Africa, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Labour

LABOUR: Africans Shun the Ocean Wave

James Hall

MAPUTO, Sep 5 2009 (IPS) - At this bustling port, where massive cranes above cargo ships load and unload goods in perpetual motion, a strange division of labour is apparent.

Dock workers in Mozambique: but very few Africans work at sea. Credit:  James Hall/IPS

Dock workers in Mozambique: but very few Africans work at sea. Credit: James Hall/IPS

While ships’ crews are almost entirely Asian, with a few European sailors looking down from the decks, the dockworkers below are all Africans. An observer wonders, “Where are the African seafarers?”

“It’s a good question,” said Samito Oliviera, a Maputo clearing and forwarding agent.  “Unemployment is high and migrant work is second nature to Africans. Why don’t they go to sea, where the pay is good?”

Dudley Visser, an executive with the Norwegian shipping line Höegh Autoliners, transporting cars into Southern Africa via Maputo, said “Africans can be attractive workers for shipping lines because of labour costs.

“A few years ago most sailors were from the Philippines. But when the cost of Filipino labour rose, China became the main seafarer labour market. African workers would be affordable if they were available.”

Pieter Venter, general manager of the Grindrod Maputo Car Terminal, where cars are offloaded en route to inland customers, said “All my workers are Mozambicans. I have no problem finding workers.”

Why then do these workers remain on the dockside, where wages are lower than those of seafarers?

Carlos, a tall, strapping forklift operator driving up ship ramps to offload cargo, replied “I would not want to go to sea. I could drown.”

A co-worker laughs, “He is lying!  Before he came here he was a river man. His job was to swim across the river where there is no bridge, carrying people on his back.”

Indeed, Africans have been water people, sailing coastal areas and navigating rivers and lakes for millennia.

“That’s true, but we Africans are not historically ocean-going.  And as a people we harbour memories of ancestors who were taken against their will in ships to lands across the sea, and they never returned,” said Carlos Manjate, an operations manager at Maputo’s port.

A number of dock workers said they really would not like “a sailor’s lonely life”.

“I don’t want to leave my wife for so many months, because there are no women at sea. If you work down in the mines you live in a hostel, but there are always women there, African women,” said Dominque, a stevedore.

Visser, the Norwegian shipping executive, said the “companionship” issue had become universal, as the nature of shipping had changed.

“The romance has gone out of being a sailor, and this has had repercussions on our ability to staff ships. In the old days, ships would dock at port, and sailors could enjoy days roaming a new country.  At least there would be an eight-hour layover for a night on the town.

“Now, because of strict itineraries, ships are in and out of ports in hours. Our crews spend six months at sea,” he said.

“In the old days seafarers would be teenagers. They didn’t have kids or responsibilities.Today sailing is a lifetime career that is skilled work. Some people don’t want to be separated from their families,” said Michelle Fitt, principal of the S.A. Maritime School in Durban, South Africa.

Her school, which has close ties with the maritime industry, does not teach seafaring but rather landside jobs for the shipping industry, and port management. Her student body is 90 percent female, an indication of who will be running Africa’s shipping lines and port offices in the future.

Ship ownership is another reason why African seafarers are scarce, notes Fitt. “All the shipping lines that come to Africa are foreign-owned companies. If you had an African shipping line there would likely be African seafarers operating their ships,” she said.

Other port officials agreed that a localised shipping industry would be required to produce African seafarers.

“China has a big labour pool for sailors, and doesn’t have to import Africans. Africans who go overseas to learn skills usually go for management skills and not labour jobs. They make the effort to come back as doctors, not sailors,” said Oliveira.

Also, the degree of knowledge and skill acquired for the job of seafarer would elevate an African worker to a level that would make him a valuable employee landside, given Africa’s longstanding indigenous skills shortage.   “Men and women who dedicate themselves to that degree of training usually get jobs at home, and would not need to engage in what they consider a strange job in an unusual environment,” said Fitt.

But once the job of seafaring is pioneered by more African sailors, the job may seem less “unusual” and more appealing to others.

“All it takes is a few African seafarer to blaze a trail, earn a good living, and show how it’s done,” said Oliveira.

One incentive would be affirmative action programmes enacted by Africa’s coastal countries.

“There are so many African ports. Everything that goes into and out of Africa comes through the ports. The industry is huge. It seems a logical idea for countries to enact affirmative action legislation requiring shipping lines that dock regularly at their ports to employ some African sailors,” Oliveira said.

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