January 21, 2010

Beyond body shopping

I left an Indian shipping firm for a foreign one in 1981 and never worked on an Indian ship again. At the time I left, there were just one or two fledgling manning agents in then Bombay whom I chose to ignore for my own reasons. The profession was almost unknown; few folk in the rest of the country, including cities like Delhi, a big centre in the ship manning business today, had even heard of the merchant navy.

It wasn't easy. In a time of prohibitive international phone call rates and no emails, looking for a job abroad involved posting many laboriously typed letters- cold- to addresses found with great difficulty. Not all that many employed Indians, although the market was opening up. Most did not even bother to reply. I was lucky to get a break; the German ship I eventually landed up on had to suddenly sign off the Chief and 2nd Mates at the same time and so I was in the right place at the right time, for once. This, as it turned out later, was around the beginning of the recession, and I was lucky again, being one of the few who had 'foreign company' experience when I had to look for another job a year and a half later.

Incidentally, I was hardly the only Indian who left an Indian setup just after my first ticket, but we were a minority. Today many of us claim, with some pride and justification, that we were amongst those that contributed to the breaking of the glass ceiling on foreign flags; many started employing Indians when they employed us. But this is just part of the story; there were other reasons we can hardly take credit for. We must realise that the very same reasons that worked for us work against Indians today, and we must therefore recognise the threat to our present ship manning enterprises before it is too late.

What also happened at that time was this: Firstly, shipowners from developed countries flagged out many ships to 'FOC's' to save taxes and crewing costs, besides for the more relaxed Flag State regulation and control. Meanwhile, the merchant navy was not a favoured career choice for many of their citizens, what with salaries ashore being lucrative (in well paying jobs anyway, but also in others) and that too without a sailor's hardships. The few who did come out to sea from developed countries left within a decade or so. This cycle fed itself: lower salaries attracted the youth of these countries less and less; people of higher academic calibre obviously ignored the profession; Flagged out ships meant owners could now look for crews from elsewhere who were cheaper anyway; and so opportunities at sea for the citizens of developed countries started drying up. Incidentally, this process continues even today, with Maersk looking for up to 280 'voluntary' officer redundancies from the UK and Denmark two months ago. The company wants to replace these seafarers with cheaper Asian crews.

In India, on the other hand, the career, as well as the foreign salary package, was very lucrative; shore opportunities were fewer and paid much less. This attracted people of much higher academic calibre; equally importantly, the culture and the economics of the time dictated that most of these (us) seamen intended to make the merchant navy a long term career choice.

It was no contest, really. Lower calibre and dissatisfied seafarers from developed countries could hardly compete with hungry and higher calibre seafarers from India; their pie was shrinking and the Indian cake expanding.

The battleground threatens to invert on its head today. Although we claim to account for 6% of the global seagoing workforce, the long term commitment of most new entrants is in doubt. The reasons are the same ones that grew Indian seafaring, but the shoe is on the other foot now. Salaries are high ashore in India, and comparable (in good jobs, but many others too, after a few years). Sailor hardships have actually increased; onboard facilities and working conditions have not kept pace with time, and in some cases have regressed. With the dollar under long term and international pressure, there is no huge foreign exchange advantage now (The rupee was less than eight rupees in the late seventies when I came out to sea. It went up six times during my seagoing life). Global tonnage may be on a long term uptrend, present overcapacity issues notwithstanding, but Indians are struggling to maintain present manpower market share. Seems to me a matter of time before the scales tip decisively against us, as they did for the Europeans, the North Americans, the Japanese and some others not all that long ago.

In addition, we have one unique disadvantage: China, and on many counts. Firstly, it is a country with population demographics high enough to compete directly for marine jobs with Indians. Secondly, its own tonnage (for which it will hardly need foreign seafarers) is slated to explode as it marches with inexorable certainty to 'next economic superpower' status. Thirdly and critically, it is antagonistic to India and has a direct conflict of interest with us when it comes to a projection of its maritime strength. The strength of the merchant navy is likely to be a strategic pawn in that great game; successive Indian governments may be doing a huge disservice to the nation by continuing to be slothful about this country's tonnage. Ignoring this issue will not make it go away.

But it is not just China. Six percent of the global seagoing workforce is a large number but still one that can be whittled down reasonably easily. A few African countries with decent education systems can halve this within a decade. Then, countries like Bangladesh have not really exported officers to the extent possible, and the Philippines is a dark horse: it should be possible, given their English language advantage, for them to upgrade the quality of their officers without huge difficulty.

Be that as it may, I don't see Indian seafaring numbers going up substantially in proportion to increasing global tonnage. We might find maintaining the six percent figure an uphill task in itself, although I am sure many of us will find creative ways of trying to make the industry attractive to a higher calibre and more committed bunch of new entrants compared to the ones on display today. Even if we do that, though, I wonder how many of the new entrants will be around a decade from today in the industry. If they are elsewhere, who will staff the offices ashore? MBA graduates with little idea of the complexities of seafaring? Heaven forbid.

I must say that though reducing manning market share will create inevitable upheavals in the industry, I do not see this as the biggest issue: It is a natural consequence of a country's overall prosperity. A bigger problem that I think we face can be summarised by looking at some of the same countries whose nationals we displaced on ships, and who grew the industry in their nations in many simultaneous directions regardless. That India has not moved up the maritime value chain is a reflection of the state of the industry as a whole: we have no equipment manufacturers worth the name, no global insurance or reinsurance presence worth talking about, no large international level marine consultancy firms or maritime legal companies and no high end research facilities of any kind. This is an endless list. We are low down the food chain, which means we can be gobbled up or replaced that much easier.

Our expertise seems to end at the lower levels of data entry and the management of ships. And that, frankly, is as simply handled anywhere by finding a few good people and some decent infrastructure. Given that, I can probably set up a ship management company in a week anywhere in the world if I have that, so why should I choose India if she cannot provide me the appropriate people in required numbers, either afloat or ashore?

Our comparative advantage lay in the mariners we produced; that quality has dwindled and will inevitably be under increasing pressure as India progresses economically. It is perhaps too late to increase our mariner market share substantially, but there may still be time for the industry to ascend the value chain; as we proved to the world when it came to working on ships, we have the brains and the will to do so. We could very well give European countries a run for their money.

What we do not have, thus far, is either commitment or appropriate leadership; what we require is a calibre of professionals with unblinkered and forward thinking vision; what we need is to transmigrate up the chain to services and research that will sustain our industry beyond the perhaps inevitable reduction in the manning business. There is far more to shipping than just body shopping.


January 15, 2010

The proof of my pudding

I hate to say this but I told you so.

For more than a year, this column has underscored the criticality of linking Somali piracy to terrorism and the need to focus on Yemen as the next terrorist haven along with AfPak. I have particularly and repeatedly highlighted Al Shabaab in Somalia and its links with both Al Qaeda and the pirates who sometimes reportedly pay as much as half their takings to the Islamist outfit. I have reported Somali pirate links to elements within Pakistan, and trained Pakistani nationals having been caught in key positions on pirate boats. More later since I am getting ahead of myself here, but I am slowly getting convinced that there is, additionally, an unorchestrated conspiracy not to let piracy be linked to terrorism.

Meanwhile, consider some events of the last couple of weeks that link Somalia, Yemen and terrorism:

Danish intelligence service PET says that a Somali caught breaking into the home of cartoonist Kurt Westergaard is linked to the Somali Islamic outfit Al Shabaab that has links with Al Qaeda. Westergaard is the man whose caricature of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban was published by Jyllands-Posten in 2005; an event that sparked riots across the Muslim world and death threats from jihadi outfits. PET says that the Somali had "close ties to the Somali terror organisation Al Shabaab as well as to Al Qaeda leaders in East Africa". The Somali was earlier deported from Kenya after being linked to a plot to bomb hotels in Nairobi during Hilary Clinton’s visit last August.

And then, President Obama has declared a ‘new’ (wine in old bottle?) counterterrorism ‘partnership’ with Yemen, which has been fighting a quiet civil war completely ignored by the Indian media, but the result of which will have enormous repercussions on Indian security, besides piracy in that blighted region. Obama has announced new aid packages for Yemen and sent in his top general there, all of which is usually a precursor for greater US ‘involvement’, as Pakistan will undoubtedly testify. US officials say that Yemen is already a “far more inviting haven for Al Qaeda fighters than even Afghanistan before the Sept. 11 attacks,” and that its strategic location makes it more dangerous than Pakistan. They are right; the Mareb mountains are a treacherous region and it is no surprise that Al Qaeda fighters have a stronghold there. Many of these fighters have reportedly relocated from AfPak after the heat was turned on them there. Of course, Somalia has enough training camps of its own too, and hosts jihadis from across the region and beyond, including the UK and Europe. In addition, some returnees from Guantanamo Bay have found their way to Yemen: a halfway house, perhaps?

To add to the mess, Yemen fights Houthi rebels in a civil war that threatens to widen the conflict and draw in Saudi Arabia. Skirmishes that fall just short of battles have already taken place at the border between Saudi forces and the rebels: Yemen accuses Iran of backing the Houthis.

Obama is, no doubt reacting to the panic within his own country after the Christmas Day attempted bombing of a Detroit bound plane. The US President says, “The Yemen branch of Al Qaeda trained, equipped and dispatched the 23 year old Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up the Northwest Airlines plane.” Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, the ancestral homeland of Osama Bin Laden, was where the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab went to learn Arabic. It is there that western officials say that he met and was inspired by American born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and other jihadis with whom he kept contact since 2007. Awlaki is supposed to be a key player in Al Qaeda, exulting at the Yemeni governments defeats in Mareb and reminding me of similar clerics in Pakistani madarsas linked to Hizbul and LeT.

"May this be the beginning of the greatest Jihad, the Jihad of the Arabian Peninsula that would free the heart of the Islamic world from the tyrants who are standing between us and victory," Awlaki has said on his website, no doubt referring to Mecca not all that far from Yemen.

Of course, where the Americans go the British must follow. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for an International Summit on Yemen (a failing state, he says) and sent counter terrorist experts there. The UK and the US closed embassies temporarily in Sanaa last week, citing terrorist threats. Meanwhile, and interestingly for seafarers, the official British policy remains unchanged: paying ransoms to pirates is not illegal but paying money to terrorists is.

And therein lies the rub. The hijacking of ships off the coast of Somalia has become a mini industry in the UK; besides the pirates and their backers, UK based security firms are raking in the moolah. British policies actively promote piracy ransoms despite official statements decrying ransom payments; these policies have remain unchanged despite one of their own unions, ‘Nautilus’, lambasting the British Government for their stand. The maritime union’s General Secretary Mark Dickinson says, “We don’t think our members should be left as political pawns in a moral debate about whether paying ransoms is wrong or right.” He should add that part of the immorality lies in governments continuing to put seafarers in harm’s way by refusing to link piracy and terrorism.

London is the centre of business in the maritime world, and the UK is taking the lead in refusing to acknowledge this nexus. As long as a year ago, the BBC reported that a hidden mini industry of lawyers, negotiators, risk consultants and security teams based in the City of London (nearly 7,000km away from Somalia) were making as much money off piracy as the criminals that hijack ships, effectively "doubling the ransom amount." The Spaniards have since complained that London is benefiting from piracy, and the Beeb quoted an underwriter as saying that if a link were established between pirates and terrorists it could create serious problems for all parties involved. "We'd all be going to jail," he said. (The link is very much there. It just has to be acknowledged, not established.)

The British game is simple. Frown on ransom payments but do not link piracy to terror; doing so would make ransom payments a crime under British law, queer the pitch and embarrass everybody. Not doing so, however, has many advantages, the chief ones being that British security firms can continue doing brisk pirate related business and that governments around the world are not pressurised to come up with better alternatives to paying ransoms. After all, who is really complaining? Not the owners; certainly not the insured ones. Not the insurance companies. Not the international community, for whom somebody setting his underwear on fire on a flight has become a major terrorist incident but not the hijacking of hundreds of ships and the mariner deaths and injuries or even the hostage tally in Somalia that remains remarkably constant around the few hundred mark over the last couple of years.

Nonetheless, the attention on Yemen and the possible greater expansion of the war on terror into the country will have its impact on seafarers in a big way. For one, this Western engagement promises to be as long term an engagement as the one in Afghanistan, and there is no automatic assumption that the seas around Yemen and Somalia are going to get any safer in the meanwhile. For another, terrorist operatives and training camps will undoubtedly continue to expand into other areas of Africa beyond Yemen and Somalia: Sudan (on the brink of civil war again) and Kenya are probably next (Lloyd’s List says that property prices in Nairobi have soared as ransom money is alleged to be invested in Kenyan property). Meanwhile, the war zone has been widened from AfPak and will be widened further.

There is, today, an established terrorist network in Yemen and Somalia. Foreigners, including Westerners, are coming into these countries for terror training, just as they have done in Afghanistan and Pakistan; indeed, there is a clear connection between those networks. Uncle Sam is coming to town in Yemen in greater numbers now and Uncle Brown is tagging along; The Indian government is largely ignoring the potential of this new and major threat to our security, our trade and our nationals at sea. Attacks on ships off Somalia have doubled since the coalition navies started their patrols, the clearest signal that security measures are not working. Worse, the international community has no plan to protect crews and ships, and, apart from paying ransoms, neither do shipowners or insurance companies.

I can’t help thinking that maybe the Westergaard and Northwest airline attacks have done some good after all, because they have drawn international attention to Yemen and Somalia as terrorist hotspots instead of just pirate areas. Maybe the blindfolded and blindsided world will finally be forced to call a spade a spade, and a pirate a terrorist.

Then maybe, just maybe, they will have to do something about it.


January 07, 2010

A flea in the Year.

To the roughly one and a half million fellow seafarers across the world, ashore or afloat, Happy New Year! They tell me that 2010 is the declared “Year of the Seafarer”; it must be true, because the Secretary General of the IMO said so. They also say that the declaration will give ‘IMO and the international maritime community the opportunity to pay tribute to the world's seafarers for their unique contribution to society and in recognition of the risks they shoulder in the execution of their duties in an often hostile environment’.

So it is official. This is our year. Yippee do dah and pass the popcorn.

Let us not ask for any more resolutions, please, whether from the IMO or anybody else; not even any new year ones. I think we have seen enough of resolute resolutions that skate on thin ice.

Let us not hold our breath waiting for the implementation, on the ground, of fair treatment guidelines or associated conventions that are supposed to make our lives more bearable. Experience tells us that these conventions will be published on expensive paper with impressive binding that actually bind nobody in the industry.

Let us not expect justice or fairplay. Let us expect to continue to be at the receiving end of unwarranted detention across the world whenever an accident occurs. Let us expect that, even in this Year of the Seafarer, more of us will be at risk from the intransigent injustices of a world that seeks to make us the scapegoats of its own deficiencies.

Let us not expect the new STCW rules to make our lives noticeably better, less fatigued or more equitable. These expectations do nothing except tire us out. Managers can’t tell you this, but the industry does not intend to follow inconvenient aspects of these troublesome rules anyway, ever. We know that better than they do. As far as the industry is concerned, an unfatigued sailor is like a virgin porn queen; nice to have but pretty damn unlikely.

Let us not get carried away by the hype of projected officer shortage numbers. People are confused; moreover, they ignore the inevitable cancellations and delays that will hit newbuildings in the next year or two. Besides, some people have hidden agendas as they seek to flood the market once again and consequently lower wages. Let us not worry about all this: we have little control over market wages anyway and seafarer shortages don’t affect us all that much; we are paid for working on only one ship at a time anyway.

Let us, instead, work professionally and with pride. Let us not use excuses to do a less than excellent job any longer. Let us realise that a substandard or poorly trained shipmate is a huge threat to ourselves first; in fact, he is a bigger threat to us than he is to owners, managers, insurance companies or P&I clubs, for all they will lose if there is a casualty is money.

Let us not forget the few hundred seafarers still held hostage in Somalia in this ‘Year of the Seafarer’, even if the world has them nowhere on their radar screens. Let us pause a moment to think of the families of those killed there. Let us not forget those mariners being detained elsewhere too, by other abductors in government uniforms. Those seafarers are being persecuted for crimes that everybody knows they have not committed; as far as I am concerned, they are therefore being held by government sanctioned criminals. A small prayer for them and ourselves, please. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

Let us ignore the lies when employers and others claim to represent us at national and international fora, claim familial relationships, or say that they worry about our welfare. The vast majority does not speak for us or care for us, and this will not change just because some people wearing suits announced 2010 as the year of whatever. Let us get real and let us stay real. Let us remember that the year 2010 is also the Chinese Year of the Tiger, and that wolves roam in packs but that tigers, like sailors, roam alone.

The secret to a seafarer’s happy professional life is low expectations from everybody that he comes into contact with in the industry. Trust me; the majority will not surprise you when you have this attitude. (As for the few that will, do not let go of them). Let us raise a toast then, in the beginning of this year that is allegedly ours, to this closely guarded secret. To low expectations, gentlemen! May you always have them by your side!

Finally, let us wipe at least one slate clean in the New Year. Let us forget past acrimonies and the shore vs. ship divide; let us dismiss voices from within the industry that compared us to prostitutes and other voices without the industry that do not think of us at all. Let us start anew and afresh with employers: let us tell them that here we are, certified and experienced seafarers. We offer our services to you ship owners and ship management companies once again; we carry no baggage and we ask you to do the same. We seafarers will bring professionalism and low expectations to the table. All we expect in return are market wages, an equitable contract and a safe ship.

And, only because they tell me that this is the year of the seafarer, a little decency would be nice too.