May 09, 2013

Parallel lines.

I have drawn parallels, more than once, between shipping and the information technology industries in India. I have some experience of both of these, and the commonalities that clearly exist- the bodyshopping ethos, a young workforce, retention issues and non-permanent employment included- are striking. The treatment of the two industries to the humans who work in them has been poles apart, however: IT has usually been proactive and mature in dealing with its employees’ needs, going out of its way to allocate resources to demonstrate that it values its employees. Shipping, on the other hand, seems to follow the ‘take it or leave it’ approach whenever it deals with its employees afloat. It allocates nothing to them, not even compassion.

So it is with some interest that I watch the current happenings in IT- a sector that seems to have hit a wall after years of being regarded as the golden industry for with fat salaries and spiking increments. This year, Indian IT will employ 50,000 fewer people than it did last year. Business models are being changed to reflect today’s reality of - and that reality will mean fewer jobs are available out there. Annual salary hikes, if they exist at all, are very modest. Cost cutting and a focus on performance is putting additional pressure on IT employees, both job-security related and financial; after all, a chunk of their compensation has come traditionally from bonuses and performance related payouts. 

One fallout of all this is being felt in the mental health of India’s 3 million strong IT workforce , which is showing clear signs of ‘acute depression, insecurity, low confidence, dejection, aversion to social life and panic’, according to NIMHANS, Bangalore’s psychiatric and counselling centre. IT techies are walking in to NIMHANS in increasing numbers, and will soon constitute half its patients, it says; the figure was a third two years ago. Similar numbers are coming out of Delhi.

Every merchant mariner out of India has put up, for his entire working life, with conditions far worse than those that are driving those techies to counselling. Job security has always been non-existent; foreign firms never had any, and the myth that Indian companies offered job security was well and truly busted in the recession in the eighties. What’s more, employers of the Indian sailor, unlike those of the Indian techie, do not even need a reason to sack him; he is simply ‘not recalled’ after a contract. No severance pay even. What this model has done to the mental health of the tens of thousands of Indian seafarers who have gone through the system- me included- has never been examined. And probably never will be.

Then, there are those unique pressures on a sailor and his mental health. A hostile environment. No family or friend support. Little human touch, leading to a feeling of dislocation. The impossibility of discussing work or related problems at home between contracts- because nobody ashore can really understand. The pretence so many sailors perpetuate that there is some fantastic life out there at sea, and that it is there to be taken with no personal cost payable. The shortage of meaningful relationships when ashore- a world where, to the sailor, there seems to be no relationship without selfish interest. The sneaking feeling that there is little life outside the job.

What all this does to a sailor’s mental health is something we have never bothered to find out. We have never bothered to examine whether we need to support him as an industry- or give him avenues where he can help himself if he feels he needs help. Heck, we scapegoat, criminalise, traumatise and discard him with impunity to cover our own faults. We throw him in the bin if he is traumatised in any way- work related, pirate hit, medically or otherwise- at sea. What makes me think we want to spend a dime on the sailor doing anything for his well-being?

No Economic Times articles on the sailor’s mental health, then; he is not a techie. He does not count. Who cares if the industry is the problem? Who cares if the sailor suffers, like the techie, from acute depression, insecurity, low confidence, dejection, aversion to social life and panic? 

Who should care?


No comments: