October 20, 2011

Inside shipping: The war we do not see

It may seem that the hammering that shipping has been subjected to in the aftermath of the ongoing global economic cataclysm is the reason why many firms are reverting to their old habits of treating seafarers like dirt. Old tales of double accounting, seafarers paying for jobs, withholding of documents, delaying of salaries, signing of inequitable contracts et al are being retold. The industry would have you believe that this is an aberration, is not widespread and is an undesirable side-effect of the mayhem in the marketplace. I disagree; the maltreatment of seamen- particularly seamen from Asia- is a perennial disease. Only the degree of abuse changes with the economics of supply and demand.  

Ever since the depression in shipping in the eighties, an insidious and invidious hidden war has been waged against sailors working on commercial ships. The protagonists of this war are officials of shipowning and shipmanagement companies- although they have not conspired amongst themselves to wage war and there has been no strategic objective promulgated. However, the tactics employed by them over the last thirty years leave me with no doubt that the hidden agenda- perhaps even unrealised as such by some of those officials, many of whom behave by now out of habitual malignant ill will against seamen- is clear enough. This agenda involves the use of propaganda, lies, deceit and a not-too subtle degradation of the mariner's status in the organisation at every opportunity. This devaluation suits shipping's Edward Bernays just fine since their manipulation of the perception of seafarer worth seeks narrow commercial advantages as its aim. The more mariners 'stay in their place' and the more they are perceived by the broader industry as 'good only for sailing, and sometimes not even that'- then more the odds that they will continue to remain at sea, making money for these companies at personal cost. Shipping must be the only industry in the world where a 'management level' official- with a tonne of operational experience, to boot- plateaus professionally in his early thirties.

The battle is one sided, but it is still being waged all the time, overtly and covertly, by almost every small and large minion at many- even most- shipowning or shipmanagement companies today. (Shabby treatment of seafarers is a given in government setups like the MMD or DGS too, but for reasons more to do with misguided bureaucratic self-importance than commerce). 

The battle is waged when second rung clerks of often third-rate calibre are unleashed on crews at every interface with these body-shopping outfits. The overt battle has other weapons in its armoury when it comes to senior officers, who are more subtly made to feel inferior to their counterparts ashore, some of them ex-sailors now often unfit to sail for one reason or another. Officers will be often treated poorly at every stage of their interaction with the office, whether at sea or not. Even entry-level management trainees are treated much better ashore, especially in businesses with high attrition rates, but shipping must serve its hidden agenda; it must cut off its nose to spite its face. 

The aim is to make it clear- at every stage- that the 'office' is the boss, never mind that the office is a support setup for the ship and not the other way round. Never mind that the email was sent to the Master by a minor lackey in the office who wouldn't recognise a ship if it jumped up and bit him in the behind; that lackey expects his email to be given the same attention that one from the CEO would get. Senior management often backs his fallacious thinking. It is the principle of the thing, in this battle; reality has nothing to do with it. The unsaid principle is, devalue the sailor.  

The insidious, covert battle is usually more sophisticated, and seems to follow Goebbels's philosophy that if you tell a lie big enough and often enough then people will believe it. Although you have gems like, 'Indian seafarers are pricing themselves out of the market' (which they have been doing for thirty years, apparently, according to the propaganda machine- somebody should ask it how they thrived)- although you have these gems of misinformation, other propaganda is more whisper and innuendo than pronouncement. 

The notion that sailors enjoy high salaries is flawed to begin with. To compare, one must allow for the fact that- ashore- weekends, public holidays, employee's leave entitlement, medical leave etc mean that many employees work hardly seven months of the year. (104 days of weekends, 30 days leave a year, 10 days medical/casual leave and another dozen or more days of public holidays total to five months, give or take). A sailor, on the other hand, works anywhere from ten to twenty-four hours a day, sometimes (hang the rest period requirements, I am talking about reality here) around the clock. The pressures on him are tremendous, and not comparable to those of anybody in his organisation ashore. For a start, their lives are never on the line. Consider the fact that when a sailor does not work he is not paid, 'round the year wages paid' claims from some companies notwithstanding. Consider the years totally spent- and money spent, too- appearing for certificate of competency exams, or attending to emergencies at home. Or even company seminars. Unpaid.

Now do the math. You will find, as I do, that a senior officer's salary should be near double what it is today to be on par with middle management's ashore (this calculation is made to make all of you feel better, although I believe that a Master's wages should be in line with what is paid to senior management, not middle). The canard of 'high salaries at sea' is yet another example of pure and unadulterated drivel put out by the industry. 

Much of the whisper campaign will imply that all mariners today are of poor calibre and temperament and so not even comparable to clerical staff ashore. They will say that today all sailors are greedy, grubby and finicky about the smallest thing in the 'contract,' if that shady piece of one-sided paper can actually be called that. They will give you examples of seafarer 'demands', forgetting to mention that the negotiation of terms is hardly unique to shipping, and that unreasonableness is only when one demands things not in the contract. Unreasonableness lies more in the demands of body shoppers than those of mariners, in my experience.

These are just a few of those lies; I am sure all of us can think of many more. I used to be sometimes amused, sometimes annoyed- but always puzzled- at such malicious behaviour when I was sailing. Then I realised that this was not malice, but a hazily calculated attempt at trying to keep me down. Ex-mannning setups I worked with will tell you better whether they succeeded in this juvenile endeavour; I know I started having fun after I understood the game they were playing- very entertaining, it all was. One cannot and should not take children too seriously.

Today, I watch from the sidelines, sometimes anguished and sometimes angry, as this war damages the industry near-irretrievably. Thirty two year old Masters tell me why they are quitting. Young Second Mates talk to me with lesser composure and greater angst, but some of their reasons are similar to those of the seniors'.  Young cadets tell me why they will quit 'within five years'. And ratings look shell shocked, convinced that the choice they made- or that was made for them by family, in some cases- was absolutely the wrong one.
 There are many reasons why we cannot attract mariners of calibre today- or retain them long enough. Not all of them have to do with a war that we do not see. However, most of the reasons have a common undercurrent that guarantees that we do not attract or retain the kind of people we need. "We have better options elsewhere", prospective sailors and seafarers of all ranks are telling the industry today. "Besides, shipping does not need us anyway. Because if it did, it would not overwork and underpay us. It would illuminate a possible career path for the deserving amongst us. It wouldn't treat us like dirt." 

If I were honest, I would have to empathise with them as they take their money and run.



Sky Clipper said...

Indian sea-farers commit to compete on price when they take up this career even when they know that there is a very small requirement of sea-farers to be satisfied by India and they are simply signing up to continuously overwhelm the supply side of the funnel. It is also a lack of commitment of a complete sea-career, that has brought about this situation, as discussed a later.
Firstly, we need to keep in mind that it is still all about China. They make the product - they will like to control how to bring it to your door. And with Chinese sailors ready to take sea-faring jobs, they will man the ships that will also belong to those nations. Other raw-material, will get shipped from elsewhere, and Indian sea-farers will keep competing on price all the world over, to get jobs that ultimately come from countries where there may be needs of transport of natural resources, but no local interest of sea-faring exists, whether it is a Panamanian or Liberian organization that fronts writing the paycheck. Of course, it is nothing more than the ever-plunging ‘market-rates’ for manning sea-going vessels, that brings about that lack of interest in sea-faring at the local level.
Ill-treatment at local governmental and regulatory offices is only a by-product of the culture of speed-money and disenchantment felt by the clerks in these offices, Port-Control offices, Customs, Immigration and simply every department where these individuals will always feel that the ‘private sector’ has more disposable income during their earning years, and adequate security.
It might be a time to gracefully bow out of being the rich resource for sea-farer supply. And probably the right cadre has already bowed out and it is now simply the last bit of persons who are joining this career only to take a quick U-turn, or simply to hang in there as they’ve burnt their boats elsewhere, pun intended. We do need to impartially view this and realize that there are other avenues that exist for some of the people who commit themselves to the sea career, and given the status quo of the living conditions in shipping, versus living an earning-span of life with a conjoined Blackberry, the alternative sure beats it. While the article equates the most luscious of benefits in the private sector to 7 months of work at sea, I don’t think there can ever be a comparison. The sea-faring job has to have its own career path, whereby people do not become Masters at 32 and then pine for shore-jobs, in turn brining in lots of theory and less practical knowledge to that shore-job!
A person at 32-40 can not be a Senior Manager - mentally, he’s just turning “mid-career” ashore. A Ship’s Master may have experience and maturity of a unique kind, but only a little percentage of that can be translated into what is required by a shore-job. If the Master in his early Thirties wishes to come ashore, then he must realize how much of what his day-job is at sea, can be transferred to his day-job ashore, and similarly, how he’d be compensated for the relevance of the experience he brings to the job. It simply goes to say that it is not a good idea to fast-track promotions at sea; retaining more matured persons at sea, who are more committed to the sea-career will automatically take back some of the ‘control’ that has moved towards the shore, from the Ship. Some comparisons of the sea-career choose to club these jobs into “Transport Workers” jobs and argue that they be paid like Airline Pilots, however, even that is a poor comparison as anyone who’s been ashore will agree that a sea-career needs one to adopt a way of life through those earning years, and be able to build a nest egg for himself and whatever family he may have attached to himself, who, he anyway sacrifices every time he signs on a “Contract”. And years and years of repeated Goodbyes, will surely have an effect on that that he feels (continued in next post)/Sky Clipper

Sky Clipper said...

(Continued from previous post)

Some comparisons of the sea-career choose to club these jobs into “Transport Workers” jobs and argue that they be paid like Airline Pilots, however, even that is a poor comparison as anyone who’s been ashore will agree that a sea-career needs one to adopt a way of life through those earning years, and be able to build a nest egg for himself and whatever family he may have attached to himself, who, he anyway sacrifices every time he signs on a “Contract”. And years and years of repeated Goodbyes, will surely have an effect on that that he feels is his, and he needs to be fairly compensated to be able to build that nest-egg that can keep him warm in his golden years ashore. But to keep his legs in two boats (pun intended) or by jumping-ship (oh no! pun intended again!) in mid-thirties or early forties, one can not expect to have a comfortable ride all along. It simply defies the laws of nature where you have to give something to get something. Ultimately, pays of sea-jobs should rise, but they have to be able to sustain the whole eco-system of World Trade. And when that happens considerably, you’ll see sea-farers coming out of the wood-work and taking on the sea-career once again, though they may not be Indian sea-farers - not in a long shot at all, because every sunrise has to be preceded by a sunset! While the Earth turns 1 degree every 4 minutes, the world in Shipping has turned such that it took 30 years for the Sun to move towards India, and soon it will be gone and will be all over China! After a while, it will all come back, though this is not that era!
/Sky Clipper