March 31, 2008

Small change

All those men have their price- Robert Walpole

I once took over from a Master in a reputed ‘foreign’ company. His first contract with them, so I casually asked him how he found the setup and when and if he was rejoining.
“I don’t like container ships”, he said. “I don’t know how to make money on them”.

Then again, once I was handing over to a Master in another reputed ‘foreign’ company. Both of us were a few contracts old as Masters, in fact, he had been around with them for more than a decade.
This was a management company, and on this particular ship the owners were paying a higher salary than on their other ships. They offered much better terms, and ordered all stores and provisions themselves based on the ship’s requisitions. They also demanded greater involvement with cargo bookings and operations from the Master.
Anyway, paraphrasing now, but this Master told me- “I came here once, I don’t know if I want to do it again. They pay more, yes, but on other ships we can make that much on provisions every month, so there is no real difference. And they are too many other headaches.”

I was meeting both these Masters the first time in my life. The fact that they weren’t even embarrassed by these admissions to a stranger should tell all of us how widespread the behaviour is, and how cynical we seem to be about it.

On a ship which was sold, I have seen crew walking off with spares, pumps, stores and god knows what else.
I have seen a senior officer stealing a table tennis racket from the gym.
I have heard from multiple reliable sources of an Indian Master walking off with safety equipment, besides a horde of other things.
I have seen a British Master walking off with an air compressor and charts... he used to dive on vacation.
And I have heard of stories, even suspected some once or twice, of Engineers making money on bunkers and the surreptitious sale of good spares or dealings with workshops.

All in foreign companies, by the way.

As far as Indian companies go, I am not really qualified to speak about them, not having sailed with them for decades. But, when I was there, things were so bad in a then premier company that money was being made on cargo, lashings and material, dunnaging, food and drink...on everything, as a matter of fact. Many readers will know more about this than me.
I brought it up because even as a junior, one main reason I wanted to join a foreign company was not the difference in wages. It was that I found the system rotten; without knowing anything about foreign companies, I knew this much: that premier company was not for me, and from stories I had heard, others were equally bad and some were even worse.

Ten years after this, I was on a foreign ship as a Chief Officer when we were chartered by the same company. A Superintendent asked me to sign incorrect receipts for dunnage received. He did not like it when I refused and told him this was one of the reasons I had left his Company.

While attending yet another course in Mumbai, I had a conversation with a Chief Officer working in another Indian company, who asked me my wages, and told me, in effect, that he was thinking about moving to a Foreign company, and though he didn’t mind the work, “Between you and me I make that much here”

Foreign companies, when I joined them, turned out to be better in this regard. Not flawless, far from it, just much better. Also, later, as a Master, one could set the tone of what is acceptable on a ship, and what is not.

It had it’s moments, though. Shipchandlers attempting to supply substandard stores and provisions when we called specially Indian ports while offering kickbacks, cargo interests offering money for clean mate’s receipts, ... we all know this, and though this is hardly unique to India, it is this country and it’s maritime professionals I am addressing here.

It was so annoying that I stopped buying stores and provisions in India, even though I wondered why an honest shipchandler- a contradiction in terms sometimes?- couldn’t supply me the same quality of stuff I buy at home at a similar cost, plus a healthy profit for him, of course. I also started buying small quantities of provisions, medicines etc by sending volunteer crew ashore to do so.

Why do so many of us behave in this manner? We are professionals, and despite my regular digs at being overworked and underpaid, are making a good living.

I suspect that it is a cultural thing, too, specially for seafarers from countries like India, used to corruption and other finaglings. And, though I don’t have enough first hand knowledge about Masters from many other nationalities to make a generalised comment of any sort here, I believe we are worse than many. Shame on us.

This behaviour is justified by the perpetrators with a warped logic similar to that expressed by the corrupt constable on the beat... all others doing this as well.

I also know this. Some companies- or elements of some companies, and specially elements of some Management companies -turn a blind eye to this. Why? Because they then encourage some seafarers to work for slightly lower salaries, knowing fully well that the ‘difference’ between Ownership and Management salaries will be made up in nefarious ways- at the Owner’s cost usually, not the Management Company’s. I have heard at least one senior officer in one company ashore admit this much.
Turning a blind eye is sometimes akin to turning the other cheek. You then maybe get it in the neck.

And so, at the end of the day, Masters or other seafarers do it also because they can get away with it. Not an excuse, this. Their lack of moral fibre is already on display to many, including very often their crews.

Which brings me to an associated and incalculable aside. The effect of such behaviour by specially a Master on other officers the crew. Lack of respect and the sanction to behave similarly is just the start of this slippery slope.

I believe it is time to put an end to this. My strong suggestions would be:

Companies should start a zero tolerance policy, whether in the office or on board. Offenders to be summarily dismissed. Many companies often have a good system in place, with mess committees and somesuch, but dismissals for offenders is not so common.

Company’s which even subconsciously justify slightly lower wages in exchange for turning a blind eye should stop doing this, and have a serious talk with their Principals if there is a case for raising wages in line with the market. I honestly believe this practice costs the Owners more than the money made surreptiously from them, and I also believe that Owners are more than savvy enough to understand that.

Master’s on board should put in place an absolutely transparent system for purchases. It is sometimes difficult encouraging mess committees to get involved more in purchases because many see it as an extra workload- which it is. However, if half a dozen people share this workload, it is not huge. The cook can easily share most of this burden anyway, in my experience.

A cleanup starts from the top. All of us who bemoan the situation in Indian politics and beaurocracy and propose cleanups should apply the same logic at sea, too.

And, of course, all of us should look within. All change starts from there.

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March 19, 2008

Postcards from the Conveyor Belt

I got a call on my mobile phone a week or so ago. It went like this
“Hello, is that Capt. X?”
“Yes, speaking”, I said.
“This is Capt. Y. Can you be in London on the 18th?” a male voice said.
“Where are you calling from?” I inquired in irritation.
“Oh, this is Z shipping. Are you available?” (Z shipping is not an unknown manning agency in Mumbai, in case you are wondering)
“Sorry, I will not be available...”, I say
“Can you tell your friends....?”, he wonders.

Not if I want them to remain friends, I thought.

My first reaction was, here is a guy willing to employ somebody to command a ship (and has commanded at least one himself, by the dubious looks of things) - whom he has never seen, never spoken to or even emailed before. Sight unseen, without observing basic formalities, without caring to make small talk to try to begin to gauge if I was actually worth employing.
Regardless of the manning crisis, he therefore runs a substandard setup, and I want no part of it.

Actually, what Capt. Y did is this- in four or five sentences over less than a two minute phone call, he put me off ‘Z Shipping’ forever. Not to speak of my influence on anybody I might choose to talk to about his company.

Conversely, if I had been looking for a ship, and Z shipping had no requirement for a Master, chances are high my emails would go unanswered and my phone calls would not lead to anything beyond “we will let you know” (which they never would). I have experience of that, too. And yes, regardless of their lack of openings, and anyway at the first possibility, a ‘form’ would be sent to me on email or otherwise, asking me to fill it up, probably with a stock ‘Dear candidate’ letter. To keep my details in their database, of course.

(Collecting resumes’ for databases seems to be a favourite pastime in Mumbai. Everybody seems to be doing it. I have visions of trainloads of people migrating from one job to another with a database CD copied from previous employers as their USP.)

A confession: anybody who sends me forms a first step usually doesn’t hear from me again, regardless of the state of the employment market. I understand the need to send a resume’ across to the Principals, but I am of the opinion that as a reasonably senior seafarer is entitled to a brief lowdown of the Company and his chances of a job in it before he is asked to fill up forms. A first reaction of “fill up a form” after a resume’ has already been sent gives me the impression that I am talking to a data entry operator, not a maritime professional.

The sad fact of the matter is that headhunters tend to work with an assembly-line mentality. Right from this initial approach, the toddlers next steps- interviews, agreement, pre-joining formalities, visas, ticketing- usually underlines this feeling, even when a seafarer is re-joining the same firm. Fill up forms, make photocopies, handover photographs, hurry and do your medicals- the doctor will close in half an hour, come back for your ticket asap... I wonder if there are there others who feel like canned tuna every time they join a ship, at the end of a conveyor belt, like I sometimes do.

Sadly, too, there is minimal thought given to providing the seafarer pertinent information about the ship he is joining. As a Master, I have spent four days in transit once, including visiting the management head office for a ‘briefing’, and not been told of major problems on the ship I was taking over. Probably intentionally, in fear that I would refuse the assignment.

In any event, at these briefings, I have been told nothing useful most of the time. These are usually ISM requirements; perhaps they are not meant to be practical. Or perhaps it is not considered important enough to provide pertinent information. Familiarisation, like familiarity, can sometimes breed contempt.

I have once commented on this. The response indicated puzzlement; this was a game we are all playing, come on! ‘You will come to know everything once you are on board, anyway’, I was told, a little condescendingly.

Ridiculously often, I have known more about the ships I was joining by researching their names on the internet than from the information given to be in manning offices. Surprise was expressed about the depth of my information once at one office, so I went on their computer and showed them where I had got the information from. (It was from a Classification Society website.)

A few years ago, I have sat with another officer at a STD booth in Mumbai while he called the company office in Delhi, who had given him an absolutely contrasting view of some basic terms and conditions which he wanted to clarify, and which he found out about at their head office in Mumbai. The fact that we had just walked out of the same head office- where nobody had even offered a phone to this senior officer who had worked for them for years- knowing he was going out to make the call to their own office in Delhi, disgusted me.

Every seafarer has these kinds of incidents to narrate. My point is only is to underline that this unprofessional assembly line process leaves a bad taste in the mouth and does not make for good relations between employers and employees. And this bad taste translates in the end into employees who have fewer reasons to rejoin.

This is what I would do, if I was sitting on the other side of the table:

1. At first contact (whether we call a seafarer or whether he calls us first), a stock response along the lines of ‘Hello, we are Differentship, and we would like you to consider joining us on a long term association. We represent a, b, c, d companies who offer employment on x, y, z kinds of ships. I would like to send you a mail with further details, meanwhile do visit for an overview’. (If no opportunities exist, and if the seafarer has approached us, he would be told so politely and frankly, and invited to enquire at a future known date. He would also be requested to send us a short email with contact details and a few lines on his rank and experience. )
2. The mail would follow immediately, would be a stock one-without a ‘Dear Candidate’, and include
· details of ships, or better still, a link on a website with these details
· Standard terms and conditions with an indication of flexibility where possible.
· Reasons why Differentship is better, or indeed, different.
· Upcoming vacancies in the next month or two, on which ships.
· An invitation to visit us in person, or failing which, an invitation to discuss details on the phone
· A stated willingness, even eagerness- to match his requirements and ours.
· Details of the selection process, and an end date by which a yes/no would be intimated.

And, subsequently,

3. Each stage of the process would be ensured personalised, professional, dignified and smooth.
4. If a person is selected, and if the pre-joining briefing is in my domain, it would be practical, accurate, honest and useful.
5. The potential employee would be kept updated at each stage of the process.
6. Nothing pertinent would be hidden from him at any stage.
7. If the employment doesn’t work out this time, we would keep all doors open for it to maybe work out in the future- unless it is decided not to employ him at all, in which case I would let him know.
8. If Differentship does so much of its business on the phone, then phone etiquette and the projection of professionalism will be a basic requirement from its entire staff that pick up a phone, anytime, anywhere. Nobody will open a conversation with “Can you be in London on the 18th” with a complete stranger.

The problem with this as far as we at Differentship were concerned would be that it would require us to get our act together, project our requirements and maybe train our people; not a problem, actually, because that would result in a good business practice. We would be automatically working on enhancing the pre joining experience of an employee, which would
translate more into his wanting to come back to us, not to speak of the excellent word-of- mouth he would give us throughout the industry.

We would indeed be different, and better, because we would be sweating the small stuff.
Professional touches, personalised interest, regard for potential employees prior experience, regard for his time, all done in a dignified manner- this is not rocket science, but it works. First impressions and small touches remain, which is why we paint gangways so often.

Finally, another pet peeve. I for one, dislike being referred to – whether by email or otherwise- as a ‘candidate’. I am a professional seeking a long term association with other professionals. I have a name and rank, though not a serial number yet- and I much prefer being addressed by any of those, even my first name. Frankly, ‘Dear Candidate’ stinks. Besides, how would we at Differentship respond to an email sent addressed to ‘Dear Headhunter’?

Unless I am running in the US Presidential elections, of course.

Then it is different. ‘The Candidate’, then, is salutary.

Or, after Mr. George Bush, is it?

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