September 10, 2009

Theme from Shaft

Stories have started trickling in again about cash strapped companies abandoning crews without salaries, or even without food and water. In one case, a company even refused to repatriate the dead body of a crewmember on a ship stuck in Africa. It is often difficult to know the full extent of this problem; the old boy network that exists in the industry does not encourage publicity detrimental to certain commercial interests, especially if these are large Shipmanagement setups or their Principals. However, organisations like the ITF have started ringing alarm bells.

I am reminded of the recession in the eighties. Although I was fortunate to escape largely unscathed, I do recall joining a horde of officers at one small (now huge) manning company's offices at Ballard Pier. I remember vividly, twenty five years later, how everybody in that office, as in many others, treated all of us, Third Mates and Masters alike, with disdain and disrespect bordering on contempt. For some obscure reason, even the peons, receptionists and clerks (access to a manager? Ha!) did not have the basic courtesy to tell us that there were no openings; they seemed to take an unholy delight in making us fill forms and hang around their office for the day, and then ask us to return the next day. I did that for two days and then tore my form up, vowing never to enter that firm's offices ever again.

(How times change. That same organisation now periodically tom toms the fact that it considers its seafarers 'part of a family'. I can only say, based on my experience and that of others much more recently, that their family must be incestuous.)

I was present, too, when a friend of mine in dire straits after Scindias closed down visited some seedy manning setup in a dive near the then named VT in Mumbai. He was asked to pay twenty rupees for the form to apply for a job that we later found out never existed. Some joker had decided that duping broke seafarers of twenty bucks apiece was a good way of making money.

As it turns out, we got away lightly. A collage of anecdotes heard now flashes before me as I write this: these tales cover not just the recessionary period of the eighties but a few years after that too, when manning agents continued with the same mindset. Incidentally, I believe this: that although many call themselves 'Shipmanagement Companies' now, the mentality has not really changed. Sometimes a rose by another name doesn't smell as sweet.

And so, I recall a Chief Officer telling me in the nineties boom, when officers were getting scarce, that he went around agreeing to join the companies that had treated him shabbily in the past, did his medicals, collected his ticket and missed the flight. A Fourth Engineer telling me in the eighties how he was never paid a year's wages in a pretty well known outfit. A Third Engineer returning with some minor engine spares as poor compensation for unpaid wages after the owner sent in some musclemen to rough up the protesting crew. Stories of terrible treatment and living conditions, substandard food and threadbare wages. A Second Mate told me he worked as a certified officer for just food and board in an Indian company. A batchmate told me that one of the best known Indian companies asked him to come back after six years of unpaid leave. An out of work junior officer was found working as a parking attendant in Delhi. Minor demonstrations in Mumbai by officers were witnessed. A national magazine ran a lead story on the Indian seafarer's plight; usual crocodile tears were shed and wiped away.

Of course, none of this is news to those of us who lived through that period. However, such anecdotes of downright mistreatment and criminal dereliction would certainly be an eye opener to the many who joined the industry in the nineties and later, and who should be wary now. Those mariners who have seen just good times and the facade put on by the same manning agents in times of officer shortage should not be shocked if they suddenly start getting treated like poop stuck under somebody's shoe.

All indications are that the theories of an immediate revival in the global economy are somewhat overstated. It is not my case that shipping is absolutely down and out, but with unique issues of overcapacity, shipping might well take longer to recover. It is best to be forewarned and forearmed in case this happens; in such conditions, the default schizophrenic thinking of some shipmanagement honchos and their client owners is to shaft the seafarer of his legitimate dues, for a start.

My two paisa worth of advice to mariners: Stick to good setups, which may not always the biggest or the best known ones. Work directly for owners. Don't be bothered by a salary difference of a few hundred dollars. Most importantly, perform professionally.

And expect professional behaviour in return. At the first sign of trouble, especially unpaid wages, walk away.

Because it is better to lose a month's wages than a year’s.