September 26, 2013

Licence to kill

To the consternation of my cat that was sleeping in my lap at the time, I could not help laughing as I read that the IMO was ‘on the verge of addressing the recognised and documented safety problem’ of underdeclaration of container weights by shippers. For everybody in shipping has known, expected and accepted underdeclaration of container weights for decades. Not just that, but improper stowage or securing, undeclared or ignored fire hazards and the like are rampant in the trade. 

The IMO is supposed to be voting shortly (see note below, please) on making mandatory weighing of containers before shipment, but underdeclaration of weights- which the industry delicately chooses to call misdeclaration- is just one of the issues. 

Now I have no idea about the way the IMO vote will go. I have written about this old, old problem before so I won’t repeat myself, except to point out that the IMO being on the verge of addressing the problem is akin to my nose hair clippers being on the verge of making me handsome. Chances are it just isn’t gonna happen. And even if it does, it will be diluted, circumvented or simply not implemented in many parts of the world, as is usual.

Recent capsizes and major fires on boxships have highlighted, once again, the widespread abuse by shippers of the system under which the entire container industry operates. Nonetheless, there seems to be a mini-confrontation between shippers and operators today. The World Shipping Council represents 90 per cent of global liner capacity; it wants the IMO to make mandatory the weighing of containers. Some countries like the Ukraine now require all containers discharged there to be weighed. This, after they found over a two week period, that 56 per cent of containers discharged in Ukrainian ports were underdeclared in weight. Others, including India, are planning to take similar steps. Planning, mind; there is usually many a slip.

Unsurprisingly, shippers are up in arms at the proposal.  Both Asian and European shippers’ bodies (allegedly representing 75 per cent of the trade) have warned the IMO not to vote for mandatory weighing of boxes before shipment, claiming disingenuously that such a move would seriously disrupt the global supply chain, be detrimental to trade, add to costs and, in any case, would fail to address the root causes of the safety problems tied to the transport and handling of containers.

That, frankly, is hogwash. Logistics chains ashore- even in countries with tough regulations that are actually enforced- do not seem to have any problems following shoreside safety regulations, so what makes shippers think that a simple weighing of each container before shipment is not possible? Of course it is; it has to be. What they are really saying is that the fraud some perpetuate on the system should be allowed to continue, and that their profiteering- on the back of criminal actions, since shippers are required to declare proper weights even under existing conventions- is untouchable. 

And, in the final analysis, what they are really saying is that the industry should continue to allow their profits to be more important than seamen’s lives, because it has always done so. 

Like I said, I don’t know which way the IMO will vote. We will know soon enough; they may have already done so by the time this appears in print. But I suspect that a vote for mandatory weighing will not be enough, even if that happens. I suspect that because I do not trust the system, and I do not trust many people in the system either. 

I reckon a few ports or a few countries will make mandatory weighting of containers compulsory, sooner or later, regardless of the IMO vote. As for the rest in the industry, they will make the right noises, perhaps, but nothing substantial will happen. 

For seamen, therefore, even a vote for mandatory weighing will be analogous to the admittedly hypothetical situation where Alice Eve unbuttons the top two buttons of her shirt, and then slaps me across the face when I  make my move.

Seamen are used to being slapped across the face by shipping; even so, it is about time that this criminal and murderous profiteering was stopped. It has gone on for far too long.

(Later note: Between the submission of this article and its publication in the Marex Bulletin, the IMO, which specialises in doing so, copped out once again. Its dangerous goods subcommittee chose a hedge allowing governments to choose between mandatory weighing and an alternative involving “adding together the different constituent parts of a container load at unspecified times and places along the transport route”.

The Global Shippers’ Forum called it a “sensible compromise.” 

Alice Eve, rejoice)


September 21, 2013

Thick skins and thicker red lines

I am convinced that one big reason that the maritime industry remains remarkably sanguine about attacks on ships and their crews is that managers and shipowners live and work far away and are never at risk themselves. Of course, another big reason is that ships are insured. Sometimes I feel that the only way of putting the security of our crews on a high agenda is to make it mandatory for a senior manager, owner or IMO official to sail on every ship passing through every piracy, terrorist or high-threat zone.

That the recent terrorist RPG attack on Cosco Asia in the Suez Canal was downplayed by the Egyptian army came as no surprise; that country would be economically crippled if the Suez were to shut down. The industry’s reaction was par for the course too- alarm at the economic repercussions and the possibility of thousands of miles of extra steaming; zero concern about safety of crews or the potential environmental catastrophe of such an attack.

Around another maritime chokepoint- the Bab El Mandab Straits at the entrance to the Red Sea- lies Yemen. The UK Government issued the highest possible security alert last month for shipping operating off the Yemeni coast last month (security was raised to the exceptional ISPS level 3, indicating a ‘probably or imminent’ attack). Despite the uselessness of the ISPS Code and the history in that region- the USS Cole and the tanker Lindberg suicide attacks both took place in and around Yemen- the rest of the industry did not seem to care about the enhanced threat. Just as it never cared that pirates and Al Qaeda lined terrorist groups in Somalia were hand in glove, and still are. 

Chokepoint attacks on ships are nothing new. Terrorist attacks planned in the Straits of Gibraltar have been foiled at the last minute. Decades old piracy attacks off Singapore and Indonesia have counted on the fact that the crews of mammoth ships passing through severely restricted waters in the Malacca and Singapore Straits are sitting ducks; ship Captains have close to zero room to manoeuvre. Anybody who has transitted the Suez Canal- or the Bosporus Strait or Panama Canal for that matter- knows how ridiculously easy it would be for a couple of guys to attack a ship there, whether sailing or at anchor. Few ashore appreciate the fact that parts of the Suez, for example, are only 300 metres wide, just a little wider than the lengths of the bigger ships that transit it. Hell, like those involved in the Cosco Asia attack, terrorists even have time to film the attack and post it on YouTube.

And let’s not forget the 8 year long Iran-Iraq war here. In and around another chokepoint- the Straits of Hormuz- the ‘tanker war’ of attrition during that conflict targeted merchant ships for years, raining French cruise and air to surface missiles on defenceless merchantmen and their crews. These were not terrorist attacks; these were calculated military attacks on innocent- usually foreign- cargo ships and crews made by two sovereign nations at war with each other.  Hundreds of seamen died, including a couple of my friends. Nothing happened. 

The globalisation of terrorism today and the spreading of anarchy tomorrow as humans fight for limited planetary resources are both inevitable. The sea-blindness amongst the general population, the callous thick-skinned disregard for crew security and the fact that ships are soft targets will not change either. I don’t know if attacks on ships and crews will increase in future, but I do know that nothing is set to stop these attacks from happening or to reduce the risk that they will occur, so the chances are high that attacks will increase. 

Shipping remains sanguine, uncaring or timid, and so our seamen are at the mercy of the whims of the nutters, whether in governments or outside them. We have not done anything to stop this; we probably never will. We are not even thinking about stopping it.

There will never be a red line drawn in the sand to stop atrocities committed against seamen. 


September 12, 2013

Now you seaman, now you not

Ship registers are set up to be revenue generators first; commitment to crew welfare or seamen’s rights has always been a distant second. Unsurprisingly then, flag rules are made and international regulations often interpreted for the client’s- the shipowner’s- benefit. Sometimes shipowner clubs or organisations will demand this underhanded tweaking; at other times ship registries will take the initiative all on their own and bend over backwards to attract new tonnage.

The Panamanian Maritime Authority’s latest sleight of hand should be seen in this context. In a circular, the world’s largest registry excludes all cadets sailing on Panama registered vessels from the provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention 2006. It does so by the simple expedient of disingenuously proclaiming that cadets are not seafarers- so the MLC does not apply to them. 

Although cadets are not the only ones excluded- the full exclusion list of ‘not seafarers’ has a dozen categories including Superintendents, armed guards, surveyors etc.- they are the only ones on the list that permanently reside and work aboard ships. Panama seems to be embarrassed at its own sleight of hand about the addition of cadets in the exclusion list; that rank has been slipped in eleventh space out of the twelve in the list. Somebody must have thought putting it last would make it stick out on reading; putting it on the top was an obvious no-no.

The short-term purpose of the cadet exclusion is clearly to undermine the MLC and make compliance just a little easier- and cheaper- for shipowners. Longer term, perhaps it is to encourage shipowners to put more cadets aboard instead of crew, thereby keeping costs of employment and MLC compliance both down. If we factor in the propensity of Panamanian (and other) Safe Manning Certificates- that regulate minimum crewing- to allow a cadet to be substituted for a member of the crew, the game becomes clearer. Or murkier. A cadet can substitute for a crewmember but cannot be a seafarer, is what the Panamanian’s are actually saying. Surreal.  

To be honest, I do not find moves to dilute the MLC surprising; my ramblings here over the last few months will testify to that. The Panamanian MLC sleight of hand is in line with earlier P&I Club interpretations on abandoned crews wages (not covered!) and shipmanagers’ official pleas for ‘flexibility’ in implementation of the regulation. These guys stick together when it comes to shafting the crew, which is why the only organisation that appears to have protested at the Panamanian move is the seamen’s union Nautilus; it has asked the ITF to go to the ILO over this.

I could point out to the Panamanian Maritime Authority- and others who are undoubtedly salivating at the prospect of redefining the word ‘seafarer’- that a cadet, unlike the other eleven on the exclusion list, works permanently on board, often for longer periods and usually for longer hours every day. She or he is often more fatigued than most of the crew. I could ask that if hotel staff, entertainers et al are included in the MLC, why exclude future deck and engine officers?

 I could point out that this underhanded exclusion of cadets from the MLC is absolutely the wrong thing to do when the industry is struggling to attract, find and retain talented youth. I could point out that the unique demands made of the seaman- professional, administrative, legal and regulatory, combined with the need to operate increasingly complex systems and machinery- are set to increase with time, and so this is not the way to go. 

I could tell the Panamanians that years ago,  we cadets took great pride in doing a senior seaman’s work, and that telling cadets that they are not seamen will make at least some feel emasculated, and will be bad for their morale- and performance. I could point at the abuse of human rights being perpetuated here, and the certainty that unscrupulous shipowners will treat cadets worse than they do today, thanks to this circular- and today is bad enough.

 I could do all that, and more, but I won’t, because those smart Panamanians know all this already. Like so many decisions taken with only money in mind, this is a malicious act, not a dumb one. 


September 05, 2013

Won’t get fooled again

My generation of Indians went out to sea following our hearts. Most in today’s generation appear to go out to sea either following their heads or following nothing at all.  That, in itself, is neither good nor bad; it is just the way it is. 

Those that follow their heads are chasing money; those following nothing at all have been bamboozled by touts or misguided by friends (and, sometimes, family) into joining. The reality of the profession is not helped by fraudulent misguidance from many training institutions, or, for that matter, from leading newspapers printing articles saying that the profession is a ‘paid vacation’. Don’t laugh; that was the exact phrase used in the Education Times, a weekly supplement to of the Times of India devoted to careers and career guidance. Incidentally, The Hindustan Times carried a similar radioactively glowing but downright false piece on the profession of seafaring almost concurrently.

There is one thing in common between the head followers and the nothing followers of today- both are usually academically not good enough to get a place in the institutions that feed higher paying professions ashore. Many, in fact, are not good enough, particularly in English and Mathematics, to get into maritime training establishments either, but they do, because MET setups, with some notable exceptions, seem to accept almost anybody.

Leaving aside issues of calibre and commitment, or, indeed, of the degradation of the Indian seaman that is well underway, this change poses particular problems for the industry going forward. A time will soon come when both the head followers and the nothing followers will have made a little money and moved ashore, sick of the seaman’s life of today, succumbing to what I call the seven year itch. Low calibre or not, low commitment or not, some may even move into shore side shipping jobs; the bar is often pretty low there too. They may fill the slots, but, like they did at sea, most will not do much more than that. They just don’t have it in them. 

The low commitment and calibre issue s with the young that senior sailing officers complain about today are therefore going to percolate ashore. The on-going devaluation of the Indian seaman is set to translate, in the not too distant future, to the degradation and devaluation of the Indian shipmanager. 
I can think of only one solution to this mess, and that is this: train only those you can place on board. Guaranteed on board training slots in decently reputed shipping firms attracts a higher calibre of entrant; shipmanagement companies running MET setups that absorb their own graduates will attest to that. We may not get the numbers we had when the heart-followers were the norm; that does not matter. Quality has to come first. Numbers can come later.

One problem may remain. My generation of heart-followers had an easy entry into the profession, because on- board training slots were guaranteed once Pre-Sea training was completed. However, as time passed, some of us chose to disregard the drawbacks of the profession, especially the cavalier treatment that the industry meted out to us. Others, especially those who fell out of love with seafaring, did not disregard these, though. Many still curse at what they see as wasted years. They feel that they have been fooled, somehow.

In contrast, the young of today, with some exceptions, are cheated from the start, exposed to touts, low quality training standards and ‘placement fees’ even before they have begun their careers. No surprises then, that whether they are head followers or nothing followers, they have no illusions from the outset. We, the industry, have disinvested them of those with our fickle callousness and rampant corruption.
It is probably true that some of my generation were fooled later by the lip service paid to them or by the pathetic exhortations made by shipmanagers seeking their ‘loyalty’; perhaps some seamen could not differentiate between loyalty to the profession and loyalty to a shipping company, and were taken for a ride as a result. 

Somehow I don’t think the same thing will happen with the present lot, because I sense that many are well aware that they are being fooled from the start. They are wary. Their guard is up. And they are- because of reasons of circumstance and temperament both- pretty fickle themselves.

They won’t get fooled again.