December 30, 2010

Dead to rights

Dr. Mohammad Haneef is said to be ‘delighted’ this week after having been awarded a ‘substantial sum’ –reports suggest a million Australian dollars- as damages for wrongful arrest by the Australian government in July 2007. The Indian born doctor was detained at Brisbane airport for suspicion of terror related activities; two of his second cousins were involved in the Glasgow airport terrorist attack at the time, and a Sim card he had left behind in the UK- later used in the attack- added to the suspicion. He was detained for all of about three weeks in Australia, during which time the media in India went into a pathological tizzy, obsessed with the usual need to beat their drum the shrillest in support of a slight, imagined or otherwise, against an Indian abroad. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh joined in the circus, saying at the time that he had problems sleeping, presumably at the injustices Haneef was being subjected to, or maybe because the Congress wanted the Muslim vote somewhere or the other in the by-elections then in progress in India.

But all that is water under the bridge. A million dollars or so worth of justice has been served. Seems fair. The Lloyds Open Form for wrongful detention- you screw up, you pay, right?

I wonder if Capt. Jasprit Singh or Chief Officer Chetan of the Hebei Spirit have even got an apology from the Koreans, leave alone a million smackeroos. What about Capt Glen Aroza who spent a year and a half detained in Taiwan on a false charge? If three weeks of a landlubber’s life is worth a million, shouldn’t seventy-two weeks- give or take- of a sailor’s life be worth an apology, at least?

What about Captain Mangouras of the ‘Prestige’? His fight for justice- after the 2002 incident that should have had at least three countries hang their heads in abject shame while declaring him a hero- had no takers in the European Court of Human Rights recently. They refused to even admit that the 3 million Euro bail set at the time, after the almost seventy-year-old Greek Captain had spent three months in captivity, was excessive.

The industry- that conferred awards on Chawla and Mangouras almost in protest, and which expressed its usual concerns and went home- would have us believe that it could do nothing in any of these cases. We were told that shipping is off the radar screens of the public and the politicians. That we have to live with repeated assaults on seafarer rights in this uncaring world.

However, this notion is only partially correct; the reality is that the industry does not do anything that would cause me to think that it actually cares for the rights of its mariners itself, and so can hardly complain at outside insensibility. It does not put its money where its mouth is. Or, more accurately, its mouth is disconnected from its wallet where a seaman’s rights are concerned. Platitudes it is full of, of course. Those are free.

Case in point. A few weeks ago- much to the relief of many shipowners who think that Filipinos are unduly litigious- the Philippines’ Supreme Court overturned a ruling that a Bosun was entitled to USD 60,000 in compensation for the “severe mental disorder” he had claimed to have suffered as a result of a “hostile working environment” (abusive senior officers on board, he claimed) that had left him depressed and unfit for duty. Industry bodies representing shipowners implied, somewhat snidely, that this was a welcome ruling. Never mind whether the Bosun had a case or not, it was the principle of the thing that was objectionable. Seafarers demanding rights? Heavens, what next!

Wherever possible, many shipowners will use any excuse, legal or otherwise, not to pay seamen their dues. We all know that. Wages, medical compensation or anything else included. They will use jurisdictional excuses and falsehoods. They will use time to wear down the individual seafarer. Hell, there are enough owners out there who will gyp a mariner of his earned wages, given half a chance. The effective legal recourse a seafarer has in such cases is usually zero.

The other canard is, of course, that most ’normal’ well known shipmanning outfits operate with integrity. I disagree. Most will try to get away with whatever they can - there are few exceptions. I have experience of a couple of these so called management companies, complete with substandard ships, incompetent or dishonest Superintendents and commercial managers, running an organisation that is overwhelmingly geared to cover itself when things go wrong instead of either solving the problem or supporting the floating staff when they are right. Or even, in the context of this piece, doing what is legally correct. A seafarer suing for his rights- when the owners are hidden or in one country, the management in another, the ship registered in a third and the mariner a national of a fourth, is an exercise in futility. They know it. They count on it.

Sometimes seafarers persist, but it can take years. Ten years, in Deepak Divekar’s case. Last month, the former merchant navy officer was awarded compensation of Rs 1.56 crore by the Arbitral Tribunal of Justice against his former employer, a Kuwaiti shipping company and its Indian agents. The company had blacklisted him following allegations of drunken misbehaviour, unprofessionalism and causing communal disquiet while on board. Divekar says the real reason the company went after him was that he had objected, along with some others, to the Captain buying non-potable drinking water in the Caribbean. He says he fell sick and had to seek medical treatment on his own. Today, he says, of his ten year pursuit of justice, "In a decade, I have aged 25 years.”

Does the family of Akhona Geveza, the South African female cadet allegedly raped and thrown overboard a British ship, have a case against the senior officer named or the company for not providing a safe working place? I bet they do, especially since there seems to have been a pattern of abuse in that programme. Another cadet said at the time that ’it was like being dropped in the middle of a game park’. (Of course, litigation is quicker and easier in the US. A jury has just awarded 25 million dollars to a Maersk seaman who claimed he was raped by the South Korean police on shore leave in 2008. However, nobody in his right mind would claim this sort of recourse for a seaman is universal)

Do the three or four thousand seafarers held hostage by pirates since 2008 have any legal recourse against shipowners? Unlikely, but they should. Their ships were obviously not safe, a condition for employment, I would have thought. Declaring ’war zone’ and paying double wages, as some are now doing, should not abrogate this responsibility. But this is an industry where at least some of the hostages in Somalia must be wondering whether they would even be paid any wages at all while in captivity, or whether their families would see any compensation money if they were killed. Such is the level of confidence in owners and managers. Such is the dismal state of seafarer rights and their enforcement. We all know many horror tales that reinforce this opinion.

What about those seafarer hostages that have been traumatised so much during captivity that they- clinically suffering from stress- are unfit to sail, and probably never will? Don’t they deserve to be compensated?

But perhaps, when I expect mariners to be given their due, I ask for too much; perhaps I am naive. Clearly, Somali pirates have rights: 85% of those we catch and release without persecution- because they have those accursed rights- return to hijack ships. Even Ajmal Kasab, the terrorist in Mumbai who massacred on camera, has rights, judging by the progress–or lack thereof- of his case in court. Shipowners have rights (and thanks to some sly practices, many have more than a few lefts, too). Even animals have rights these days.

However, seafarers don’t get rights. They get the Year of the Seafarer instead. Get money for nothing and your clichés for free.

Which reminds me. Happy New Year. All these clichés, like my wife’s clothes, will now be last year’s.


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