Rocking the boat: Seafarers' union hit by leadership wrangles

Kenya Maritime Authority assistant registrar of seafarers Josphine Ntria when she met with the  M.v Jilan crew at Mombasa Port. [Omondi Onyango, Stamndard]

The registrar of trade unions has been forced to intervene in a fresh scuffle pitting two factions fighting for control of the Seafarers Union of Kenya (SUK).

Already, the two sides have conducted separate elections with both of them claiming to have complied with a court directive to hold the polls.

The first faction conducted its elections at the Mission to Seafarers station in Mombasa on June 21 this year while the second group held its polls on June 24 at Licodep Hall in Likoni sub-County, Mombasa.

On February 2, this year, the Employment and Labour Relations Court in Mombasa ordered the union to hold fresh polls within 150 days after the previous one conducted on April 14, 2021 was nullified because it was done without an election board in place.

The widow period offered by the court ends on June 30.

The court made the decision after a trustee Atie Swaleh Ramadhan and five other seafarers challenged the elections claiming they were organised  by Stephen Owaki, the secretary general, instead of an elections board as per the union constitution.

On June 21, this year, Mr Owaki bounced back as general secretary with seasoned seafarer Athaman Mzee as his deputy in the factional polls.

Juma Mwachatamu was declared national chairman and Albert Adembesa his deputy while the post of national treasurer went to Kayemba Ferunzi with Hassan Kombo as deputy. Janet Mirobi was elected women coordinator.

The faction had elected trade unionist Wycliffe Sava to head the nine-member election board on June 6.

But the rival faction headed by Atie Swaleh Ramadhan held its elections on June 24 this year at the Licodep hall in Likoni, Mombasa County. 

The Atie faction claimed to have held its special conference and picked its elections board in April this year.

In the polls presided over by Samson Karisa Menza as election board chairman, Ms Ramadhan was elected general secretary, Mwalimu Hamisi, chairman and John Hussein Zappa treasurer.

Both factions have claimed legitimacy with the Owaki team raising an objection to the Registrar of Trade Unions claiming that the union constitution does not allow for two separate polls.

“Our rivals have held separate elections but we have already raised an objection with the registrar of trade unions and we are waiting for answers,” said Owaki.

Owaki claimed the rival group did not have a members’ register and hence termed its election null and void. The two factions are yet to be recognised by the registrar.

A spokesman for the Atie Ramadhan faction Andrew Mwangura claimed they have strictly adhered to the union constitution and the court directive.

He also claimed they had involved the labour office. He argued that Ms Atie Swaleh, Matari Mwinyi and John Zappa were recognized by the office of the registrar as trustees and were the right people to organise the polls.

“The Licodep Hall in Likoni faction is the legitimate one. It has complied with the union constitution,” said Mwangura, a former SUK general secretary.

On May 3 this year, acting registrar of trade unions Beatrice Mathenge listed Atie, Zappa and Mwinyi as union trustees.

She wrote to a commercial bank to allow them to operate the union account for the purpose of conducting fresh polls ordered by the court in the judgement of February 2, 2023.

“According to the register of officials held in this office, the following persons are the trustees of the union: John Hussein Zappa, Matari Mwinyi and Atie Swaleh Ramadhan,” Ms Mathenge wrote to the bank.

“We therefore request you to allow the trustees to operate the account of the union as signatories for the purpose of accessing funds from the account of the union in order to conduct the elections as ordered by the court in the above case.”

The wrangles have emerged at a time when the union is struggling to position itself in order to benefit as government enters into agreements with several shipping firms to recruit seafarers to work on board various foreign ships.

The recruitment of seafarers, mostly youth, started in 2018 when the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) entered an agreement with the government. The government has been recruiting seafarers and sea cadets without involving the union.

In the last five years, the government has entered into seafarers’ replacement and recruitment deals with, Kenya National Shipping Line, CMA CGM Container Shipping Line, Bahri Shipping Company, Celebrity Cruise Ships, Royal Caribbean Cruises and the Danish shipping company DetForenedeDampskibs-Selskab (DFDS).

Bahri is one of the largest owner and operator of Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs).

The company currently owns 93 vessels, including 40 VLCCs, 37 chemical/product tankers, six multipurpose vessels and 10 dry bulk carriers.

MSC has a total fleet size of 756 ships, of which roughly two-thirds are chartered from lessors.

DFDS operates a network of 25 routes with 50 freight and passenger ships in the North Sea, Baltic Sea, and the English Channel under the name DFDS Seaways.