Sailors on merchant ships know very well that the employer's statutory 'duty of care' is a hollow idea exercised more in breach than in compliance. Employers routinely fail to provide seaworthy ships or staff them properly to address overwork and fatigue. Each of these are grounds for negligence, as are suggestions from superintendents and other office lackeys that encourage Masters and Chief Engineers to cut corners and contribute to this breach of a basic obligation. We know how that works, but recent events tell me that shipping has reached -even given its own atrocious record- a new low. The unique lack of intestinal fortitude that our administrators, shipowners and managers have usually displayed was standing at the edge of the abyss; it has now taken a great leap forward.
Take the fate of the Asphalt Venture hostages- seven Indians moved ashore by pirates after their ship and the rest of the crew were released in April last year. A recent Indian Ministry of Shipping press release (Release ID 79475) titled 'Hijacked Ships with Indian Crew as on 10th January, 2012', concluded with this innocuous sentence- "While 36 Indian seafarers are on board four foreign flag ships, 7 seafarers of “ASPHALT VENTURE” are held hostage on land", adding somewhat gratuitously, "So far, no ship with Indian flag has been hijacked".
Very neat, except that, two weeks earlier, press reports from Somalia (the Somalia Report for one, dated December 28 last year) claimed that two of these hostages were already dead, one having died in October. This is what they had to say in December: "A second Indian hostage has died while in the custody of pirates in Harardheere, according to sources amongst the pirates. The deceased hostage was from amongst seven crew members from Panamanian-flagged MV Asphalt Venture which pirates released April 28th, and now only five are alive, according to pirates".
"He was in serious condition over the last month and he died this week. Now we are holding only five Indian hostages from the crew of the MV Asphalt Venture," one of the pirates holding these hostages told Somalia Report. "He is the second hostage to die, two months before another hostage died," added the pirate.
Will the Ministry of Shipping, the ship owner or the manager involved tell the families of the hostages the truth? Are two of the Asphalt Venture hostages really dead? Where is the duty of care in all this? Or even basic humanity, actually. The least they can do is to let the families know whether they should hope-or grieve.
Or take the 'Vinalines Queen'. The 2005 built, 56040 DWT bulk carrier- one of the biggest ships under the Vietnamese flag- sank without a trace on Christmas Day off the Philippines north coast. Only one crewmember out of twenty-two survived, being picked up by a passing ship five days later. The Vinalines Queen was carrying more than 50,000 tonnes of nickel ore- loaded in Indonesia- at the time, and cargo liquefaction is said to be the cause of the capsizing. She had reported a sudden 18-degree list in bad weather hours earlier.
The liquefaction of ore fines is an age-old problem when cargoes are loaded from countries like India and Indonesia. Spurious moisture content and transportable moisture limit certificates, the over spraying of ore fines with water and the collusion of cargo interests with port authorities- and sometimes even shipowners- have resulted in so many casualties over the years that the IMO and Intercargo warnings have become a bit of a joke. After the Asian Forest and Black Rose sinkings off the Indian coast earlier that year, three Chinese ships went down in a forty-day period in December 2010. Forty-four crew died, and everybody got into the act once again. Round table conferences were held by IMO and Intercargo "reminded the industry of the dangers associated with the carriage of hazardous cargoes." In the continuing nauseous game of musical chairs, Intercargo now says, after Vinalines Queen, that it is "continuing to work through IMO to protect the safety of seafarers and their ships". Ho Ho.
Duty of care be damned. Sailors- mainly Asian- are being regularly killed by the tens because of greed and incompetence. We can shoot off an email to the ship today, asking the Master to take urine samples from crewmembers x, y and z and send them ashore for analysis of alcohol content to comply with our grossly misguided Drug and Alcohol Policies, but we cannot seem to ensure independent and honest results of moisture contents of tens of thousands of tonnes of cargoes that we will load- even if they have the potential to kill all those crewmembers and make our ships disappear without a trace. We are beyond negligence; we are well into the realm of culpable homicide here, folks.
In 1972, Volkswagen recalled 3,700,000 1949-1969 cars because of a problem with the windshield wiper-the wiper arm had a screw that frequently came loose, causing problems in rain.
Early December last month, the brand new Vale Beijing- a megaship ten times the size of the Titanic and one of the biggest ships afloat- had just loaded 384,300 tonnes of ore when cracks in two of the ballast tanks appeared, indicating some sort of loading or structural problem. At the time of writing this piece, not a single sister ship has been recalled; in fact, we are hearing news about how one of those- with 350,000 tonnes of ore- is in China where Vale is holding on to the cargo awaiting a rise in ore prices.
Forty years ago, almost four million cars are recalled for a wiper defect. Forty years later, at a time when bigger and bigger ships- especially boxships and bulkers- are being built, the industry does not feel the need to stop even one ship when its brand new sister ship obviously has life threatening structural problems, knowing fully well the decades old history of large bulk carriers breaking up at sea without warning and drowning their crews. Seaworthy ships and the duty of care are out the window; culpable homicide is in again.
(Since I have used that term twice now, here is the Indian Penal Code definition of 'culpable homicide' that backs up my claim. You decide whether it applies. Read the 'or with the knowledge" part carefully, please.
"Whoever causes death by doing an act with the intention of causing death, or with the intention of causing such bodily injury as is likely to cause death, or with the knowledge that he is likely by such act to cause death, commits the offence of culpable homicide.")
And so shipping blunders on, a dirty and grubby industry that ignores its legal requirement of providing a seaworthy ship or a "duty of care" to its crews. This is because it actually does not care for them, and neither do international and national regulators, so who is going to enforce the law? It never has cared for the seafarer, and every potential entrant to the industry should be told so at every Pre-Sea course, so that he starts his career with no illusions- especially illusions that can kill him.
Meanwhile, old life threatening issues drag on, hostage to industry and regulatory corruption and incompetence. Age-old industry practices continue to threaten the lives of crews. Underdeclared container weights continue to threaten to capsize or damage ships. Even lifeboat mechanisms- that are supposed to help save lives- continue to snuff them out instead.
It is an endless and dangerous game. The hypocrisy kills me, though. I wish that, instead of telling seafarers claptrap about how valued they are, the industry would collectively get off its behind and actually prove it to them just once. I wish that, instead of blindly exhorting contractual employees to be loyal and giving them nothing in return, shipowners and shipmanagers would deliver on their legally required duty of care, or guarantee them a seaworthy ship. The industry has a long way to go from culpable homicide to there.