September 24, 2015

Shipping: the sweatshop industry?

Leading peer reviewed medical journal ‘The Lancet’ published a report on mortality recently; the British seafarer union Nautilus International applied some of the findings to seamen, linking their MLC approved near-hundred hour working week to a host of deadly medical dangers. It should startle us that working hours at sea, even under the much hyped MLC regime, expose our seamen to diabetes, stroke, cardiac diseases and cancer. That should really worry us, but it won’t. And even these dangerous hours of work are still routinely exceeded at sea. 

Since nobody cares about seamen, The Lancet almost certainly had high pressure (and much higher paying, compared to the paltry wages seamen get) shore jobs in mind when it published the report. Nonetheless, it said, amongst other things, that incidents of stroke were connected to long working hours and that such hours, especially at night with inadequate rest, were directly linked to heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Nautilus draws an analogy between these findings and the asbestos scandal many moons ago, when established findings linking the use of asbestos to cancer were ignored by the industry for years- decades, even- until the stuff hit the fan when people went to court in Western countries and the insurance companies had their legs chopped off. I don’t know about my contemporaries, but many years ago, I felt dismayed and cheated when the asbestos link to cancer finally reached me. By then, I had been working, of and on like many of us, with asbestos on ships for years- years during which the carcinogenic effects of the substance were well known to everybody in shipping. No warning reached me; nobody did anything about the cancerous substance we were breathing in every day.

The Lancet’s findings will be similarly downplayed and essentially ignored today, like all those many findings linking fatigue directly to safety already are. It will take a US style class action suit in India or the Philippines or some such major labour supplying country to change anything- a suit that links premature death at sea to long working hours without adequate rest. The IMO, Flag and Port States, managers, industry associations and national legislators from labour supplying countries are going to do nothing except dig their heads firmly in the sand; that, as we well know, is their default setting.

Since no class action suit is not going to happen, this will. The way this industry operates will mean that it will continue to attract fewer and fewer youngsters of caliber into its murky fold. We will get the dregs, and the world will suffer along with us when incompetent, underpaid, demotivated and fatigued seamen run their ships aground, or crash them into each other, or other fun stuff. 

Meanwhile, everybody will continue to ignore fatigue and its massive impact on health and safety. Shipmanagers will continue to promote widespread fudging of working hour figures when they can get away with it- and find creative ways of circumventing regulations, like paying a bonus instead of overtime, when they can’t. While all this song and dance is going on, we will continue to kill our seafarers softly and almost maliciously. 

Unless its mentality changes, this industry risks being lumped together with other sweatshop industries that do not even pretend to care for their workers, who run them into the ground with scant regard for their health. I suspect it is already thought of as a sweatshop industry in the eyes of many of the seamen it employs, or those youngsters who are looking at seafaring as a career. 

It has betrayed its seamen so regularly that it probably deserves that label.


September 10, 2015

Screaming in Yemen.

Don’t ask me why, but I like Yemen, even though everybody is always screaming at me there.

I landed at Sanaa’s airport to join a ship maybe ten years ago around 5 pm after four days on the 'road' (Hyderabad Delhi Singapore Sanaa with time in Delhi and Singapore only to visit offices for work). No sleep at all. My flight to Aden from Sanaa was early the next morning.

The terminal was all khaki including the construction. Looked like Rommel's Desert Rat headquarters only no desert.

Nobody spoke English except in sentences of two or three words. Maximum. And screamed at high pitch with maximum volume to boot.

On finding out I had a laptop, they took it and my passport away. Somebody indicated those would be returned to me later, I think.

About eight to twelve people, including me, had onward flights the next am. We spent the night in one room with zero water or any other facilities except some tea bags and half a kettle of water and a kind of bathroom. The kettle was not working.

Next morning, the rush at the single open counter reminded me of a market I had visited in Cairo, with huge bunches of locals converging on the single guy behind the counter screaming and apparently fighting. Maybe they thought they were Indians.

When I could, I asked about my laptop bag and passport. The guy picked up my bag from behind the counter and screamed, "Yours??", and gave it to me without waiting for an answer, like Pontius Pilate.

What about my passport, I asked him. "On plane!!" he screamed at me.

I was so tired and fed up I boarded the plane (coming from Saudi Arabia somewhere and going to Aden). At the entrance to the aircraft, I asked a flight attendant for my passport. Sit, he said. Then, when I sat, he brought me some foul smelling juice and said, "Here" and went away.

I was so tired and fed up I went to sleep.

Inside the Aden terminal, before customs, one guy came up to me and shouted, "You Captain?" When I said yes, he pointed to my suitcase lying nearby, and screamed "Yours?" When I said yes, he screamed at somebody who took my suitcase away.

Ok this guy knows stuff, I thought. So I asked him, where is my passport? His English was good, so he shouted, "You no have passport????" in a shocked tone an Indian rural patriarch would use if his daughter eloped and married outside the community, caste, religion and country all at once.

Suddenly, about twenty feet away, I saw somebody in uniform carrying a passport that looked like it was Indian. This time I screamed, Passport!! Whereupon everybody and everything froze, the uniform smiled, and gave it to me.

Turned out my suitcase had been sent to the hotel; the guy with the good English had come to pick me up.

At Sanaa, intermittently in the night, I thought I heard small bursts of gunfire, like somebody was celebrating. Fortunately, this was not my first trip to places like Yemen so I knew I would probably be ok.

I had still to get into that cab in Mukalla, see Osama Bin Laden's picture stuck on the dashboard like Indians stick their Gods, and have the cab driver scream at me, "You Muslim?" That was a few weeks later. 


August 27, 2015

Mainstream Outlaws

The New York Times recently ran a bunch of articles on lawlessness on the high seas that was pretty scathing of international shipping. The series- ‘The Outlaw Ocean’- does not have to be taken too seriously, though. It is poorly researched, spews too many bromides and, in addition, extrapolates the sins of the worst players in the shipping and fishing industries to the entire maritime industry. It suggests that the disregard for the environment at sea is endemic. It lumps seamen, migrants, fishermen and stowaways together. It suffers from pieces that are too damn long, as if the strength of an argument is proportional to the number of words used to peddle it. 

The series is sensationalist at best and dead wrong at worst. From a long list of rubbish that I could quote, just a little- It tells us that murders regularly occur offshore. That egregious crime is routinely committed with impunity.  That thousands of seafarers, fishermen and migrants die under suspicious circumstances each year (this is probably accurate, given the situation in the Med today, but the fatality rates are implied as extending to seamen. That, on average, a large ship sinks every four days. That 99% of the crimes committed at sea go unprosecuted and barely noted. 

Even with the New York Times gets it right- when it talks about the flags of convenience or nobody having the inclination to enforce weak laws, it does not say anything new. I suspect that the only reason some- mainly Western- maritime associations have taken the articles seriously is because it is the NYT; I will, however, just write off the series without further ado.

A clipping from an Indian magazine, “The Week,” that Manoj Joy of ‘Sailors Helpline’ emailed me has more significance. The report, ‘Prisoners at Sea’ details how ‘recruitment sharks and a callous government continue to put the lives of Indian seafarers at risk.’ (I would have added ‘and corrupt managers’ to this).  It tells us the stories of people you will probably never hear of again. The story of Captain Shreepal Singh of the Ocean Star that disappeared four years ago, whose family has been doing the rounds of government agencies- even Rahul Gandhi- to find out what happened to him, all without effect. The older story of the ill-fated Jupiter 6 and its ten Indian sailors; the tug vanished a decade ago towing a bulk carrier to Alang. The bulk carrier was found adrift off South Africa with the tug missing; nothing is known of the fate of the crew. The families have had to spend years in courts fighting for their right to be compensated. 

From callousness, we come to criminal collusion. The Week writes about a half dozen case like Chennai’s Vasantha Raghavan’s. This is the story of thousands of Indian seamen, who, ever since the abomination of the implementation of the STCW convention twenty years ago, have been lured into shipping, taking huge loans to ‘train’ as cadets or ratings. Raghavan landed up in Malaysia to join a ship and was forced to work as a cleaner in a hotel; he was beaten up and tortured when he protested. We know that many, many others work on substandard and unsafe ships- some no better than floating coffins- ‘placed’ there by touts and officials from even Director General of Shipping approved agencies. This scandal is an open secret; the fact that nobody can get his (thankfully, few women are joining the profession) first berth without paying somebody or the other is the rule, not the exception. 

Cadets- like Nikhil Silvi and Vignesh Kumar, both mentioned in the article, who collapsed in a tank on a ship- often die on these unsafe ships without anybody in the industry or its regulators giving a damn about them, their remains, or the plight of their families.

Sorry, New York Times, but the sea is not the outlaw; it is as clean as it always was. There are no outlaws in shipping anyway, at least the part of it that is managed from India; the criminals here are firmly in the mainstream. Thanks to a government that does not care about its seamen, a regulator that is powerless to criminally prosecute even a doorman in a shipping agency and an industry that does not feel the need to clean up its act or weed out the corrupt, the criminals have taken over the system. The lunatics have taken over the asylum.

No, there are no outlaws in shipping anymore. And that is the biggest tragedy of all.


August 13, 2015

Clerks or sailors?

It is remarkable, but hardly surprising, how well informed the young seagoing officers of today are about regulatory and administrative paperwork. They know all about which forms to fill in when and which manuals should be cross-referenced with which procedures. They know all about matrices and vetting inspection administration and can reel off minute details about the latest Marpol annexures with ease. They know chapter and verse of a company’s increasingly onerous (and, usually, equally useless) administration requirements. They know all this because shipping has brought them up this way. 

The problem is that- when you combine this unholy stress on paperwork with our inability to attract youth of calibre, our insistence on shortening sea time requirements with questionable distance learning programmes and our disregard for how much paperwork contributes to fatigue and its aftermath- the problem is that these youngsters do not get- because of this- enough experience on the water that is critical to making a halfway decent officer. The problem is that they are spending too much time at a desk and too little on the main deck or the bridge. The reality is that administration- whether at sea or ashore- is the salad, not the main dish. The problem is, therefore, that the tail is wagging the dog.

This is a systematic snafu. Managers ashore push manuals and paperwork onto crews for two reasons. One, they want cheap- read free- clerks at sea to do administrative stuff (just one example, payroll) that clearly belongs ashore. Two, they want to escape responsibility and liability if anything untoward happens (We told the Master and the crew; we required them to fill up forms in triplicate. They screwed up. In any case, the Master has overriding authority- read our manuals! Therefore, error of servant, Melud! Yay, you can hang the crew, but we ashore are home free!)

It does not help the cause- the running of a merchant ship- that much of the paperwork is duplicated or unnecessary, takes too much time and is drafted by outdated ex-seamen with low general management skills. It does not help that the regulations thrust on these managers by the IMO, Flag or Port States and the like are often made by people who have no clue about life on the water. It does not help that, over the years, layer upon layer of paper has been loaded on ships without any overview as to what is actually required and what old documentation needs to be discarded. It does not help that the imperative to cover one’s backside- the default setting of many in shipping- is a big reason why we are where we are today. 

It does not help that the system is self-propagating, like a parasite in your intestine. 

You know, all these manuals and checklists are only plans, and, as the old military saying goes, no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. Unfortunately, by overstressing manuals and checklists, we are breeding a generation of seafarers who often cannot think beyond what is written down and mandated, whose ability to think outside the box is severely compromised and whose instinct to take the initiative has been alarmingly deadened. We have spread the disease of a clerical mindset, ignoring the fact that clerks cannot be sailors. That clerks are, almost by definition, followers, not leaders. That we want our seamen to be exactly the opposite.  

We claim merchant seamen are in the second most dangerous profession in the world, but what we are doing is hobbling them and making their working lives even more unsafe. This may be an extreme analogy, but we do not ask soldiers to fill checklists during incoming fire, do we?

Keep the paper in shoreside offices where it can keep do the least damage and allow everybody to pretend they are busy; our crews have enough to do at sea already. Have a culture of thoughtful compliance- maximum in practice but with minimum paperwork. And for heaven’s sake, employ one or two data entry operators in your overstaffed offices, instead of laying a claim on your seamen’s’ time that is much better spent on more important things.

But we won’t do that. Maybe we need a piece of paper to tell us to do so.