By Kef Dukulay
Crane Operators and Signalmen attached to various stevedore companies operating at the Queen Elizabeth II Quay, commonly known as Water Key have thrown ‘no work’ challenge against their employers because of poor pay and working conditions.
Early this week, the aggrieved workers decided on a peaceful sit-down and ‘no work’ campaign until they are being taken seriously by both management of the Sierra Leone Ports Authority as parent and supervising body and the stevedoring companies.
Their allegations are that firstly, there is no reliable working relationship between the operators and the Stevedore companies and they accuse the parent body, the Sierra Leone Ports Authority of doing little to protect their interests against exploitation by the companies.
Secondly, the crane operators accuse the stevedore companies of gross neglect at the work place as they are exposed to dangers with little PPEs, poor accommodation and dietary system on board vessels and the sad fact that they are not immediately attended to in cases of accidents, not to talk of compensations for the injured or the dead whilst on duty.
In a letter dated 11th August, 2021 the group, identifying themselves as ‘Concerned Crane Workers and Signalmen,’ catalogued what they called ‘long-standing concerns’ to the General Manager of the SLPA. Among other things, the workers requested the General Manager to intervene on their behalf to the stevedore companies over their ‘predicament’ and to prevail in their demands to improve on their status and to treat them as important people in their operations. In that letter, they also urged that if their status quo remained thus, they would prefer going autonomous as they were no longer prepared to accept the humiliations meted to them by the stevedore companies through what they called a ‘third party broker system.’
Few days after the correspondence, the crane operators and their counterparts, Signalmen working with the various companies decided to withhold their services until something is being done. This brisk development took the companies off guard and landed them at the Ross Road Police Division asking for redress. All five stevedore companies, comprising Leone Dock, Makona, URBAN, Ports and 3JADs came together to make a criminal report against some members of the crane operators. The companies’ claim, according to police records, included incitement and intimidation as they accused the workers of inciting others not to work and threatening to harm anyone that ventured against their decision to stay put.
This police action warranted the General Manager of the Sierra Leone Ports Authority, Dr. Abdulai Fofanah to reply with a very scathing response, to the operators’ correspondence of 11th August. The GM’s letter, dated 30th August completely denigrated the crane operators and signalmen, referring to their unit as a ‘so called concerned Operators and signalmen.’ Management said they were ‘not recognized to operate within the precincts of the ports as a unit.’ In other words, the GM referred to a report by the CPCS which demands that the crane operators and signalmen must be employees of stevedore companies. Their decision to operate as ‘a unit and independently was against World Bank privatization recommendations’, the GM said in his letter.
The workers are angry that Ports Management could only come in when they had decided to down their tools.
“Ports management knows our plight for the past many years but they don’t care about us. They side the companies that continue to exploit us,” Secretary of the Crane workers, Nathaniel Kankaju noted. He said the service of crane operators involves the loading and offloading of ships that birch within Sierra Leone waters.
Kankaju said according to the dictates of World Bank privatization recommendations, the Crane Operators and Signalmen’s unit form an integral component of the operations of stevedore companies. “Why then are we not gainfully employed, our colleagues get injured and die with nobody caring, he said; disclosing that the ships and their agents pay fabulously for the services but they only receive pittance from the companies.
Meanwhile, the stevedore companies are worried over this development and they are making frantic efforts to get the operators back working. At least the Operations Manager of Makona, Tamba Lamin admitted that the companies do not offer uniform payments and that they are not responsible for payment of compensations in cases of injuries or fatalities. The workers remain resolved to stay put as the GM in his letter has also offered to engage the Dock companies on their behalf.