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. 


1 comment:

Reid Sprague said...

Excellent post, Manu, and in line, unfortunately - but justifiably - with some things this column has had to say previously about MLC. Let's hope you haven't pinpointed a race to the bottom among flag states.

Thanks once again for an illuminating, instructive light on what seamen face today!