Eromosele Abiodun writes on efforts by the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency to ensure the safety, welfare and training of seafarers in the country
Shipping is an industry that contributes over 90 per cent to the world economy. There are about 51,400 merchant ships operating all over the world, transferring goods between places, keeping economies running. Whether it is oil from the Gulf or iPhones in containers being delivered from one part of the world to another, everything is running round the clock, with precision and diligence.
Who are the people responsible for this non-stop action? While the shipbrokers and the charterers and the owners take care of the financial aspects backing the viability of the trade, the seafarers are the ones executing it in real life aspect. The trade is only so good when the product is delivered safe and on time to the receiver, and seafarers ensure that Sundays or public holidays notwithstanding. Seafarers do not understand the concept, rather cannot be allowed to understand the concept of Sundays because someone, somewhere, is in need of a product that must be delivered clean and on time.
The job of seafarers involve years of rigorous training in mastering the aspects of navigation, cargo work and ship operations and the everyday precise application of it.
Ships carry more than 90 per cent of the world trade and these ships are manned and operated by seafarers. Hence, it can be safely said that seafarers are serving 90 per cent of mankind’s need directly or indirectly.
Experts believe that with the recent advancements in technology wherein ships are gradually moving towards being unmanned, this could be deemed as a threat to the seafaring profession.
While it might affect the profession in some ways, leading practitioners are optimistic that the years of theoretical knowledge, practical applications, and experience at sea can never be replaced by machine.
The sea and winds, they argued, do not always follow the predicted patterns, adding that the human angle to shipping will always be invaluable.
They added that the expertise gained over the years surpass any new challenges to the profession making the seafarer is indispensable.
However, as critical as seafarers are to the Nigerian economy, the practitioners are often treated shabbily by ship-owners who mostly employ them. There is a gradual shift, however, as concerned stakeholders make moves to ensure adequate welfare of seafarer
Meanwhile, in a bid to ensure sanity in the relationship between ship owners and seafarers, the federal government has threatened to sanction ship owners who default in the implementation of the contributory pension scheme for seafarers.
Improving quality of training
As part of the effort to improve seafarers’ welfare the Nigerian government recently announced that there are policies in the pipeline to improve the quality of training and certification, as well as remuneration for the country’s seafarers.
Director-General of the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Bashir Jamoh disclosed this during a webinar hosted by NIMASA to mark the Day of the Seafarer in Lagos recently.
The session, attracted local and international participants, with the key speaker and consultant at Transbasin Limited, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Karen Ogidigben Onimisi, and Nigerian Labour Attaché at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Switzerland, Essah Aniefiok Etim, calling for better welfare and support for seafarers.
According to Jamoh, “Policies are in the pipeline to improve the quality of training and certificates we give to the seafarers. We are taking steps to standardise the curriculum of our training institutions in line with international standards. We are also working on increasing the remuneration of our seafarers. These policies would be announced as soon as we complete work on them.”
He said seafarers were among the most courageous people in the world, stressing that the theme for this year’s Day of the Seafarer, ‘Seafarers are key workers,’ is a “testament to the fact that the world cannot do without seafarers. Seafarers hold the key to humanity’s survival on a day-to-day basis. They hold the key to our wellbeing in this time of COVID-19 period.”
Jamoh commended seafarers for sustaining the global supply chain, distributing urgently needed medical supplies with enormous risk to their lives and families.
“The seafarers are unsung heroes; they are also our invisible heroes. We see their handwork every day and everywhere in agricultural machinery, the food we eat, and the unbroken run of the manufacturing base, despite the global lockdown.”
The DG spoke on the challenges faced by seafarers amid the coronavirus pandemic, including stringent work conditions in some countries, movement restrictions, lockdowns, crew change difficulties, fatigue and seasickness, and disruption of contracts.
He said: “As a regulator, we have taken steps to alleviate the suffering of the seafarers. NIMASA was among the first government agencies to declare seafarers as being on essential duty, and we published this in a marine notice. We also issued COVID-19 guidelines to incoming ships towards ensuring that there is no importation of the virus by sea.
“NIMASA was the first in West Africa to issue a COVID-19 marine notice. We challenged ship-owners and employers of seafarers to take necessary proactive measures to lessen the pains of seafarers. We also walked in lockstep with the IMO to tailor all our marine notices in the early period of COVID-19 towards supporting the extension of the validity of seafarers’ certificates, crew change, guidelines, procedure and their designation as essential workers.”
According to Jamoh, “It is said that a good sailor weathers the storm he cannot avoid; COVID-19 was a storm Seafarers couldn’t avoid. As tried and tested seamen and women, our seafarers have continued to weather this storm for us. We celebrate you today. Nigeria thanks you, the world appreciates you, NIMASA as a regulator will never abandon you. We will support you all the way.”
On his part, Director, Maritime Sector Consultant at Transbasin Limited, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Onimisi called on the international community to render necessary assistance to seafarers, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She commended NIMASA for supporting seafarers during the pandemic and emphasised the need for Nigeria to develop post-pandemic measures to make the country’s seafarers internationally marketable and competitive.
She said: “Seafarers are part of the global supply chain and should have access to shore leave at ports in accordance with global regulations. There is also a need to look at improved ways to mitigate the challenges that COVID-19 has brought before us, commencing with digitalisation of our processes, including local training and licensing of Nigerian seafarers.”
Also speaking, ILO Nigerian Labour Attaché, Permanent Mission of Nigeria to the United Nations in Switzerland, Etim sued for better working conditions for seafarers.
He called for greater opportunities to make their voices heard, saying they should be encouraged through appropriate rewards and compensations.
As part of the activities marking the day, NIMASA donated to the seafarers, items that included essential commodities, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), facemasks, and hand sanitisers.
Shipping lines’ marginalisation
Meanwhile, seafarers in the country have in recent times decried what they described as marginalisation by foreign shipping lines and Nigeria LNG Limited in preference for their counterpart in other countries with less qualification.
This, they said, is despite the massive investment in seafarers development by the federal government championed by NIMASA.
According to them, the discrimination formerly popular among foreign companies has become evident in Nigeria with several indigenous companies including the Nigeria LNG Limited (NLNG), a liquefied natural gas (LNG) producing company with the Nigerian government as a shareholder.
Speaking on behalf of his colleagues, a Seafarer, Daniel Ikueyemi, posited that the poor feedback mechanism at NIMASA has deprived the agency of the true impact of the investment in seafarers’ development.
Ikueyemi lamented that most seafarers trained under the Nigerian Seafarers Development Programme (NSDP) are on the verge of having their Certificates of Competence (CoC) expire, “yet many have no resources to renew it because they never had an opportunity of going on board vessels even for a single day.
“NLNG rejects seafarers with Nigerian CoCs. NLNG is a company in which the nation has shares. If this certificate doesn’t have value in our country and organizations like NLNG reject it, there is no need talking about acceptability of this certificate around the globe. There is no point wasting our time on that, “he said.
Ikueyemi proposed that NIMASA creates a seafarers’ desk at the agency with the task of receiving valuable information and experiences of seafarers especially on practices on-board vessels.
According to him, this can be an avenue to enable the agency resolve the numerous problems associated with seafaring, as “NIMASA would better capture seafarers’ experiences.”
He said: “NIMASA shouldn’t allow their resources waste away because that is what happens when the seafarers aren’t engaged. The duration of CoC is five years and it becomes useless if one doesn’t utilise it during that timeframe.”
“Imagine the millions of dollars that have been spent on NSDP already. Nevertheless, NIMASA can’t give account of the number of cadets they have trained so far. A lot of people have left the system unnoticed.”
On the discrimination of Nigerian seafarers because of the quality of their CoCs, he said: “Every Nigerian that goes to have his or her CoC outside the country already understands the issue of discrimination. It has become a common thing for us. Discrimination against those operating with Nigerian CoCs has become the norm. Nigerian seafarers are already discriminated. So the discrimination resulting from the CoCs becomes discrimination out of the discriminated. Our CoCs are now discriminated among the discriminated CoCs.”
“We don’t need to go far to talk about how other countries discriminate seafarers with Nigerian CoCs. The discrimination is evident in Nigeria. There are lots of companies in Nigeria that state clearly that they want seafarers with foreign CoCs. These are companies operating on Nigerian waters.”
Engaging Nigerian Seafarers
Meanwhile, he encouraged NIMASA to have Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with several countries for seafarers’ engagement, especially African nations in dire need of seafarers.
“We shouldn’t only focus on the Western countries for such partnerships. There are lots of African nations in dire need of seafarers and we can start from Africa. The essence of having MoUs with African nations shouldn’t only be to lobby for IMO Council elections. Nigerian seafarers can have privilege to work in other African countries with these MoUs,”he said.
He also stressed the need to improve the quality of Nigerian CoCs so that it can’t be easily forged, noting that around the globe there is a perception that Nigerian CoCs can be easily forged.
According to him, these perceptions further reduce the value of Nigerian CoCs, adding that a lot of people with the Nigerian CoCs never attended the required classes to sit for it, meanwhile a lot of those who have taken the classes don’t have the ability to pass the examination for the CoC.
“We have discovered from the studies and data collected that more than 50 per cent of the people who sit for the examinations say that there is no correlation between what is taught in class and the curriculum for the examination. The curriculum given for the examination is obviously different from what is done in the classes,” he stated.
He also lamented the long waiting time for results of CoCs, which takes almost one year in Nigeria, whereas other nations complete the process in one week or one month at most.