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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