May 22, 2010

Something Happened

Something happens, usually when my cynicism is at its peak, which suggests that there is still some hope left for the seafarer. This happened last during the Hebei Spirit episode, when VShips stood beside the two officers who were obviously innocent; their eventual release from detention is as much a tribute to that firm’s tenacity and sense of fair play as anything else. VShips put their money where their outrage was; not many do that.

Although hardly as dramatic, another such event reported last week was, for me, equally game changing. Director of Quality Assurance Capt. Pradeep Chawla of Anglo Eastern was widely quoted in some industry magazines calling for minimum crewing scales to be revised upwards. “Seafarers have been burdened with many new tasks over the last two decades,” Capt Chawla reportedly said at a seminar. “The manning scales have not looked deeply enough into the consequences of watch-keeping and safety standards on board.” Capt. Chawla apparently made a presentation where, as Lloyd's List said, he showed slides of “a hapless master juggling an impossible array of small, distracting, but necessary tasks, including paperwork regarding everything from SOx and NOx compliance, port state control ballast water compliance schemes, and the owner’s cost cutting initiatives”. He also felt that the industry should look at pursers and administrative officers on ships once again to handle the mountain of paperwork.

To be sure, nothing Capt. Chawla said is unknown to anybody in the industry; the lowest rating sailing on any ship in the world today could have told us this ten years ago, just as he could have told the Koreans that the Hebei Two were innocent. What is path breaking are not the facts, but that a company of the size and reputation of Anglo Eastern is openly recommending that more people be placed on board so that they can operate ships unfatigued, and safely.

The Hebei Spirit outrage came after a long period of ship owners and managers starting to murmur about seafarer criminalisation; this issue of fatigue seems to be reaching a flashpoint of sorts too. It is not important how this round began, although it was first highlighted two decades ago; certainly the MAIB in the UK has raised it with the IMO for many years now (The IMO, typically, sat on it). The recent near disaster with the Shen Neng I at the Great Barrier Reef had Australian authorities listing officer fatigue as one of the causes once again. Managers and ship owners agree privately that ships are dangerously undermanned sometimes; a few (very few) have even placed administrative officers or additional staff on board.

No, it is not important where the issue started, but it is very important where it will end.

It seems clear to me that the seafarer shortage issue has quietly just escalated. Anglo Eastern’s opinion certainly matters enough that ship owners of any reasonable quality will not be able to push aggressively for lower manning scales now, so I assume, perhaps somewhat optimistically, that the era of mindlessly slashing crew complements is slowly coming to an end. Of course, if this happens, some owners will move to substandard managers, flags or classification societies and continue with their self-destructive behaviour. However, if some Port States get tough on manning levels, (you can bet that Australia is looking at this) these cowboys may find it problematic to operate their ships freely worldwide. I hope they do. May I remind these owners that manning certificates are actually ‘Minimum Safe Manning’ Certificates? With stress on ‘Safe’, please?

I also think that companies like Anglo Eastern will find very quickly that revising manning levels upwards makes business sense as well, and may well promote seafarer employment and retention for their companies. Such practices always do. (If I were going to sail, I would certainly consider giving a call to Anglo Eastern or VShips, for obvious reasons. One stood by its people; the other is taking sense and will probably make my ship safer and easier to work on.) Not just that, but any company that has adequately staffed ships may find, in the not too distant future, that they can market themselves to commercial interests much more easily, and perhaps ply to stricter waters more smoothly. They are putting money and effort behind safety and seafarer welfare; they are obviously serious about quality.

Of course, Anglo Eastern’s statement will not wave a magic wand and make the less committed disappear overnight. There are more substandard ship owners and managers around than we think there are; these toads are not going to turn into Prince Charming without many kisses. Just one recent example: a former machinist of the ‘Faina’, who was released by Somali pirates in February 2009, has hanged himself in Odessa because of non-payment of dues by the ship owner, at a time when he needed money for his daughter’s medical treatment. The amount owed? About 5000 dollars.

No, the vermin will still prey on our colleagues, and manning certificates will mean little to them. Nevertheless, what Anglo Eastern’s statement does is this- it raises the bar for the industry. It also gives notice to the IMO, Flag States and other regulators: they may find themselves redundant if a segment of the industry is prepared to take measures unilaterally after finding present rules inadequate. Therefore, the statement will differentiate, on another parameter, the wheat from the chaff, including regulatory chaff.

I am pleased on two additional smaller counts. For one, I am always pleased when anybody in the industry looks at seafarer issues through any other prism except the ‘demand and supply wages’ one. Second, my view is that most conferences like the one where the Anglo Eastern statement was made are akin to the Shakespearian life, full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Most industry meetings, to paraphrase Metallica (which is as distant from the Bard as I could get) has too many of the nowhere crowd crying the nowhere cheers of honour.

I am thrilled to have been proved wrong, for once.