October 25, 2012

The Puntland punters

The sordid tale of the Puntland Maritime Police Force should remind the industry, once and for all, that it will do well to not rely on the international community to solve its security problems in future. Instead, it should fall back on the use of armed guards whenever marine assets are threatened in the first instance. Because the ineffectual initiatives of global powers and the UN are hostage to either a head in the sand attitude, cupidity or stupidity- or all of the above. We in shipping could have saved ourselves considerable heartburn had we put armed guards on our ships more than a decade ago. We should, in fact, place armed guards on all our ships off East and West Africa today and wherever else tomorrow without second thought and without delay. It will be safer, more effective, straightforward and cheaper.

This, then, is the short and bitter history of the Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF), about five hundred of whose soldiers are today abandoned in desert camps, unpaid for months- and sitting on an arsenal of assorted weaponry. No doubt they will gravitate to the highest bidder in that failed State- Al Qaeda’s Al Shabaab, pirates or assorted warlords.  Take your pick.

Starting 2010, the PMPF was ostensibly created to fight pirates on land. Millions of dollars of UAE money was spent and mercenaries from shadowy companies - the South African Saracen and, later, Sterling from Dubai- were flown in to train and arm local recruits. The involvement of the ex US Navy Seal and CIA linked Erik Prince- of Blackwater infamy, who now lives in the UAE- was never in doubt; he is supposed to have made many trips to the PMPF training camps. 

Quizzically, the UN first praised the PMPF and then- later- cried foul, saying that Sterling was creating the force in a “brazen, large-scale and protracted violation” of the arms embargo in place on Somalia. Stories of torture and killings of a few PMPF Somali trainees started doing the rounds. In April, a South African trainer was shot dead by a Somali trainee; three months later, Sterling abandoned Puntland, taking its people and equipment but leaving an arsenal and dissolute semi-trained gunfighters behind. 

Sometime while all this was going on, President Faroole of Puntland was being feted as keynote speaker in an antipiracy conference in London last November. The same Faroole was accused by investigative journalists in Africa of sharing in pirate booty, by the way, but since when did that all matter to the morality of the British? 

Governments count on falling back on the cushion of plausible deniability. The United States would have us believe today that the formation of the PMPF was at the behest of the UAE and that the US State Department and the CIA had nothing to do with it.  They would have you and I ignore the dots connecting recent US history of mercenary involvement- in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Libya, for a start- with the PMPF in Somalia.  Ignore the fact that Erik Prince’s Blackwater has got 1.6 billion dollars from the US government since 1997 for covert operations- it is its biggest private security contractor. Ignore that a former CIA Mogadishu station chief was enrolled to support the PMPF. Ignore that the PMPF was using some of the same facilities of Faroole’s Puntland Intelligence Service that “has been trained by C.I.A. officers and contractors for more than a decade”.

For shipping’s security issues, the situation is exasperating for other reasons. For example, the blind eye that has been deliberately turned by Western governments to the involvement of the Al Shabaab terrorists with pirates. Acknowledging these links would mean that ransom payments would become illegal, and there would go, for example, the billions that the British insurance and security companies make off the so called anti-piracy business. That aside, acknowledgement would mean taking the lid off a Pandora’s box of legal and foreign policy problems.

The “war on terror” is actually what all Western actions connected to Somalia are really pretending to be about. What they are really about, behind the pretence, is control of Somalia. Therefore, the recent victories of their proxies- the Kenyan and African Union forces- against Al Shabaab in south Somalia and their own drone strikes in the wider region must be heartening for them. But for shipping, Western actions have collateral advantages at best; nothing more. Nothing that changes the game. 

The bottom line is that the international community is fighting a different war than one that shipping needs it to fight. The war being fought may, if won, ease the piracy problem somewhat, but that is not good enough. 

They will not change the war for us, it is clear. Not now, and not in future either. Their response to West African piracy, for example, is more likely to be determined by self-interest than the need to protect ships, seamen or trade. The PMPF experience is just one proof of this. The experience will not teach shipping anything new if it is repeated elsewhere.

Which is why I say armed guards at the first sign of trouble, anywhere in the world in future.



October 22, 2012

Mesothelioma: A Silent Threat for the Merchant Marines

(This is a guest post by Emily Walsh, a Community Outreach Blogger for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance. She also writes for the MCA on various veteran and military health topic and very kindly offered to write here. Also see  more of her writing here- a great site)

For members of the Merchant Marines, service never ends. Providing valuable cargo transport both in times of peace and war, many hours are logged in cramped quarters of boats. Unfortunately, many veterans are discovering a major health hazard of such working conditions: mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is a cancer that affects the thin lining that covers lungs, heart and abdomen. The main cause of the disease is asbestos exposure. Asbestos was used as an insulator in ships and other military structures, especially during World War II through the Vietnam War. Even though the dangers of asbestos are now well know and it is being removed, the symptoms of mesothelioma take decades to appear. In the United States, only 2,000-3,000 new cases are diagnosed per year, and at least 30% of those are military veterans.

Asbestos is a mineral with long, flexible fibers that can be spun into heat-resistant materials. Production skyrocketed in the 1940s, where it was used for construction materials, vehicle brake pads, and insulation. Ships used by the Merchant Marines had pipes and boilers coated with asbestos for fire protection, so anyone involved with building or repairing ships would be exposed. They would carry fibers on their clothing and hair, contributing to second-hand exposure for those living around them. On a ship, with few open spaces, asbestos would easily be transferred to much of the crew.

Mesothelioma symptoms don't show up until 20-50 years after exposure. When they do present, they are similar to symptoms of other, more common and less lethal, diseases. Coughing, fatigue, shortness of breath, fever and night sweats could be pneumonia, but could also be warning signs of mesothelioma.

After taking a thorough medical history, a doctor may order some initial tests to check for abnormalities associated with this type of cancer. These tests may include a chest x-ray, MRI or CT scan. If any suspicious growths are detected, a biopsy is ordered to gather a tissue sample and check the status of the cells.

Once a positive diagnosis has been made, treatment can begin. The most common treatments are chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, and doctors often use a combination of treatments for better results. Many patients report finding relief in alternative therapies. Unfortunately, there is no cure yet for mesothelioma and life expectancies are still short. Significant discoveries have been made, but there is still a long way to go.

October 18, 2012

The three per cent solution

Consultancy firm Moore Stephens’ recent annual statistics on vessel operating costs- OpCost 2012- were regurgitated with some alarm by many shipping magazines last week. A typical title of the excited churnalism screamed that rising crew costs were the biggest factor in increased bills for running ships. 

All the excitement, when the figures-shorn of the hoopla- said that there was, within an average of 2.1 per cent increase in operating costs, just a 3.3 per cent overall increase in crew costs year on year. Nobody got delirious at some other figures published in the report, by the way. For example, expenses on stores have gone up 2.7 per cent on an average- and 6.5 per cent for LPG ships. Within the same ballpark, it was crew costs that hit the headlines. You mean those guys don’t work for free!?

Nobody bothered to highlight Moore Stephens partner Richard Greiner’s educated comments on the report. He said, “The average overall increase in crew costs was in fact marginally down on the figure for 2010. But while crew costs remain the single biggest contributor to higher operating costs, they are still modest in comparison to some of the hefty increases posted in earlier years. Investing in good people is a must for the shipping industry, and will justify the price tag in the long term”.

Now I do not know- or even want to- what comes under the heading ‘crew costs’; I assume that wages constitute just a part of these, even a significant part, and perhaps travel, insurance and the so called ‘training’ costs make up the rest. But leave that be; pretend for a moment that the entire increase- 3.3 per cent- is due to seafarer wage hikes. So what?  

In the Indian context, a three per cent annual wage hike in any industry is nothing, even in these troubled times. I suspect this is also true for countries like the Philippines. The headlines, therefore, are meant to either calculatedly repeat the old hatchet-job that has been attempted on seafarers forever (you are pricing themselves out of the market, don’t ask for too much or there will be no jobs, etc.) or are just sensationalism without substance. Either way, yawn. 

Shipping’s shaky business model has always been a supply and demand one when it comes to seafarer job security or wages. While statistics may be interesting, therefore, the industry is in no position to shed crocodile tears now that times are bad and good people are scarce. Or cry wolf. It needs to spend its energies more on finding solutions to the shortage of qualified and experienced crews instead of bemoaning its own HRD debacles. 

Most Indians in the workforce would consider the HRD policies of the Indian Public Sector Units- government controlled industries including oil and gas, mining and such- to be the pits, pachydermous, inflexible, and bound by overregulation. But the level of HRD in shipping is so abysmal that I can compare it with what some of these PSU’s are doing today and find shipping wanting. Many PSU dinosaurs, who can’t even reward competence with higher salaries thanks to government controlled rigid pay scales, are finding innovative ways of posting their brightest to unpopular remote locations like mines and oil rigs (where there is a two week on and two weeks off rotation, by the way, laughable compared to what a seafarer goes through).

They are paying hardship allowances. Giving the spouse a job in mining towns where the partner is employed. Offering home loans, and house, entertainment or communication allowances. Granting longer time off and ‘emergency leave’. Providing air and chopper services and contemplating paying for children’s “coaching classes” into prestigious engineering or medical colleges, and paying their fees (for non-executive employees’ children) thereafter. Also arranging Wi-Fi facilities, fast food and coffee joints in mining towns or remote locations. 

In short, they are doing whatever they can to retain the people that they want in the unpopular locations that they want them in; a scenario shipping must surely find analogous. 

We in shipping could learn a lot from those PSU folk. But will we? Will our managers show some will, spine and ability before it is too late? Will we stop taking bribes for giving jobs to hopeful first time cadets and ratings long enough to think about this simple fact- that the time is long gone when you can hope to solve the problem by just throwing a piffling three per cent at it?

October 11, 2012

Shipping and the human ailment

What is this thing- 'The Human Element'- which so many forked shipping tongues are speaking about for so long? Does the term mean different things to different people? Is it just another phrase to be thrown around at seminars that actually signifies little? Does the repeated use of the term- the Human Element- simply betray befuddled confusion in the speaker’s mind? Is it just a means used to control costs and reduce insurance claims? Does it mean anything at all? Or, are these constant ulcerated utterings admitting to a complete lack of industry understanding of the seaman's mind?

Context is everything. Take the circumstances in which the commercial world uses the term. There we have, usually, along with the usual dreary statistics from yet another fuddled insurance club- you know, the usual xyz percentage of claims are related to human error kind of trite remarks - a gaffer or two throwing up his hands and pointing to The Human Element as the root of all evil, and the real reason why shoreside bonuses are not higher this year. Soon comes the spiel about better crew training, high (hic) industry standards, the need to control costs, report near misses (hope they are pretty, at least) and all the rest of it. In this context, the 'Human Element' becomes the main excuse for skimpier bottom lines or lower profits. This sort of thing always reminds me of a male teenager's befuddlement at his first sighting of a female undergarment. Excited he may be, but he is also clueless.

Damn, the insurance companies, owners and managers are actually saying. Sailors' mistakes are costing us money. We had forgotten that the industry actually employs flesh and blood people. If only we could switch them on and off like machines, as pretty girls seem to be able to do. If only there were no 'Human Element' at sea, we could save millions every year. If only we could carry on our schizophrenic policies- treating staff ashore well and treating staff at sea barely humanely- without financial consequences. If only sailors weren't human beings. Sigh.

Another context is revealed by the researcher’s use of the term. By the way, researchers, consultants, regulators and other sundry personnel are being classed together here, because their motives, outlooks and productions are near identical. They will take an old issue and rehash it, producing thick reports (or at least a large pdf file) at the end of the exercise. They will examine every pore of the specimen- the sailor- under a microscope for this purpose, wasting months in 'studying the problem' (the sailor, of course) and then decimating small forests to produce paper for their reports. They will dehumanise the specimen (the sailor, the sailor!) as required for their narrow ends. Pretend that the 'Human Element'- and human error- are unique to ships. Present old findings in new language, and hope not too many notice. (Aside- after dinner speakers, please note- when you use 'The Human Element' in a speech, do it sonorously and with a mysterious air; this will confound everybody properly).

Forgive them father, because they sure as hell don't understand what they are saying.

I obviously don't know what sailors around the world think of the 'Human Element' circus (now there's a subject for somebody to research- keep everybody busy for a while). I do know, however, that I find being referred to as a 'Human Element' deeply patronising. I agree that human error should be minimised for safety using whatever means necessary (Aside, my response to a Chief Engineer on a container ship when he said the engine tripped because of 'human error' was, once, 'That was not human error. That was a screw-up'.) But you aren't going to discover anything useful when you go bumbling around like Inspector Clouseau with a magnifying glass stuck to your eye, missing the woods for the trees.

Besides, the industry always seems to bemoan the fact that sailors are invisible to the general public; by treating them as specimens in your kitchen laboratory, you bring this invisibility well within industry borders. And, in the process, you reveal- much like the bumbling Inspector- your complete cluelessness and lack of basic common sense. Not to speak of your garish exhibition of a complete lack of sensitivity and ignorance about the basics of HRD.

All that said, I am curious about just one thing. How many sailors wonder, as I do, about how much of the same 'Human Element' exists on the other side of the Clouseau-ish magnifying glass?

On the evidence, not much, Melud.


October 04, 2012

Fishing for trouble

The sporadic yawping from the United Nations and sections of the mainstream media about the use of private maritime security companies has been going on for a few months, and is now beginning to get annoying. Shipping needs to get on an aggressive media offensive to educate the critics and tell the obtuse where to get off.

A world that treated- for a couple of decades- the seafarer’s life as expendable and the torture of thousands of his colleagues as acceptable has no moral right to shed crocodile tears over a few fishermen’s unlawful deaths today; an international organisation that made no serious effort to stop piracy has no business getting wet dreams about regulating a proven workable private-sector solution. And newspapers and news channels that are now screeching at the killings of a few fishermen by guards should explain why they ignored the wanton killings of tens of the same folk by the governments of their countries when hijacked trawlers were raked with gunfire from naval ships who knew with complete certainty that innocent people would be killed.

Every violent death of an innocent is tragic, but we can do without the hypocrisy that says that fishermen are deserving victims and seamen are not. A lack of perspective is understandable when a reporter masquerades as an analyst, but a United Nations playing to the gallery is unacceptable, especially when it is their spectacular failure that gave rise to the magnitude of the problem in the first case.

The killings of two Indian fishermen by Italian military guards, the trigger-happy shooting of a third by the US naval supply vessel Rappahannock near Dubai and the apparent murder of a Yemeni fishermen by Russian soldiers sent to escort the Nordic Fighter in the Red Sea are all incidents that have given rise to the recent simulated outrage at the UN and elsewhere. Each of these incidents, it must be stressed, involved military personnel and not private guards. The criticism of private guards is therefore facile and seems to be aimed with the intent to control, nothing more. 

I am not claiming, even for a moment, that private guards are better or even preferable to military men, for I believe the opposite. I am not saying that private guards are blameless- far from it. Oman, for example, has complained of “drive-by shootings” of its fishermen by private guards off merchant ships, conjuring up visions of trigger-happy riff-raff displaying an abhorrent disregard for life.  

No, this is not an either-or thing; I am just pointing out the hypocrisy of the whole exercise- hypocrisy that is no doubt precipitated by the fact that there are 2.3 million fishermen that go out to sea in the Indian Ocean versus the relatively minute numbers of seamen. Fishermen often form powerful constituencies at home, after all.

In fact, I am only insisting that shipping, for its own sake, set the record straight. Regulation and control is usually the first urge or the last refuge of the bureaucrat. That animal is behaving true to form today, and industry bodies claiming to represent shipowners and unions claiming to represent seafarers need to tell him a bit about the birds and the bees before his basic instincts do any more damage. At the outset, he needs to be told that it is his failure that has brought things to where they are today, and that things were much worse when sailors relied on him and his ilk to do something to solve Somali piracy.

In addition, this is what I would tell those UN officials, member States and media folk who are hyperactive today about the killings of a handful of fishermen (my ‘Facts of Life 101’, if you will): Folks, ships will continue to hug some coastlines to avoid pirates, and will so end up closer to fishing boats. Private armed guards will be professional or not; cheaper or substandard operators will inevitably employ cheaper and substandard security. Some may have no training, no clear rules of engagement or be trigger happy. Innocent fishermen may be sometimes killed. Crews, almost without exception, will not complain too much at these tragedies, and neither will shipowners, managers, cargo interests or insurers. Well managed companies will do everything to avoid this happening; others will just not care enough, will hope for the best and bumble their way through. Same as in any other industry, actually.

It is your incompetence and the foolishness of your members that has brought things to this pass; we should tell the United Nations. We have been forced to find our own solutions- however expensive and imperfect- because you have not done what you are paid to do. We don’t want to pay for armed guards but you have left us with no choice. We do not want to kill fishermen, but neither do we want our crews to be tortured or killed or our commercial enterprises subjected to unmitigated, unmanageable and unaffordable risk. 

Realise that you cannot regulate away crime. This is not a seminar or a junket or an exciting sheaf of blank papers that a committee can sit down with to formulate some new and useless piece of legislation that will come into force after ratification a few years down the road. This is a real life problem that needs real time solutions.

Shipping will not accept your carping or criticism about its solutions to piracy, we should tell them, or pander any longer to your lust for legislation. So deal with the problem, as your job requires you to do, or real life will make you irrelevant by dealing you out.