September 03, 2009

The Enemy Within

I have a sneaking suspicion that while some of us armchair critics expound on the state of affairs in the maritime world in terms we like to think are mordant wit, the industry itself is out to lunch. I believe that not many in any position of responsibility really want improvements; here I include those in a position to influence governments, regulators, ship owners and managements. I reserve my largest dollop of contempt for managements within many private shipping organisations, though, many of whom seem to revel in their stance of obdurate obfuscation. They make no real attempt to improve anything substantially in any arena, although everybody probably descends on seminars (and the free martinis at seminars) that seem to do nothing except cost money feeding egos and stomachs both.

Decades of this behaviour have ensured that this backward (and backward looking) system is well and truly set. I could live with it if the closed and tightlipped nature of commercial shipping stopped here, but the problem is that the nature of the beast does not merely discourage improvement and open management; it actively opposes it.

Take the issue of criminalisation of seafarers; much hue and cry is generated by all in shipping about the abhorrent treatment seafarers face across the world. Committees are setup, guidelines published and great outrage shown. Much bravado and bluster is on display. Meanwhile, the satraps will tell the media, in hushed tones amidst air conditioned and genteel tinkling silence, that their organisations stand behind their seagoing employees. This, barring very few exceptions (I doff my hat to those few) is hogwash. The vast majority of ship owners and their third party managers care for nothing except their bottom lines; they are the enemy within, because, after an incident, they will sacrifice the same seafarers to protect their wallets, falsify documents and 'protect Owners' interests' faster than a porn actress strips when the camera is switched on.

Or, take environmental issues. Other international transportation industries are miles ahead of us here: the Airline industry, for example, engages governments and regulators regularly on emission standards and such, even as statistics show that flying is one of the most fuel inefficient ways of travel. The oil industry spends billions annually to promote an ecologically sensitive image of their conglomerates even as they decimate local ecologies in Africa and Latin America, and indeed around the world. Shipping, by contrast, continues to be perceived as a dirty industry with questionable integrity despite its generally excellent record. Although I believe that shipowners and managers within our industry have pretty average integrity levels, I do not believe that these are generally lower than the integrity of officials in, say, the oil or airline industries. Actually, what happens is that there is no attempt by anybody to improve the image of an industry that is no worse than most. And this is because the big organisations, managers and industry bigwigs that do this in other industries just do not care enough in ours.

This attitude towards the industry, both by outsiders to it and insiders within, manifests itself in many ways: for example, bluster by managers and filibuster by maritime government officials is commonplace. Playing the blame game is another sideshow. In any event, the intent does not seem to be to solve the problem, but to perpetuate the status quo one way or another.

I sense that much of this callous inertia in shipping is because of the peculiar way in which the industry is structured. In particular, the rummy ownership and management relationship that has existed for far too long. This discourages improvement in management practices, because the middleman, which is what the Ship management companies really are, has no real stake in the industry. Granted some are huge middlemen, but size does not mean better management or even greater commitment. What matters more is retention of clients to these folk, for which the Owner's short term bottom line is paramount. It is this ambience of penny pinching and the obsession with Profit and Loss statements that stunts any progress. Seafarer and environmental issues have nowhere to fall except between the cracks that such monocular vision generates.

I think, though, that environmental issues may well be the ones that will, in the near future, jump up and bite the ship management industry in the unmentionables. In a world that is becoming increasingly intolerant of oil spills and more stringent about greenhouse gas emissions, it is just a matter of time before the middlemen are made to feel more heat. A salvo may well have already been fired in the Cosco Busan case, with Fleet Management hit with a ten million dollar fine for, amongst other things, improperly trained crews. I would not be surprised if more countries started penalising the middlemen more; this would mean that Owners and Ship management companies would have to rethink the nature of a relationship that has left many legal implications in conveniently grey areas thus far.

If this happens, as I think it just might start to after the UN Climate Change Conference at Copenhagen in December this year, we might actually see more managers actually doing what they are paid to do: manage. I doubt if this will change attitudes or eliminate inertia in a hurry, though it would be par for the course even if it did that. The shipping industry has usually made changes only when forced to do so. I call it management by third party decree.

Otherwise, any voices shouting for change have usually been heard as loudly as the sound of somebody breaking wind is heard against the sound of thunder.