January 15, 2008

Too many words spoil the brothel

I recently read a quote attributed to a very senior functionary from a very well known international shipmanagement company, one which employs a large number of Indian officers and crew, and, indeed personnel from all over the world. This gentleman made some interesting remarks at a conference abroad, the most startling of which was one where he reportedly said that “if seafarers act like mercenaries and prostitutes, that is how they themselves would be treated”.

Startling, not because many of us have never heard such sentiment before, but because this came from a high up guy from a big company at a prestigious conference – and I assume a gentleman who presumably thought a bit before he opened his mouth and put his foot in it.

It would be simplistic to dismiss these remarks as that of a person frustrated at finding suitable manpower for his ships. It would also be naive to assume that he does not know what he is saying.
Most of what he reveals is about himself and his attitude, though. And the fact that he knows he can get away with it.

To me, this seems to be a response from a person who has not, despite probably great experience, understood the imperatives which drive seafarers, and, more importantly, imperatives which drive present day seafarers. Put bluntly, he needs a reality check. Because, sir, the times, they are a-changing.

I am constantly entertained by the fact that we are in an industry which behaves as it is divorced from the rest of society and economy. It is all the more surprising because our industry is truly multicultural and international in most ways, and it should therefore understand these nuances faster and more easily. It doesn’t.

Compared to seafarers of a generation ago, a twenty five year old today questions things much more. He negotiates much better, and beyond just wages. His priorities are different, and he is not willing to discard them easily. He is not so much in awe of age or authority. He can earn decent money ashore at lesser personal cost. He wants to have some fun too, fun which is denied to him at sea today.
It is the ‘I want it all’ generation, and like it or not, it is a fact of life. Look at the teenager nearest to you if you don’t believe me. He is your potential employee.

We as an industry need to understand this. We also need to understand that we have been boring enough to use wages as almost the only tool in our armoury to attract employees; then we quickly cry prostitute and mercenary when the tables are turned on us.

With regards to manning, what the industry seems to want, in the deepest, darkest corner of it’s heart, is the situation that prevailed during the 1980’s recession. It really wants seafarers to accept whatever it decides is their lot. The wages. The working and living conditions. The duration of contracts. The join when mangement wants, sign off when management wants. The ignoring of personal or family needs. The acceptance of being treated badly. The poorly maintained cheapest-way-to-run ships. The people queing up with hangdog faces looking for jobs two ranks below their certification or experience levels.

It would love to be in that dominant position again, except that it forgets the main thing, which is that the purpose of any business is to make a profit, not to play games with it’s people, whether ashore or afloat. And we sure weren’t making too much profit in the recession.

In that last recession, many companies treated their employees appallingly. I do not talk of wages, I talk of disdain and dismissiveness; I talk of clerks’ expecting experienced officer’s to kowtow to them, and of companies in India asking seafareres to come back after a few years, and severe economic hardship to people who had been earlier told that they had permanent jobs.

I do not need to go on and on about this, I am sure. Neither is it my intention to imply that because of that unreasonable behaviour, unreasonable behaviour today by seafarers is acceptable. It isn’t.

But what the industry taught many is that is was unreliable and untrustworthy, that there was no job security, and worst of all, it didn’t care for its people. So, unsurprisingly, it made merceneries of it’s seagoing staff.

Incidentally, it is not a chicken or egg first scenario. Shipping management has always been more powerful than the seafarers, the first step therefore had to be made by them. It was upto them to show common courtesy to their employees, even those whom they could no longer employ. By not doing even that, the maritime industry shot itself in it’s long term foot.

I can only hope that by the next time there is a recession, and there will be, it would have recognised it’s mistakes. I fear, though, that there will be a ‘now it’s our turn’ glee at that time, and we will shoot ourselves in the collective foot. In the words of Yogi Berra, it will be deja vu all over again.

What is unacceptable to me, and I hope to all of us, is a continuing failure to understand employee motivation and imperatives, and the failure to adapt to a new generation of employees in a new and fast changing environment. We still seem to rely on the ‘wages last revised on....” part of our advertising to attract staff, which to me means we have no new ideas. Mercenary?

There is always friction, in any industry, between’Operations’ and ‘Management’. Griping about one not understanding the other is par for the course. Calling employees prostitutes, or employees pimps, is not.

Some other things it would be good for the “mercenary and prostitute” brigade to remember”

· Management is a support function, not a control one. If no operations, there would be no management. The Office is therefore dependant on the ship, and not the other way round. Often on a ship, everybody coming from ashore, including sometimes a low level agency boarding officer, thinks and behaves as if he is the boss. He is perhaps more dispensible than the lowest rating on board, or if not dispensible, more easily replacable.

· Administration is not the raison de'etre for either the vessel’s existence, the Master’s, or the crew’s

· Management structures should be flat. Balooning departments and hierarchies occupying expensive real estate often justify their existence by interfering with ship’s operations and generating useless paper. Keeping ships shortmanned and administrative offices overmanned is a poorly thought out concept.

· Empowering people at sea is a sound economic practice. Trying to control them is a bad one. And pushing people around or keeping them down pushes them out.

· People do not switch jobs mainly for a little more money, though they may for a large wage difference. There are always other factors, which is why you have exit interviews, an almost unknown concept in shipping.. Perhaps this is because there may be views there nobody wants to hear.

· It is always cheaper to retain an employee than to employ a new one. There are hidden business losses in high attrition which goes beyond wages and hiring cost. People take time to acclimitise, during which they are not performing optimally. Time and money has to be spent making them familiar with the organisation. This is more important at sea, because an officer often performs tasks, including administrative ones, independently and with no oversight.

· Everybody answers to somebody. The Owner answers to the bottom line. Playing power games and massaging egos, which unfortunately many of us love to do, is therefore counterproductive.

· Lets face it, calling employees prostitutes is not going to make you the preferred employer of the month. And manning is your big problem of today; employees are in a position to boycott you and go elsewhere. In their place, I would.

Before we find new solutions, some of which I have suggested in previous articles, we must recognise that there is a problem. I am afraid that comments like the one quoted at the start are part of the problem and do not encourage much hope. They also contribute to my despair at the continuing ‘us vs them’ scenario which has done the maritime industry no good.

Would somebody dare to make this kind of comment in a shore establishment of repute in India? The IT industry has similar attrition issues. What if a honcho from Infosys or TCS made a similar statement?

I can see the headlines and the soundbytes on television. (Including news channels asking us to send in SMS’s in agreement or disagreement!).
More seriously, there would be an uproar within that industry. Regulatory bodies, professional associations, political parties and industry watchdogs would step in. Employees would protest, maybe even strike work. These public remarks would go far from unchallenged. A public apology would be very likely.

So what makes some of us think we can publicly slander and belittle seafarers with crude impunity?

Is it anger, frustration, despair or arrogance? Is it stupidity?
Perhaps it is just habit. A feudalistic control oriented one, but a habit nevertheless.

I can only say, in closing and as they say on the other side of the world, folks, get real.

Wake up and smell the coffee.

Or, in this case, the sea breeze.

First published in http://www.marexbulletin.com/

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