February 04, 2010

Placement debasement

When I joined a foreign ship for the first time fresh after my Second Mates thirty years ago, the first question I was asked by the German Captain was, “Did you pay anybody for this job in your country?” I have no idea whether the firm asked the question of every fresh employee that joined a ship in those days; I do know, however, that the question left with me with a good feeling about their setup. The fact that nobody had, in the four years or so that I had spent ‘at sea’ until then, asked me to pay for either my Cadetship or my first job left me slightly confused as to the validity of the query; but I presumed that the practice of paying for jobs existed in some of the more corrupt countries, and I self righteously knocked off India from that dirty list. We did not take under the table money from Cadets to give them a sea berth, I thought. As bad as the situation was within government departments in the industry (and still is), we did not at least carry forth those corrupt practices into the private sector, I told myself.

Therefore, it is with great disgust that I say today, three decades later, that the now widespread and perverted Indian industry practice of making Cadet trainees cough up cash for on board apprenticeships should be stopped at once.

I use the term ‘widespread’ advisedly; though there are companies that do not follow this reprobate practice, we all know that there are far too many that do. The exercise is widespread enough that a trainee has to budget for this bribe, along with Pre Sea and other costs. For many cadets and ratings trainees, the only options are either to know somebody somewhere or to pay up.

I do not demand a stop to this depravity because it is illegal, although it certainly is, and I would love to see the practitioners of these acts treated like the criminals that they clearly are.

I do not want to waste time justifying the indefensible, and so I do not want to go back in time to determine when this obscenity began, although the eighties recession had surely something to do with it.

I do not want to dwell on the particular nausea I feel when I hear of an ex mariner directly or indirectly involved in this putrefacted degeneration.

I do not want to put the math of the whole transaction down here: corruption is not about numbers. (Reminds me of the joke about the blonde in the train who agreed to sleep with a stranger for a million dollars but screamed when he suggested ten: “What kind of girl do you think I am?!” They had already examined that question and reached a conclusion, the gent informed her. They were now only haggling over the price.)

I will not even bring up, except in passing, that these ‘placement fee’ numbers are high enough to make a significant difference to the costing of ratings and cadet programmes (and therefore their marketability); in quite a few cases, the placement fee is the final straw that breaks a would be trainee’s financial back, or that of his parents, and he doesn’t enroll because he can’t afford to. We lose some good people because we promote- or condone- this system.

I will say this much, though: As long as we continue this placement fee circus, we have no business going on ad nauseum about falling standards at sea, the falsely perceived unattractiveness of the profession, officer shortage numbers or even the disinterest shown by most youngsters towards a life at sea. We have lost the moral right to question any of those things. Worse, each time somebody in the industry takes money for ‘placement’, he or she insidiously and invidiously downgrades the entire industry.

For, if the first step towards the recruitment of future officers that will be responsible for tens of millions of dollars worth of ship and cargo is to be identical to that of a construction labourer going to Saudi Arabia on a shady contract after paying touts in India for ‘placement’, then we have no business bemoaning anything except our own turpitude.

Neither do we have any business cribbing about the poor press our industry gets, as we are wont to do, or decry the widespread perception that this is a backward, blinkered and dirty industry.

Seems to me that part of the industry is exactly that. As for the few good men out there, well, evil thrives when good men do nothing.