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.