June 02, 2011

Needed, a shipping ombudsman

(the usual suspects need not apply)

One has only to see the concerted official Indian response to much of the west coast of India being declared a war zone by insurers to realise how quickly creaky bureaucrats can get their knickers in a twist and begin to actually act. The Maritime Safety Committee at the IMO has recently seen fervent pleas by the Indian delegation that the IMO rescinds its extension of the pirate infested war zone that is now at the limit of Indian territorial waters, almost. Of course, this sudden concern was cloaked in the usual claptrap about the Indian government’s anxiety about Indian seafarer hostages, their torture, a Master’s death as a result of torture and whatnot, but the overwhelming message was clear to me: torturing our seafarers is ok; hitting our wallets is not.

Do we seriously expect such jokers to actually do something to protect the Indian seafarer? We must be crazy.

I suppress a shudder every time a colleague says- in connection with an issue critical to the mariner’s interest, or even survival as a species- that the IMO should do this or that. Or that the Ministry of Shipping or External Affairs should step in with international pressure. Or that the Directorate General of Shipping should make xyz mandatory. Or that setups like the unions, associations of ship owners or agents- or even those like the CMMI- should do something. I suppress this shudder because I have no real faith in any of these organisations to do anything except further personal, political or commercial intertwined interests. I have no real faith that these organisations will actually do what they are required- and, in most cases, paid- to do, unless, of course, the right thing happens fleetingly to coincide with those same interests.

All of this surfaces a major lacuna in the system- and this gap is so critical that its mere presence almost guarantees that any well meaning initiatives to protect the seafarer-or indeed, to do anything towards his welfare- die before they are even born. The real problem is this: there is nobody to speak on behalf of the Indian sailor- nobody who has a clue, that is.

In a beating-the-dead-horse mode now, I have long advocated the absolute need to have an industry body where mariners who are actively sailing are predominant, or at least a significant majority. It is a broad failure that this has not happened- because the nature of the beast requires that the industry set up such a body and then back away from it. Unfortunately, most in shipping eye official positions in such organisations for personal gain or advancement. We are consequently left with many organisations claiming to represent seafarers when almost everybody therein doesn’t know anything about what it means to sail today. Those guys are outdated, out of touch and their opinions have little practical value. They can’t speak for sailors because they are not sailors anymore.

In this environment, we badly need an independent ombudsman in Indian shipping- a ‘seafarer issues ombudsman’, to be precise. The ombudsman would be independent and impartial and would investigate complaints, including those related to issues of maladministration in private offices. This organisation’s job should be to resolve differences and disputes between ship managers and their employees at sea. The ship manager or the seafarer should be able to bring their grievances to this office, which will adjudicate in an equitable manner. Legislation could ensure that the ombudsman’s findings are legally binding and enforceable.

We should head the ombudsman’s office very carefully- given the dismally incestuous state of shipping related organisations in general- with an ex-seafarer with a high legal background, and staff it with a few seafarers on a two year rotation, the requirement being that- barring the Head- such other seafarers should have sailed for at least a year in the last five. (Actually sailed, please. No time off for working in the DGS or training institutes or other such nonsense). Costs for the setup to be paid for in the same way other ombudsmen offices are paid in other trades- by industry contributions or by government. And finally, the ombudsman’s office employees- or their families, friends, business associates or even their pet dogs- should have no commercial interests in any maritime business or profession.

I would like this ombudsman to be authorised to do one more thing- standardise equitable contract forms. This is an industry that has standard forms for everything from charter parties to salvage; rolling out a ‘standard seafarer’s contract form’ should be a piece of cake in comparison. If done, this would, in one fell swoop, promote the interests of all the constituents in the ship manning space- owners, managers and seafarers alike. All clean constituents, that is: the crooks can take a long overdue hike.

Such an office would obviously have to be structured in a way that keeps it insulated from political or commercial pressure, but this is not that difficult. Maybe we can learn from the many, many, ombudsmen offices being run reasonably successfully- in India and elsewhere. Incidentally, the Indian Lokpal (People protector/caretaker) concept is very similar.

I seriously believe, though, that mine is a workable proposition, a fair one and one that will do much to promote confidence in the industry, weed out corruption and malpractice and be generally greatly beneficial to a wide cross section of its constituents.

But regardless of my convictions, I expect many naysayers who will say- for one reason or another- that this is a bad idea. Maybe these folks are right and I am wrong; maybe the ombudsman idea should be thrown away with the garbage.

I have no problems with anybody who disagrees with me. I am willing to be convinced that I am wrong. However, please make sure you have no hidden agendas when you do so. Please make sure- if you disagree- then it is not your wallets that are doing the talking this time.

In case they are, you can always go to the IMO instead to scream blue murder.


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