October 01, 2010

Quiet damnation

Stena lines, the cross Channel ferry operator, brewed a mini storm in a small British teacup recently: Director Pim de Lange said it was hard to find British seafarers “unless you want types with fat bellies and covered with tattoos”. De Lange was happy with Filipinos, who he said were “jumping after a two month holiday to work again for six months.” (I suspect his joy had more to do with the 2.2 GBP an hour wage that the Filipinos are apparently being paid.)

Nautilus, the British maritime union, reacted angrily to de Lange’s comments on British seafarers, calling them slanderous and a “disgrace to the hard working men and women who go to sea.” Many days later, the Stena Director expressed regret for any offence caused. Regret, not apology, and he has not retracted his statement so far.

Well, shipping is not booming today, so maybe de Lange thought he could get away with his tirade. But it was certainly booming about two and a half years ago when a very senior manager in an international ship management company (one that still has a large recruitment presence in India and the Philippines loves to pretend that the organisation is all one big happy family) was reported to have compared seafarers publicly to whores, saying, “if seafarers behaved liked mercenaries and prostitutes, that is how they themselves would be treated.” There was no public outrage in India or elsewhere over this scurrilous denunciation, perhaps because he was talking about seafarers from the developing world.

Do we really expect things to be different in India? A country where the shipping ministry is sometimes used as an economic pay-off for political support? Where the shipping administrations are headed by bureaucratic appointees that will change every couple of years? Where ship managers, with rare exception, can barely hide their disdain for seafarers in stray conversation? A country that has much substandard, poorly maintained and crewed tonnage? Where corruption in the new-entrant recruitment business has reached a stage where it is hard to get a training berth without paying off touts? When little can be done in government ports or with connected authorities without bribery? Where the industry motto seems to be as on a sinking ship, where every rat should be for himself?

I don’t know about you, but I sure as hell do not expect much different, and I suspect neither do most Indian seafarers who are still out at sea. I do not expect much better from other countries either, if that is any consolation. Or from self-serving international institutions that are meant to promote safety but end up adding to mariner problems instead. With stray exceptions, a huge part of our industry is not part of any solution, and, unless mentalities change, never will be.

I suspect change, if and when it comes, will come from commercial pressures alone. It will come from quality owners who are unable to find enough quality seamen. It will come from far thinking managers who will see the commercial advantages in retaining good employees (and letting go the bad ones). It will come from a gradually changing mindset that realises that the dying breed of mariners who choose the career as a first option (and not the last, as too often happens today) and for the right reasons (which are to do with more than just dollars and cents) needs industry support. I can risk saying that this change should be inevitable, because, as far as I can see, shipping is not shutting up shop and going away: it therefore needs quality mariners as much as mariners need quality ships.

But I am not too sanguine about this change happing easily: somehow, I cannot see Chinese or Indian ship owners- as just two examples of countries where tonnage is likely to grow rapidly- losing too much sleep over quality just yet. I am more confident of Western ship owners spearheading change, also because their national regulations are tougher, environmental and safety requirements more robust and administrations cleaner. Tougher implementation of laws means a greater demand for quality seafarers.

Not everything is very clean in the West, though, as evidenced by the recent MAIB UK report on the fishing vessel Olivia Jean. Amongst an assemblage of findings to do with poor stability criteria, maintenance, documentation and equipment, the vessel was carrying up to 15 crewmembers at a time when restricted to six, the Latvians and Ghanaians were working long hours without rest, and the owner “was showing a total disregard for the safety and welfare of his employees.” The fishing industry in the UK, Scotland and Ireland has been accused in the past of ‘slavery of Indonesian and Filipino fishermen’ – not enough has changed, judging by more recent reports.

An aside: Lloyds recently carried an article that said, “A significant number of UK officer cadets are so short of money that they are taking second jobs to make ends meet during their training.” Flipping hamburgers at MacDonald’s was mentioned. Dignity of labour banalities aside, is this the state of affairs that we want to see in the industry? Do we expect people to take pride in a profession when they cannot make ends meet pursuing it?

As for the present sorry state of affairs in India, the more I think about it, the more I reach the conclusion that the few remaining Indian mariners who expect the country or their peers to come up with ideas to address their issues (and obviously connected, problems of the recruitment business) bang their unprotected heads against a brick wall. Which is why few sailors actually expect anything out of the country in general and their colleagues ashore in particular. Ask them. All they want to do is to come home in one piece with their wages paid, without facing a major incident at sea or being taken hostage- on one pretext or the other- by the likes of either illegal Somali pirates or properly authorised thugs of legal governments.

Much as I hate to say this, I think they are right in their low- nearing zero- expectations from the industry. I think it is people ashore that make a big noise- and only a big noise- about the need to improve the seafarer’s lot everywhere. The average sailor, however, has given up expecting anything from anybody in the business ashore. He is getting on with his life anyway.

If you ask me, this stoical acceptance of neglect by our seamen is the biggest condemnation of all.


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