Union Task Force Aims to Replace U.S. and European Mariners Working Offshore Africa

fpso azurite bourbon prosafe
The Bourbon Liberty 201 in supplying operation around FPSO Azurite (Prosafe) in the Gulf of Guinea, image: Bourbon

A multi-national labor union group announced a special task force this month aimed at cutting the number of U.S. and European citizens working aboard offshore service vessels active in African waters. The unions want to boost the numbers of African nationals employed, reducing reliance on foreigners to crew the boats vital to the continued operation of the offshore oil platforms in Nigeria, Ghana, Angola, and elsewhere in Africa.

A new “African Regional Offshore Oil and Gas Task Force Group” was announced Oct. 10 by the London-based International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), an alliance of 700 separate trade unions spread out across the globe. Made up of labor union representatives from about 10 African nations, the new task force will pressure government agencies, oil producers and vessel operators on the issues of national cabotage, labor rights and local employment, according to details gathered from a phone conversation with ITF official Norrie McVicar.

McVicar notes the initial focus of the task force will be on Nigeria and Ghana, but with the intention to also pursue its goals in the regions of Africa where offshore oil and gas development is in its early stages, such as Kenya and Mozambique.

At the October 10th ITF conference in Mombasa, task force chairman and ITF regional officer Joe Katende commented that the formation of the task force “will send a signal to governments and the hydrocarbon industry that African workers are sick and tired of hearing excuses from the industry. It is time the industry backed African workers in developing their skills and finding job opportunities on their own continental shelf.”

McVicar notes that Katende’s sharp tone reflects frustration at the slowness of OSV operators such as Tidewater, Bourbon and Swire Pacific to extend employment opportunities to Africans. Nigeria is the primary example, he said, where offshore oil and gas fields have been in production for decades, yet employment of Nigerian nationals aboard OSVs is minimal.

But that may be changing as a result of a number of factors, commented Todd Scholl, a Houston-based financial analyst of oil services companies for Wunderlich Securities. “I recently had a discussion with Bourbon and they see real advantages,” in hiring more local Nigerians on the company’s vessels, he said during a telephone interview this week. They pay a premium to employ expatriates because Americans or Europeans expect higher pay due to the dangers inherent – such as piracy — in working in that country. “They said they think they can improve their margins by increasing the number of locals on the boats,” as replacements for the higher-paid expatriates.

Pressure is also coming from government sources, added Scholl. “The issue of ‘local content’ is very much at the forefront,” in the African oil fields, especially offshore West Africa.

Tidewater, for example, is believed to be under heavy pressure in Angola to improve local content in its operations there as it attempts to renegotiate a long-stalled joint venture renewal with the national oil company Sonangol, added Scholl.

Under particular scrutiny by critics is the system of waivers issued under the Nigerian cabotage laws. Many foreign vessels operate there under these waivers, both McVicar and Scholl said, but it is believed that the system is infected by government corruption. “Some of these companies get waivers by making payoffs, and the big oil companies look the other way. The end result is nothing ever changes, and there are no jobs for the Nigerian seamen,” McVicar charged.

As the largest single OSV operator in Africa, Tidewater stands to be the company most affected by pressure to increase employment of African nationals. Although the company did not respond to gCaptain’s request for comment, Tidewater’s website states that it has more than 125 vessels in Nigeria, Angola, Ghana, Cameroon, and Republic of Congo. Paris-based Bourbon is the second largest, followed by Hong Kong-based Swire Pacific and the U.S. companies Seacor and Edison Chouest.

Bourbon as the example

McVicar said that a recent agreement between ITF and Bourbon is a good example that the unions would like to see followed by other OSV companies. ITF and Bourbon signed a cooperation agreement in July that extends across the company’s worldwide fleet of some 450 vessels, with a workforce of 10,300 from 87 different countries. The agreement, notes McVicar, “lays out provisions for (labor-management) dialogue, implementation, workers’ rights, local industrial relations, health and safety and environmental protection.”

The Bourbon-ITF agreement is related to implementation of the International Maritime Organization’s Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC), which entered into force in August.  MLC, which codified many existing maritime labor regulations and requirements, guarantees the right of seafarers to fair pay and union representation.

McVicar notes that the task force intends to make full use of MLC in its campaign to boost employment and improve working conditions in all regional sectors of the Africa oil and gas sector.

ITF-affiliated unions that have signed on as members of the Africa task force are: Seafarers Union of Kenya; Egyptian General Seafarers Union; Ghana Merchant Navy Offshore Association; Sindicato Nacional dos Trabalhadores da Marhina Mercante e Pescas (Mozambique); Federacao dos Sindicatos dos Trabhadores dos Transportes e Comunicacoes de Angola; Dockworkers Union of Kenya; Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria; Syndicat Federal Maritime de Madagascar; and the Nigeria Merchant Navy Officers’ and Water Transport Senior Staff Association.

The ITF notes that unions from South Africa and the Ivory Coast are also joining the task force, and it will be open to new members as they develop of an interest in the issues.

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