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Much toil, little pay for Kenyan seafarers

Youth hopeful of seafarer jobs aboard the Jonas Vessel at the Port of Mombasa. Seafarers are crying for better pay. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

Six months ago, Labour Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui gazetted the Maritime Wage Council, an entity that was supposed to standardise wages for seafarers.

Mr Chelugui said at the time that the body would immediately embark on its mandate of reviewing wages upwards for the seafarers who had long-suffered.

Six months down the line, the council is yet to start work. Seafarers in Kenya are an unsettled lot with grievances raging from poor pay, bad working conditions to constant abandonment at sea.

Inquiries from Shipping and Logistics reveal that council members have not met since the gazettement, with those interviewed saying they are waiting for guidance from the appointing authority.

Andrew Mwangura, a former Secretary General of the Seafarers Union of Kenya, said despite the formation of the council, merchant mariners’ pay remains bad.

"It was established (the council) in July last year. When will it be operationalised?’’ Mwangura posed.

"Merchant mariners are the face of the maritime sector and usually work in physically and mentally draining conditions hence the need to be well remunerated.”

Mwangura explained that since 2006, the International Maritime Labor Convention has been pushing governments to pass laws that would ensure seafarers are remunerated well. Kenya, despite adopting the Labor Institutions Act of 2007, is yet to guarantee fair treatment of seafarers. 

He said there is no clear regulatory structure of wages for the sector despite Kenya being a member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

The ILO provides a well defined structure for seafarers’ wages and hours the cadres should work.

The basic wage for a seaman should be no less than the amount periodically set by the Joint Maritime Commission; a body of ship owners and seafarers established by ILO.

The ILO has stipulated that a seaman should earn a salary of not less than $641 (Sh72,657).

The amount applies to all seafarers including those employed aboard ocean-going vessels, Jack-up barges, coastal ships, cruise ships and commercial yachts.

The highest pay a seaman could receive is $1,000 (Sh113,350) a day. However, one needs to be a master mariner on a Jack-up Barge to earn that. The average salary for masters and chief engineers is around $11,000 (Sh1,246,850).

In an earlier interview, Mwangura said the establishment of maritime wage standards for seafarers was a milestone.

“The forgotten Kenyan seafarers for many years have been underpaid or abandoned by rogue ship owners,” said Mwagura.

He noted that shipping companies in Mombasa have continued to hire migrants at low wages, a clever tactic to evade local labor laws and prop up profits.

“The proposed seamen wage regulation order should focus on matters regarding to minimum wage standards. The order should also regulate other working conditions for specific categories of seafarers including vacation leave, sick leave and special leave,” he said.

Nancy Karigithu, Principal Secretary for Shipping and Maritime Affairs, said the government was committed to the development of a wage standard for seafarers.

"The standard wage will enable Kenya to meet its obligations under the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) 2006,” said Dr Karigithu.

"It will further set a level-playing field for owners of ships flying flags of countries that have ratified the convention."