Wrangles rule seafarers lobby after split election

Foreign seafarers stranded at the Port of Mombasa. [Omondi Onyango, Stamndard]

A prolonged fight is threatening to ruin the Seafarers of Kenya (SUK) association with two factions fighting over the leadership of the lobby after conducting separate elections in June this year.

Both camps have pitched tent at the office of the registrar of trade unions where they forwarded their lists of elected officials as they wait to be issued with the extracts - confirmation of officials - after they paid a fee to the labour office.

Atie Ramadhan was elected general secretary in her camp while immediate former general secretary Stephen Owaki claims to have been reelected by the rival faction.

Ms Ramadhan was, until her camp held polls on June 24 this year, one of three SUK trustees recognised by the office of the registrar of trade unions. The other trustees were John Hussein Zappa and Matari Mwinyi Matari.

Some seafarers who feel the registration of officials has taken too long now want the two rival groups to explore a possible merger and conduct fresh polls to get the union working.

“The union has been embroiled in endless wrangles since elections in April 14,2 021 that were cancelled by the court early this year. We need to reconcile and getting moving,” said a seafarer allied to one of the factions.

He argued that the union has been unable to properly play its role in the ongoing recruitment and registration of new seafarers, and that with the absence of a Seafarers Wage Council, the seafaring sector has been in a mess.

Court directive

Ramadhan claimed her camp organised the elections as directed by the office of the registrar of trade unions and appointed an election board as per court directive dated February 2 this year, but the other group instead organised its own polls.

“The trustees are the ones directed by the registrar to prepare for elections to be conducted by an elections board. We complied and filed returns to the registrar of trade unions and paid for the extract (copy of the list of officials), and we are waiting for confirmation as union officials. There is only one union and there cannot be two elections,” she argued.

She denied that there was a lacuna when the court nullified the elections of April 14, 2021 in a ruling delivered on February 2 this year, maintaining that trustees were in charge.

The seafarer claimed that the rival group picked its officials through consensus while the union’s constitution provided for only secret ballot.

But Owaki claimed the rival group did not have a members’ register and hence termed its election null and void.

He said election by consensus was allowed in the trade union movement and dismissed his rival’s arguments. The two factions are fighting for the registrar’s endorsement.

But Ramadhan dug in, asking the rival group to apologise for conducting parallel polls and also recognize the trustees who ‘stewarded’ the union to the polls.

Ramadhan told the Owaki team to hand over a register of recruited members and have an audit of membership fees collected from new seafarers she estimated at 5,000.

This week, however, Owaki was hopeful that the acting registrar Beatrice Mathenge will endorse his team after the election conducted at the Mission to Seafarers Mombasa centre on June 21 this year.

He said he followed procedure after calling a special conference that elected an elections board headed by Mr Wycliffe Sava as ordered by the Employment and Labour Relations Court on February 2, this year, when an earlier election was annulled.

“We are waiting to be registered because we met all the requirements of the court. We formed an elections board which elected us into office on June 21,.”

“We expect to be registered after the registrar resumes duty after her annual leave. We know the other group has also forwarded their list of its purported officials but the registrar has not yet issued an extract to either group.”

The government has been spearheading a seafarers’ recruitment programme since 2018 to work on foreign ships across the world. About 4000 seafarers, mainly youth, have since been recruited and the programme is ongoing.

Raw deal

On the need to operationalise the seafarers wages council, Ramadhan said seafarers have had a raw deal as there has been no tripartite team to address their welfare.

“We need a strong tripartite with a working union for seafarers and a seafarers’ wages council to represent government. At the moment seafarers are being recruited without the input of the union or the council,” she argued.

Last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Labour and Social Protection Ms Florence Bore launched the new board of the National Labour Board in Mombasa that will, among other issues, advise government on labour and industrial relations as well as registering trade unions and pushing for the operationalization of the seafarers’ wages council.

The council chaired by Mwainyi Jahazi was appointed nearly three years ago but has not been inaugurated or allocated offices and funds. Its formation was in line with the United Nations International Labour Organisation.