May 02, 2013

Crisis of confidence

British based marine insurance broker Seacurus has launched an insurance policy to protect crews against non-payment of wages. Cynics like me will point out that this initiative is not really meant to shield crews from rogue managers or owners, but is to facilitate those very same gentlemen rogues to meet the requirements of the Maritime Labour Convention which comes into force in a few months’ time. That aside, the very fact that sailing employees of shipping companies need to be insured against defaulting employers is a pretty severe indictment of the industry, don’t you think? I wonder if managers or owners will feel encouraged to default on wages once they buy the policy.

On this side of the world, the soap opera at the Indian Maritime University continues in Chennai. From a seniormost official who has been charged by the anti-corruption branch of the Central Bureau of Investigation- a central government controlled body- but still remains active, to faculty who have not been paid for months and were asked to have major terms of their employment retrospectively amended, to students who are not educated properly or employed at the completion of the suspect education, the drama has it all. Vice Chancellors and Registrar’s resigning, MBA graduates being offered salaries government peons would scoff at and the Ministry of Shipping flip flopping like my Hawaiian bathroom slippers are all episodes in the serial tragedy that the rest of us continue to watch with great bemusement. 

But then, what do you expect from a Ministry that has– for many years now- been bartered in exchange for political support from Tamil Nadu, where the so called university is headquartered? The anarchy that is widely reported to prevail at the IMU is not the symptom of the disease; it is the disease itself. 

“The birth of Indian Maritime University is a long cherished dream of the maritime community of India”, their website says. I don’t know which optimist dreamt that cherished dream, but it does not matter today, when the IMU is not even a nightmare; it is a joke. The industry loves to berate private maritime training institutes. I wonder why those that fantasised about the Chennai cherished dream have not publicly protested at the shenanigans that have been going on for years out there. 

The IMU and the Seacurus reports have one thing in common; they highlight the acute crisis of confidence that plagues shipping. Put simply, people have stopped believing that shipping is good. The extent of the rot- rooted in corruption, whether driven by an administrator, a private shipowner or a university- is so widespread today that even a fresher who has yet to step on to his first gangway is deeply cynical of everyone that he meets connected with shipping. Talk to some of them; I have. They expect to be cheated- before and during training and immediately thereafter, at least. They are resigned to the hoax we perpetrate at their expense. Experienced sailors will tell you this crisis of confidence prevails later too, albeit in different ways when employers, inspectors, administrators and other outsiders deal with them. 

Synchronous with this crisis- or maybe because of it- is the collapse of ethical behaviour by the industry and its third parties whenever it comes to seamen and their issues. That this comes at a time when seafaring is being shunned as a ‘career of choice’ (IMO, eat your words, please) in India is obviously potentially calamitous for the industry, but nobody seems to care. The dog-eat -dog atmosphere predominates in the body shopping outfits that we run. Administrators open their mouths and speak, but I don’t know if even they themselves listen to what they are saying. Owners and managers lie to crews about everything under the sun to suit their short term ends. Crews aim just to survive their contracts, physically, emotionally and professionally. 

And some of them do so by sticking masking tape over shipside cracks and painting over (Don’t laugh. I took over a ship run by a ‘premier’ shipmanagement company where this was done, and everybody knew about it.) 

And then we complain that shipping has a bad rep.

To an outsider or a Cadet doing his pre-sea training, the industry is a mistake. To an insider, large swathes of the industry- mostly to do with human resources and their management - appear almost completely fraudulent. If that is not a crisis then I don’t know what is. 


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