October 10, 2013

Getting away with sucking.

So here I am, sitting with a screwdriver and some peanuts and wondering why shipping sucks for seamen. (Incidentally, I am also slowly veering to the hazy conclusion that while alcohol may not be the answer, it often helps provide a few.)

The cynical will say that I make noise about nothing- that shipping is just another industry, and that it is no different from all capitalist structures around that are predicated on the eventual exploitation of labour. And that seamen are just that, labour, regardless of rank. The optimists- and the deluded- will say, as always, that all is hunky dory in shipping and that a recovery is just around the corner, after which seamen will be kings of the realm. The realists will point out the cyclical nature of the industry but ignore the clearly unsustainable economic business model it operates under- where big money is to be made by buying and selling ships and not in operating them except in boom times, and where seamen are to be short-changed at every opportunity. (It sometimes seems that the entire shebang will become unsustainable and collapse if they are not.) 

But there are many cyclical industries, and the capitalist structure- unfortunately a universal given today- extends across all of them. Exploitation or not, I don’t see labour elsewhere being treated in such a cavalier fashion as shipping treats its seamen. What gives here; what is so special about shipping? Why is it that shipping treats its professional workers so badly? Why is it that shipping- a suited and booted international industry supposedly regulated by the IMO, a UN agency- behaves like a grimy middleman in a remote hamlet that supplies labour to some shady sweat shop in a nearby town?

Okay. My vodka and I will now tell you why shipping treats its seamen badly. It does this because it can get away with it. 

And it gets away with it because every single industry body colludes with it.

Shipping needs to be forced to learn many things, but the main thing it must realise- for its own good- is that it is answerable to its workers at sea. Unfortunately, as things stand today, there are no consequences for a shipowner if he doesn’t pay wages to his seamen- or pays them months late. Hell, there are no effective consequences even for breaching the basic legal duty of providing a seaworthy ship to the crew, forget the nitty-gritty of one sided contracts or other decaying international regulations. There are no consequences of circumventing or breaking even major clauses in maritime law, IMO regulations or the contract of employment. 

There should be. Owners and managers who break the laws that are supposed to protect seamen should be heavily fined or jailed, as the labour laws of many countries from where they operate allow; they should be made to pay for their crimes if these are proven. 

I am convinced that shipping needs an international policeman with a big stick if seamen’s working lives are to be improved- and incidentally, this is something that will make the profession attractive once again, raise professional standards and therefore result in safer ships and cleaner oceans- that old IMO refrain. It needs a new policeman, by the way- the existing ones are too emasculated. As things stand, shipping has no real international infrastructure that could allow this (IMO? Don’t make me laugh). All shipping has are grandiose sounding acronyms that are actually industry groups that do nothing except look after their own narrow interests. From international and national regulators to shipowning or shipmanaging bodies to unions, insurers et al, shipping is awash with the self-obsessed, narrow minded and the corrupt. 
In the absence of a real policeman, humans will do whatever they can get away with. And so shipping does.And so its seamen pay the price.

Should this be published, I expect many to come down like a ton of bricks on me, accusing me of many things, including of tarring everybody in the industry with the same brush. In my defence, I claim beforehand that I do not imply that shipping has no honest or well-meaning people; I claim with absolute conviction, however, that these are too few in number and are too powerless in the face of the odds stacked against them and- therefore and eventually- do not matter, because they fail.

I will also say, with the same conviction, that shipping will pay the price for its high handed, callous- and often downright illegal- treatment of its seamen sooner or later.  Some of it is being paid already, with the declining quality of crews. Some will be paid with each accident- and there is no doubt in my mind that there will be more of them in future than we are used to today.  

And a hell of a lot will be paid on the day when quality seamen become extinct. They will, you know. The older good guys will quit or retire sometime or the other. The new good guys aren’t coming out in numbers anymore. We know why: because they have realised that shipping sucks if you are a seaman. 


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