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.


December 23, 2010

Chicken Licken mathematics

Like ants and scandals, numbers continue to crawl out of the woodwork in the last few weeks. And, like discreetly plunging necklines, what they accidentally reveal is riveting.

The ‘BIMCO/ISF 2010 ‘Update on the Worldwide Demand Supply of and Demand for Seafarers’ says that there is no shortage of ratings today. That is right; we do not need any more ratings right now: the supply and demand situation is balanced at about 747,000. The study, done in partnership with Dalian University in China says that there is a ‘notable improvement’ in the supply of officers and ratings since 2005, when the last report was published. The increase in numbers is said to be due to fresh seafarer meat coming in from China, India, the Philippines and also from ‘several OECD countries’.

The same study also says that 637,000 officers are required in the global merchant fleet today, but only 624,000 are available. The industry needs another 13,000 officers- just two percent more than it has at present.

Let me get this straight. There are about 1.4 million seafarers in the world today. This number- or whatever it actually is, because other reports quote anywhere between one and one point five million- is more or less ‘balanced’- we certainly don’t need a massive infusion of ratings. And, a two percent shortfall in officer numbers is hardly huge- look at the manpower figures for other industries and you will understand what I am talking about. Hell, some IT companies may even have that many –permanent employees, I may pointedly add- sitting on the bench or being trained.

However, it looks like the shipping industry’s loud conspiracy of alarmist doomsday scenarios based on fudged officer shortfall numbers has been successful in the last couple of years. The ‘supply side’- youngsters lured by these sly Cassandras – seems to have much improved. Not that the prophecies have become any less shrill today: we continue to hear of misrepresented numbers of officers that will be required once ‘shipping recovers’. These projections are nothing new- the last few years before the bust saw similar numbers bandied about by many. Like the stock market indices peaks that were extrapolated by ‘experts’ to infinity and were equally dishonest, the officer shortfall alarm has just one objective: get more people into the workforce and so reduce wages. Mariners are largely contractual workers. Oversupply costs us nothing.

Meanwhile, to accomplish this, we must run around like headless Chicken Lickens, screaming that the sky is falling and the only thing that will stop catastrophe is the intake of a zillion new seafarers before next Monday. We must continue the controlled, cynical and hysterical farce- what is called the ‘tamasha’ in India.

Meanwhile, the country graduates about 4500 new Ratings annually from government approved institutes (and Ganesha only knows how many from others), many of whom struggle to find jobs and many of whom pay touts to join substandard ships owned by third-rate shipping companies. Our cadets fare no better- our Chicken Lickens have no training berths for them. A group of cadets from one of the largest government training setups in Mumbai has written an open letter bemoaning their fate. (It is not just in India that mariners are angry- the seafarers of a global shipping giant - along with Nautilus in the UK- recently had a public and well publicised email spat with the owners in a ‘let them eat cake’ incident).

Meanwhile, all- without exception- all the half dozen or so thirty something old Masters I have met in the last month want to quit sailing immediately. Many have already finalised alternatives. Without getting into the reasons why they are quitting- none of which will be news to anybody out here- I made a back of the envelope calculation to determine how long they have actually worked at sea:

Average time these Masters have been at sea: 14 years= 168 months.
Time off ships for three certificates of competency: 28 months
Remaining time available 168-28= 140 months (11.6 years)
Time between contracts/unpaid leave= 58 months (average 5 months a year for 11.6 years)
So, time spent working on ships= 82 months (140-58) or 6.8 years
Assuming 6 months contract, 82 months translates into 13.6 contracts.
And, 6.8 years out of the total 14 is 48.5%

That’s how long the industry actually has these sailors for, from the time they joined as cadets right up to the time they quit. Less than 14 contracts. In a couple of cases where longer unpaid leaves were taken, considerably less than that, even. And, if one considers that the present lot want to quit sailing in seven or ten years maximum..... Well, you can redo those numbers and halve the outcomes.

What I am trying to get at- admittedly in a convoluted manner- is that attrition of officers has to be seen in this context- that the effective value of an officer to the industry is less than half of the total time he spends at sea. Experienced officers are not falling from trees, but we continue to look at fresh entrants as a panacea while doing nothing to address the critical issue of attrition.

I invite the Chicken Lickens in India to look around them to see what other industries are doing to retain performers. Even with consumer durables under pressure, Samsung India and LG paid a 200% bonus (of monthly salary) to employees last year- and plan to do so again this year. Haier will pay 130 percent. Hyundai will pay more than a month’s salary. Companies across the board are gifting holidays abroad and in India (some are even flying back overseas employees so that they can spend time with family), laptops, mobile phones et al in a bid to retain workers- amidst a downturn they think is ending, same as we in shipping do. They are not doing this out of love, by the way. They are doing this to retain good people that they feel will contribute to their businesses.

Maybe I shouldn’t embarrass the Chicken Lickens by asking what they are doing.

Nobody can predict the future and perhaps nobody should even try, least of all people with dodgy agendas. Projecting thousands of officers short assuming a perpetual shipping boom from now on in is an old ploy.
Shipping may recover from the downturn slowly or quickly- the tonnage overhang will get absorbed eventually, I guess. Many western countries may well produce, with their backs to the economic wall, more seafarers that find the career preferable to no jobs at home. If that happens, many Western owners will prefer them to Indians (unless that much maligned fairness cream so popular in India actually works).

Whatever happens, the bottom line is that any shortfall in required future seafarer numbers will not be due to reasons that our Chicken Lickens regurgitate, but for the widespread lack of preference for seafaring. In any case, if they honestly feel that the sky is falling, they should do something useful about it- and with integrity, for once, instead of shouting untruths and bloated numbers from rooftops.


December 16, 2010

Chaos Theory

The phone rang a couple of years ago at six in the evening. “Captain, this is Chaotic Shipmanagement,” a voice told me. “We are sorry that we have had to prepone...”

“Is that an actual word, prepone?” I wanted to know.

“We apologise,” the voice went on, ignoring the sailor as usual, “but you will have to join tomorrow instead of next week since we have royally screwed up as usual. Therefore, we have booked your flight from home to Mumbai so early tomorrow morning it is actually tonight. Your flight out of India is in the afternoon, after your medicals that you can go do directly after landing in Mumbai, and other formalities, ticketing and videoconferencing with the Superintendent that have to be done before 1PM his time so he can have a martini with his lunch.”

“What?? No way. Please find somebody else, since I am too old to rock and roll and too young to die after being run ragged like this.”

“Please oblige us this time, Captain, because the owners, they...” I tuned out the rest of the spiel, almost decided that I would not join. It had happened too often.

But a sailor and a dog never learn.

In Mumbai next day, I dumped my gear at the office and went for my medicals in that well known hole in the wall place where I was sampled, x-rayed, blood, HIV tested and subjected to other unmentionable things within minutes. I also found out, once again, what a high speed strip dancer’s life must be like, only my performance was in three different rooms seemingly simultaneously (I had to appear all elegantly dressed between the rooms to boot). Non-seamen should really try this sometime. Excellent for blood circulation and raising one’s heart rate appropriately, though it can be argued that the same effect can be had more easily by munching on potato chips while watching a Monica Bellucci movie.

Next, return to Alcatraz- the office-for videoconferencing. The Mumbai honcho of Chaotic came in and sat down off camera as a technician got everything ready. The honcho wasn’t part of the movie, but he combed his hair anyway.

I took out a small scribbling pad I always carry in my top shirt pocket just in case the Superintendent has something useful to say.

“No, no!” the honcho told me, holding out what looked like a full ream of A4 size photocopying paper, alarmed that I wasn’t taking the proceedings seriously enough. “Take this.” I politely declined, and wondered to myself if I could have a rum and coke instead to get me going.

The Superintendent appeared on the big screen. “Captain, I have here the signing off Master’s handover notes that I want to read to you point by point....”

“Can’t you email them to the office instead?” I asked him, “I can read them on the flight instead of wasting your time now.” And mine too, I muttered under my breath.

“Great!” the greatly relieved man said, with the look of somebody who has saved fifteen minutes of time that seemed to be hitherto running out. “I will leave you in the able hands of Chaotic Mumbai then. The ship is arriving in Aden in three days.”

End of conference and round two to me. Or so I thought, until I found out that Chaotic had booked me on a round the world trip to Aden, where I would arrive concurrently with the ship. (Mumbai-Delhi-Singapore-Sana’a-Aden, with twelve hour halts for allegedly connecting flights everywhere including at Delhi). Very nice of Chaotic. Join the navy and see the world.

There should be a law against this.

There should also be a law against useless pre-joining briefing of Masters, done mostly to tick those nice boxes in some checklist. Frankly, those briefings are an ordeal, like those dodgy company seminars that mariners are uniquely inflicted with. I would rather go through a TSA body cavity search at a major US airport. Twice.

Chaotic used to love those conferences too, and could not understand why I refused to attend, especially after they had bent over backwards and got all their other seafarers to contribute 500 Rupees per head for dinner. I told them it was the principle of the thing, but they were not happy at all, and rewarded me with a few junk ships over the years. (To work on, not as presents).

I was caught for a seminar once, though, and flew to Chennai in peak summer to attend that critically important meeting. Or at least I thought it was important, because it had a theme and all, much like a hoity toity wedding in Delhi.

Chennai, as you know, is unbearably hot and sticky in summer. So there I was, bags dropped at a cheapish hotel they had booked me into after the flight even though I was paying, standing sweating in the lobby of another (much better) hotel after a long, dusty, hot and humid auto rickshaw ride. Soon, a Chaotic minor functionary (the same one who had called me at 6pm a year ago) with a frown on his face stepped up to me.

"Captain, you are not wearing a necktie!!”

How observant these people are, I thought. No wonder they are going places.
“Err, no, I am not,” I told him. “I fear I might asphyxiate while I am dehydrating.”

He ignored me as usual. “Here, take mine,” he said, whipping off his glaringly psychedelic tie and putting it around my neck, like a coy Hindu bride garlanding her husband-to-be at their wedding.

I hoped, as I walked into the conference room, that everybody had sunglasses on. That tie was a killer.

To add to my misery, they served us- can you imagine, in that land of delicious South Indian coffee- they served us some lukewarm and insipid instant. The only thing missing was the three-in-one sachet.

Never mind, I told myself, taking an aisle seat towards the back of the hall in case I had to make a quick getaway, beggars can’t be choosers. Most of the other seagoing officers seemed to settle down around me. One can always recognise sailors at these dos- they are the ones looking the most uncomfortable in their formal clothes and jackets and too tight collars. I bet they go home and jump straight into overalls just to feel comfortable once again. But I digress.

Soon a man I had never seen in my life got up on stage and told me that all of us were part of one big Chaotic family. Soon another man I had never seen in my life told us that we were his best assets, and that he would stand by me no matter what. All very heady stuff, although I much prefer such declarations to come from my wife.

Sitting comfortably for the first time in five hours since I had left home to take the flight to Chennai, sweat evaporating in the air-conditioning, collar button surreptitiously undone, amongst declared family and with compliments washing over me like gentle ripples on Marina beach, I felt really good. I had just leaned back and closed my eyes when something growled in the aisle in front of me.

Alarmed, I snapped my eyes open, just in time to see a Chief Engineer elbowing a Master next to him and whispering aggressively in his ear.

“Boss,” the Chief said. “Sleep if you must, but at least don’t snore!”


December 09, 2010

The Tom and Jerry Show comes to India

Things they don’t tell you at Harvard Seamanship School:

• After numerous pirate attacks off the Indian coastline, including one on the SCI tanker Guru Gobind Singh just 300 odd miles from Goa at the end of last month, the Indian Navy was sent out to chase a mother ship- the hijacked Polar- away from the Indian coast. Success was claimed- and reported- in Indian newspapers on Dec 1. The very next day, on Dec 2, a containership was attempted to be boarded just 150 miles northwest of Minicoy by men armed with RPGs and other weapons who zipped in on a skiff off a mother vessel. Thankfully, they gave up after evasive manoeuvres by the target.

• On Dec 3, two days after the attack on the container ship and apparently unrelated to it, the Indian navy’s ‘Rajput’ detained a dhow with 19 persons on board- 15 Pakistanis and 4 Iranians. Nobody had any documents on them.

• On December 5, the Bangladeshi ‘Jahan Moni’ was hijacked after an hourlong pursuit near Lakshadweep islands just off the Indian coast. These are the same islands on which a number of Somali pirates were detained in the middle of the year, but only after they had made it ashore.

• The coast of Oman has seen increased incidents attacks and hijacks for months. And so has the Red Sea. And so has, in case you missed it, the Indian coast including off Mumbai.

• The International Maritime Maritime Bureau now says (better late than never) that piracy is increasing in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, and that pirates have moved closer to India.

• The Associated Press reports that an unnamed Muslim country is financing a 1000 strong militia that is being trained in Puntland, northern Somalia, just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen. The force will have armoured carriers and a few aircraft. At least one ex CIA official and a senior ex-US diplomat are involved. Interestingly, old allegations of gunrunning from Yemen to Puntland have never gone away, not least because much of the smuggled weaponry is being sent to the Al Qaeda linked Al Shabaab in Somalia.

• More and more media reports are talking about Westerners being trained in jihadi camps in Somalia and Yemen, or indoctrinated off the internet by rabid clerics and the like.

• US drone strikes in Yemen continue; tens of civilians have been killed. Some Al Qaeda personnel are reportedly fleeing to Somalia- the godforsaken country is being called, somewhat ironically, a safe haven for these fighters.

• The coalition navies are not saying any more, as they were during the useful monsoons, that Somali piracy has decreased. In fact, not a day passes without an attack or the other being reported. Unreported attacks remain unknown and unaccounted for as usual. Pirates strike almost at will. They seem to be nimbler, more adaptable and smarter than the dozen most powerful navies of the world out there. Reminds me of a Tom and Jerry cartoon show.

• Blackwater- the US mercenary organisation accused of serious abuses, including murder of civilians in Iraq- had proposed in an earlier plan that it would use lethal force against pirates, indicating a no-prisoner approach. The plan never took off.

• Figures of the number of sailors held hostage by Somali pirates continue to rise. Official figures have reached somewhere around the five to six hundred mark. Unofficial figures are higher. (Western media went to town on Paul and Rachel Chandler’s release after a year of being held hostage; the mainly Asian seafarer hostages held hostage are not pretty enough to get excited about, I guess, or are damned with the wrong colour of skin.)

• The average ransom for pirated ships has approximately tripled in the last couple of years, judging by reports. No wonder Neel Choong of the IMB says that ‘piracy off Somali waters will flourish”. I rather disagree with him, though, on his use of the future tense. It already flourishes, Mr Choong.

• The average time a mariner is held hostage is up by about forty percent, adding a month or so to his agony, on - as the accountants say- a YOY basis. (What this mariner says is probably unprintable)

• At least one security company – who’s bottom-line I am sure, thanks to piracy, is naughtily firm –says that there may be links between piracy and terrorism, but there is no conclusive proof so far.

• Involvement of terror groups in piracy has complicated negotiations for ransom payments, says the well-known Andrew Mwangura of the East Africa Seafarers Assistance Programme, because terrorist groups have infiltrated teams that negotiate for ransom.

• There is deafening silence as to which country the boat that bombed the MStar bombing in the Straits of Hormuz came from.

After joining the dots above (and, for the sake of good order dotting my i’s, crossing my Rubicon and watching my p’s and q’s carefully), this is what this dumb seafarer wonders:

• Most maritime interests, except seafarers, will refuse to see the link between piracy and terrorism right up to the time when said link jumps up and bites them in their you know whats. They will obfuscate the issue because it is not in their commercial or political interests to acknowledge these links. Plausible deniability rules.

• What worries me most is the piracy-terrorist connection that I believe exists- this chilling connection is logical and natural anyway. Incidentally, what happened to the well-trained Pakistanis, including the one in control of operations, caught by the Russian navy on a mother ship last year? And can somebody tell me, please, what the Somali pirates caught on the island of Lakshadweep a few months ago told us? What have the Pakistanis and the Iranians arrested a few days ago revealed?

• That 1000 strong militia force being trained in Somalia probably has the US behind it somewhere, given the CIA and the ex Ambassador connections (as for the funding, remember the Iran Contra affair when third parties were used?). In any case, ex CIA head of stations do not get involved privately anywhere without US backing. There is probably a proxy war in Somalia in the offing. Should be interesting- African Union soldiers, government soldiers and irregulars, US backed militias, Al Shabaab, pirates and mercenary outfits. Add a dollop of oil and gas to the soup and let the cauldron simmer.

• The pirates are winning. The terrorists are winning too, if only because they are not losing- in fact, the MStar attack has resurfaced the spectre of maritime terrorism once again. The coalition navies are hamstrung and tasked with doing the impossible by nations that care more about geopolitical games than piracy. In any case, the wrong strategy is being used- defending the oceans instead of attacking the pirates. Managing piracy instead of fighting it.

• There seem to be numerous mother ships of all sizes in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. Surely we can keep track of them, can we not? What happened to all those AWACS and P-3 Orions or other fancy reconnaissance aircraft oozing with all those gizmos and electronics that are supposed to be out there? What about satellites? I mean, isn’t this an age when a satellite can zoom in on a tattoo on an interesting part of Angelina Jolie’s anatomy? Isn’t a mother ship a little bit bigger?

• The pirates are straddling busy sea lanes. Most everything moving out of the Gulf has to pass either the Indian west coast or the Omani coast, whether the ships are going to the Suez or east. VLCCs and others that go around the Cape excluded, of course. I note, idly, that the pirates are doing a good job of disrupting sea lanes, another terrorist aim. Coincidence?

• What about targeting the money? Dubai is the place where ransoms flow and are laundered, or so everybody says. Does it just disappear? Besides, there is a decent level of organisation involved in piracy. These are not just a bunch of teenagers with a mouthful of khat and a gun. What about going after the big guys, or at least their links in the West? We heard those London and Canadian stories eariler this year. What happened?

But don’t take my word for it. To see how widespread the war zone is, take a look at this year’s IMB Piracy map here. It shows, until the beginning of December, piracy attacks in the Indian Ocean, Arabian and Red Seas in 2010. Successful attacks are in red, attempts are in yellow. Take a good look. Each marker tells the tragic story of the callous abandonment of our mariners.

Look at the map, and tell me, in this, the Year of the Seafarer that is thankfully about to end- tell me please, with a straight face, that we are winning the war.

map, December 3, source IMB- Piracy attacks in 2010 to date.

In the time between the writing and publication of this piece by Marex Media, a Thai crewmember was thrown overboard off the ‘Prantalay 12’, (a trawler hijacked two months ago ) 350 miles from Minicoy islands off India as the trawler/mother-ship was being chased by the navy. The crewmember was rescued by the warship INS Krishna. What the pirates are saying is that they will not hesitate to kill the crew if navies get too close.


December 02, 2010

Last minute blues again

Some of those in shipping that are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel have resumed their hand wringing in earnest. We did not do enough to attract or train mariners in the last couple of years, they say. We lost another opportunity. What will we do now with the accursed seafarer shortage?

This behaviour is typical and does not surprise me in the least. It appears to me that at least some shipmanagers are akin to King Sisyphus, doomed for eternity to rolling a boulder up a steep hill only to see it roll down again. Their stump speeches add to this unique aura of helplessness that permeates throughout the business- pleas for loyalty, pronouncements of seafarers being best assets, declaration of being a peoples company and all that clichéd claptrap included.

Meanwhile, managers toil with unfailing resolve doing the same things day after day, mistaking tactics for strategy and hoping like hell that they will have a different result this time around. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the recruitment and retention tactics commonly seen. That boulder rolls down the hill once more; our efforts fail again. Yet we labour on resolutely, hopefully- and seemingly helplessly, as if oxen yoked to a plough.

Now the good news, which is that all is not lost just yet. I believe that there is still time to set this right, because I believe that the shipping industry is not out of the woods yet. Maybe even not for quite awhile, given the huge tonnage overhang, creeping protectionist policies and new worries about the economies in Ireland, Portugal and Spain. I also believe that any recovery will be gradual even if the global economy has bottomed out already. There are unlikely to be huge spikes upwards in freight demand and therefore tonnage is not going to take off and hit the roof day after tomorrow. Which means that there is still time to begin to address the seafarer shortage problem.

I must say again that I continue to believe that the shortage numbers are grossly exaggerated for obvious reasons to do with the industry wanting to flood the market and keep wages low. Besides, to me the issue is not just the numbers involved but the quality of crews trained. At a time when ships, systems and legal requirements are getting more complicated, we are failing to produce men and women who will meet the demands of tomorrow. Forget professional competence; we have an increasing problem with mariners who do not even have the basic language or academic skills needed to understand the manuals that explain our systems, requirements or machineries. Clearly, there is no safety in numbers even if we do manage to attract the young somehow; training has to be much better than it is at present.

That said, I have some hope, based on anecdotal evidence alone, that the ‘cradle to grave’ strategies that a few shipmanagement companies have started employing may produce some good results. The fly in the ointment here continues to be continuing hackneyed retention policies, but the better companies are managing that thorny issue reasonably well. Under present circumstances, of course; what happens when laid up ships are re-commissioned or when new tonnage hits the market remains to be seen. As an example, Indian companies, particularly SCI, have huge expansion plans. Can they get appropriately qualified and experienced bodies to staff these ships?

I hope officers don’t start jumping companies for just a few dollars more again, but they well might; not all much has changed in the last two years that would make them act otherwise. Nonetheless, there is a lot going for the ‘cradle to grave’ strategies, not least the fact that these require minimum government involvement- for waiting for the general state of affairs to improve in the MET space is a lot like waiting for Godot. The industry and its regulators remain committed to much rhetoric and not enough action.

In the Indian context again, the new Direct Tax code that will come into effect two years later appears to have a clause that may become greatly problematic, and, unless amended or clarified, may make incomes of thousands of Indian mariners sailing with foreign companies income taxable. Although some experts are saying that nothing has really changed here, there needs to be a categorical clause in the DTC that addresses seafarers. Why cannot there be absolute clarity from the Ministry of Finance on this once and for all?

As things stand, the DTC is worth keeping an eye on, and even lobbying against if required. The potential negative impact on Indian mariners can be huge: roughly, a quarter to a third of all their salaries is at risk of being gobbled up by the taxman. (Aside, an example of how income tax rules can have major consequences: reports suggest that the Norwegian Seatrans group will flag its ships out of Norway, since Polish seafarers working under the Norwegian flag will now have to pay Norwegian tax.)

Besides the many actions that need to be taken to address the numbers and calibre of future mariners worldwide, I believe that there is one small step that should be taken immediately: increasing the remuneration of on board cadets and trainees by around a quarter. The increased outlay will not be a large number for any shipowner. I am confident, though, that this single step will give him a big bang for the smallish buck. I say this knowing full well that a cadet gets a stipend and not a salary, and that us old (ok, older) timers were paid hardly 20 dollars a month (and 3 dollars a month, at today’s rates!) as first year trainees.

I do believe, however, that a Cadet should not be used as cheap labour, and a stipend should be such that a trainee can save enough money, during the apprenticeship period, to pay fully for any college, certificate of competency and STCW courses when she or he gets down for the junior officer’s certification. This single step will have a substantial impact; right now, a cadet often needs additional money for his COC time, especially if he appears for exams in other countries. Added to loans often taken for Pre Sea training, (including to fund my pet peeve, ‘placement’ or tout fees), this is an additional prickly burden.

I think we would attract a better quality of youngsters if we could sell to them the fact that they would be able to completely support themselves from the day they first stepped on board as cadets.