"
PIX: Comrade Ayuba Wabba, NLC President
The President General described the impending legislation as a security risk to the nation, vowing that "this bill must not see the light of the day".
Speaking further he said that "we want to use this medium to appeal to members of the National Assembly and its leaders to throw away this bill because it seeks to do more harm to the majority and favour the few individuals promoting it".
He urged Honourable Nicholas Ossai (the sponsor of the bill) to consider the interest of Nigerians and withdraw it if he wants to convince all and sundry that he is on the side of the people.
Also speaking, president of SSACTAC, Comrade Benson Adegbeyeni, accused members of the National Assembly of short changing Nigerians after being voted into power.
PIX 4: Comrade Benson Ayegbeni, SSACTAC President
Adegbeyeni recalled that the 2006 port concession led to millions of job losses, an experience the union will never allow to happen again through the new Nigerian Harbours Authority.
The SSACTAC president noted that the bill when passed, does not make any form of provision for workers that might be disengaged, pointing out that the "NPA of 10 years ago till date is an eyesore ".
By divesting harbor operations from the NPA as the new law envisaged, many Nigerians would become slaves in the hands of the new private sector operators. He stressed the need for harbour operations to be the sole responsibility of the government and not private individuals.
"On our part as organized labour, we unequivocally reject this bill. We are determined to ensure that Nigeria and Nigerians are not short- changed by this obnoxious bill", he added.
Meanwhile, the leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) has vowed to partner with the MWUN) to ensure that the controversial Ports and Harbour bill which has passed second reading in the House of Representatives is stepped down.
NLC President, Comrade Ayuba Wabba said recently during courtesy visit to the national secretariat of MWUN as part of the nationwide visits to its affiliates.
Comrade Wabba said that greed was the drive behind concessioning of important sectors to private hands.
He said that such move would jeopardize national security as only a few private hands would now be in charge of the ports and do whatever pleases their selfish business interests to the detriment of the country in general.
"The management of our ports is about security; if you take away the responsibility of NPA now and put it in private hands, especially now that we have seen arms and ammunition being imported into this country on a daily basis, we are putting the lives of Nigerians on the line.
"I therefore urge government to look at this very important scenario because a lot of other countries want to undermine our security, national interest, economic interest and this bill will actually aggravate that particular problem.
"The services that the bill is out to outsource are services that are being paid for in dollars. So, instead of this money being paid into our national account or collected by NPA, they now want few individuals to corner the dollars into their pockets," he fumed.
He added that the bill would also aggravate the issue of unemployment as workers would be relieved of their jobs thereby causing problem for the country as unemployed youths will engage in vices ranging from kidnapping and other insecurity issues.
"I am aware that the bill is going to throw many of the workers in the maritime industry to the labour market and when this occurs, it will lead to economy disaster".
He assured that because of these reasons, the bill is not desirable; NLC would partner with MWUN to advance this issue and see how best to salvage the situation, he stated.
The Ports and Harbours bill was first read on the floor of the Senate on May 26, 2016. The second reading was on September 29, 2016. According to the sponsor, Senator Andy Uba of the Peoples' Democratic Party (PDP), Anambra South Senatorial District, when passed, the law would make the maritime industry to perform efficiently with improved management and profitability. The law would repeal the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) Act CAP 126 LFN 2004 and replace it with the Nigerian Ports and Harbours Authority.
It will provide for an appropriate institutional framework for the ownership, management operations, development and control of ports and harbours in ensuring the integrity, efficiency and safety of the ports in Nigeria based on accountability, competition, fairness and transparency. It will encourage greater private sector participation in the maritime industry through investment in infrastructures.
The bill seeks to promote and safeguard Nigeria's competitiveness in trade objectives towards maximum profitability and stability. It seeks to transform the maritime sector and promote internal and external trade by creating adequate enabling environment for private sector participation.
Proponents of the law also affirm that it will exert no financial burden on the nation as operational structures are already in place.
IMPLICATIONS OF THE BILL WHEN PASSED INTO LAW
Just like the port concession of 2005, there are indications that should the bill be passed there would be massive job losses considering that every private business investor who takes over is out for business with the sole aim of maximizing profit, caring less about staff welfare.
As the unions argue, if the law becomes operational, it will compromise national security as private operators can be at liberty to smuggle items that can destroy the country at a go.
The union also restated that it will lead to monopoly of trade because workers who are also the eyes of the government at the seaports will no longer be relevant.
It is true that port concession is a success story going by the level of service delivery and equipment availability by the investors compared to what was obtained during the era of government control. It is also true that there is an improvement in port operations especially in the areas of berthing, anchorage, clearance of goods, yard handling, cargo throughput and ship turnaround time.
But that notwithstanding, unfriendly government policies have made over 20 shipping companies leave Nigeria over low business patronage. These include Gold Star Line (GSL), Hapag Lloyd, Mitsui Osk Line, Taiwan's Evergreen Line, Messina Line and Nippon Yusen Kasha (NYK).
PIX 5: Comrade Adewale Adeyanju, MWUN Boss
A stakeholder in the maritime sector has thrown his weight behind the unions' action to reject the bill. Speaking to Business and Maritime West Africa, Barrister Emmanuel Osuala Nwagbara, a maritime lawyer while reacting to the strive action, said the unions' action was in the right direction. “Their interest is in jeopardy. Naturally, they cannot sit by and allow their legitimate means of livelihood taken away”
The Ports and Harbours Authority Bill: Scope And Purpose Of Application
Section 3, subsection 1 of the proposed Ports and Harbours Authority Bill states, among others, that:
“The provisions of the Act shall be read and interpreted in connection with the following specific objectives:
- The separation of cargo handling from the landlord functions and technical regulatory functions.
- Provision of safe navigation, development and efficiency, accountability of the channels and waterways and all other conservancy functions.
- Facilitation of the transfer of technology, information systems and managerial expertise through private sector participation in port operations.
- Creation of the means for planning, coordinating, developing and integrating port policies with other maritime activities, surface and air transportation systems
- Introduction and maintenance of appropriate institutional arrangements to support good governance and accountability in the ports.
- Protection of the rights and interests of port services providers, commercial port users within Nigeria and ensuring that efficient and effective port services are available at a reasonable cost to the users.
- Evolve and sustain high level of safety and environmental protection; and
- Encourage the development of further innovations in the maritime and shipping sector to promote effective research and development of the sector.
Committee's Recommendation on job security
Pages 139 and 140 of the proposed bill dwelling on transfer of employees and job security specifically state that:
"Upon the commencement of this Act, such number of persons employed by the Authority as may be required by the Authority shall be transferred to the service of the Authority on terms not less favourable than those enjoyed immediately prior to the transfer
"The service rendered by an employee transferred pursuant to sub-paragraph(1) of this paragraph to the Authority shall be deemed to be service with the Authority for the purpose of determining employment related entitlements as specified in the relevant laws of employment in Nigeria".
Page 140 also states that: "the Authority shall continue to contribute towards any pension scheme to which the Authority was contributing in respect of pensions in the employ of the Authority prior to the transfer date"
"Nothing in this paragraph shall operate so as to prevent any employee of the Authority from resigning or being dismissed for service.
If the above conditions concerning job security are provided for in the proposed Ports and Harbours Bill expected to supplant the NPA Act if passed into law, the fear of job loss by the dock labour and the resort to protests to advance their case may no longer be necessary.