April 14, 2011

Streetwalker’s commitment

I will be amongst the first to generalise and say that shipping needs more commitment from the youngsters that are coming out to sea today. Alas, commitment is a two way street, so it would be nice if the industry, too, showed them a bit of what this scarce commodity might look like. Even more unfortunately, the usually un-committed, always noncommittal and often self-servingly corrupt body shopping culture that shipping exposes young sailors to- long before they first taste salt on their lips or have any idea what the career is all about - sets the cultural tone for the rest of their association with the industry.

The fact is that when somebody from shipping talks about commitment they always mean a seafarer’s long-term commitment to their own particular company, and nothing more. This is a notion so laughably arrogant, given our contractual model of employment, that those seeking this need to be committed to a certain kind of asylum. Like the philanderer husband who demands a chaste wife, they seek commitment without offering any.

Consider a youngster’s typical introduction to today’s maritime world for a moment. He has probably paid shady agents- who have promised him the moon- to join a below-par training institute, and he will probably have to pay somebody to get a training berth at sea. The training institute’s placement commitment will be usually (and creatively) advertised as ‘100% placement assistance’, which can mean whatever they want it to mean. The first year or two of a trainee’s life in the industry will be spent, therefore, in an atmosphere where he is at the receiving end of corruption and cold indifference and where many promises are made and most broken. This debased unprofessional behaviour is what he comes to believe shipping is all about, because this is all he sees. He will struggle for months, sometimes years, to get employed as a cadet or a junior rating after graduation; he may even, in rare cases, sign petitions or seek media support to advertise his plight. This industry is dog-eat-dog, he learns soon enough. No long term commitment. Everybody is out looking for the quick shady buck. If I get a chance, I will take my money and run too, he decides.

Later, once he has sailed for awhile, he may be treated better- or not, depending on how badly companies need warm certified bodies at that point in time. His employer’s commitment, if any, will be only for a single contract, and sometimes not even that. Everything will depend on supply and demand, including the apparently vexing question of whether he has to be spoken to politely or not in the manager’s office. He is a contractual commodity whose value varies and who can be discarded or treated like dirt under a shoe at anytime. Of course, banal promises and clichĂ©s will be served to him periodically like hors d’oeuvres by employers, depending on the prevailing demand and supply situation. These mean nothing. They cost nothing. They are not the main dish.

And so, when his time comes, he does what has been done to him. No commitment to a company. Worse, no commitment to the profession. The industry reaps the whirlwind that it sows.

Seems to me that the business model that dictates that seafaring employment be contractual for nationals of developing countries is not going to change; besides other reasons, shipping does not seem to have the capacity to think out of the box and come up with a different model. Seems to me, also, that this is no excuse why seafarers cannot be treated better, especially when they first enter the industry. There should be no excuses for unprofessional or insensitive behaviour at any time, and there should be no reason why corrupt practices should be allowed to flourish to an extent that they threaten to overwhelm the body shopping business, which is what it actually is. There is no excuse why we can’t be committed to honest body shopping practices.

At the moment, though, and at the risk of being shot down in flames by my contemporaries, I cannot help but compare the plight of most youngsters who enter the profession with that of a young girl who runs away from her small-town home and is eventually- almost inevitably- sold into prostitution in the big bad city. Like our young sailors who go out to sea, prostitution wasn’t her first choice of profession. Like these kids looking for training berths, her first contacts with her professional world-to-be is only through corrupt and corrupting pimps, who promised her everything, took everything they could, and left her the bare minimum. She, too, learnt- to her cost -that promises are made to be broken. Like our future mariners, she learnt the hard way that, in her line of business, commitment from employers- or even equitable behaviour- was an expectation that was naive. Like our would-be sailors, she didn’t see any commitment- or even much common decency- from most in her industry. Her pimp demanded loyalty without giving her any in return; keeping the option of kicking her out into the street at any time that it suited him. Just like our body shopping outfits tend to do.

How much commitment should that industry expect from this girl today, do you think?


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear writer, the whole world is similar and seafarers are not exceptions. You have gone too far to bring down the credibility of the holy profession. Think again... this profession has so much more to offer besides money off course. May God bless you.