Fishermen’s widows feel let down by minister

By Jade McClune

A group of over 100 women of the Fishermen’s Widows Trust (FWT) have grown increasingly frustrated and disappointed after waiting for months for the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources to respond to their plight after the fisheries minister last year promised to come to their aid.

At a lunch event held for the affected widows at Narraville in Walvis Bay on 18 December last year, Fisheries Minister Bernhard Esau pledged his full support to the widows after it emerged that they had been sidelined and excluded from the 40 percent shareholding they held in a local fishing right holder, Ehika.

The widows say they were promised some form of financial support by the minister to see them through the difficult time, given that for nearly two years they had been denied the monthly payments that were due to them in terms of the agreement with Ehika Fishing.

There was an expectation that, in view of Ehika’s refusal to pay them over the preceding two years, they would be paid a small sum to aid them through the 2018 holiday season to the start of the new year, but there were repeated delays and payment never came. The women, many of whom are on the verge of destitution, became increasingly frustrated in recent months as there seemed to be no progress.

The widows were requested by the ministry to submit documentary proof that they were indeed the spouses of their late fishermen husbands before payment could be made. After months of scrambling to get all their papers in order, the process was apparently only completed in March. A meeting with the minister was due to take place after the Easter break, but this did not materialise.

In recent months, some widows have complained that their children were going hungry, and that they were unable to buy school shoes and clothes for the kids at the start of the schoolyear. Indeed, many were showing signs of extreme distress and depression, particularly as they had been hoping to use the promised ‘gift’ payment from the ministry to cover the cost of essentials.

A well-placed source within the Fisheries Ministry, who was not authorised to speak to the press but agreed to clarify a few matters in the public interest, told Confidente that it was a “complicated matter” and that the minister was intent on addressing it, but had to deal with “certain legalities and complexities” before he could proceed with payment.

They said the minister had openly promised to attend to the widows’ plight, and knew what he was saying when he promised to do so. “We are finalising the matter, rest assured. There are some complexities in law that we must attend to, but we are in the final stages,” a high-level ministerial source said.

Asked whether the government-owned fishing firm, Fishcor, would take over responsibility to pay the widows a monthly allowance if Ehika proved unable to meet its contractual obligations, the ministry official said, “This has nothing to do with Fishcor.”

Speaking off the record, said source said the minister had to deal with the matter in terms of the Marine Resources Act in order to protect the integrity of the fishing right. They said as far as the ministry was concerned, Esau had awarded the fishing right to Ehika, in which FWT has a 40 percent shareholding, but there were disputes over who should represent the FWT on the board.

The ministry had decided to suspend the quota of Ehika last December until such time as they meet certain conditions, as determined by their shareholding structure. This presumably involves giving representation to the FWT Trust on the company board, and allowing for a fair distribution of profits to shareholders, whereas current indications are that the minority shareholders had been withholding all dividends and monthly payments from the FWT, the 40 percent majority shareholder.

Ehika’s failure to allow the majority shareholder any representation on the board, as well as further denying them any dividends, while reportedly paying annual dividends to minority shareholders, may very well be in violation of the Companies Act, but the ministry is reluctant to engage in a civil suit.

“The matter is between FWT and Ehika,” a source close to the minister said. “When the minister was informed [of the situation with Ehika and the widows], he was duty-bound to act to protect the shareholders. Government saw that the widows were suffering, and the minister wanted to offer a temporary reprieve. But the minister has to fulfil the law and [at the time of his pledge in December] it was not clear who would be a beneficiary. Documentation had to be submitted and the minister had satisfy himself that they qualified for the support.

“We couldn’t move on it earlier, because we had to verify the details of the widows. The minister has not changed his stance of support for the widows. He is taking it up as a humanitarian concern, but the matter is still pending and the ministry is working towards a permanent solution to mainstream shareholding.”

It is understood that the women are now weighing up their options. The ministerial source, however, reiterated that despite the apparent breaches of the Companies Act, the minister would likely not get involved in any civil dispute between the FWT and Ehika Fishing, as he is primarily tasked with enforcing the stipulations of the Marine Resources Act.