February 28, 2013

Swindler’s List

It has been rumoured, off and on over decades, that an informal blacklist of seamen exists in countries like the Philippines and India. Circulated amongst body shopping outfits, names on the blacklist indicate mariners who have been, let us say, troublesome for their employers. Some may have been guilty of more major offences, but you can also get your name on the list for what the industry sees as crimes but are actually nothing more than the pursuit by a seaman of his legitimate rights- for example, an ITF mandated wage pay-out on a ship may have been accepted and not returned to the owners or a seaman may have insisted on pursuing medical compensation after he returned home. That is enough for the offender to be blackballed. 

I have always felt that the existence- or the power- of this blacklist is overestimated in the chaotic headhunting atmosphere in Indian shipping where poaching is rampant. However, anecdotal evidence suggests strongly to me- and I have sailed with hundreds of them- that Filipinos are sometimes subject to particularly virulent professional ostracisation. Whatever, I now propose, somewhat tongue in cheek, that the IMO, the ILO and the ITF should publish on their websites, and update regularly, a list of shipowners or shipmanagers that have behaved in an unethical, illegal or unfair way with seamen. I want to call this the Swindler’s List.

It will be a long list, let me warn you, because shipowners and shipmanagers routinely behave in a manner that may have come to be accepted as ‘normal’ by sailors and managers alike but is nonetheless criminally, legally or ethically unacceptable. Even big shipowners and their lackey shipmanagement companies- sometimes equally well known- are culpable here. Their numbers will dwarf the numbers of the relatively few seamen who behave similarly- therefore the essential Swindler’s List that will warn seamen about what to expect should they be employed by these setups.

The Swindler’s list should not be just about unpaid or late-paid wages. Also listed should be firms that disregard their basic legal duty of care, which binds them to provide to the crew a seaworthy ship well provisioned and manned for the voyage, and to maintain it as such. More condemnable industry practices aside, even cutting corners in essential maintenance of hull and machinery- and safety equipment- would be strong grounds for inclusion, as would be sending crews unprotected into piracy zones. I wonder if we can include short manned ships under this head too, whether they meet their (usually laughable) Safe Manning Certificate requirements or not. 

Owners and managers ignoring or circumventing contractual obligations would be on the Swindler’s List, of course. Unpaid or delayed wages would put your name in this hall of infamy, as would illegal employment practices like getting seamen to pay for a job or forcing them to sign one sided contracts that are legally iffy. Not providing timely medical treatment, or not continuing to pay wages and medical costs of seafarers who sign off on medical grounds- as contractually agreed- is something most shipmanagers and owners have been guilty of at one time or another. Regardless, even the well-known would be listed if they qualified. And so would managers who feel that depriving their crews of food and water is standard practice if one is having financial difficulties.

I did warn you that the Swindler’s list would be a long. Depressingly long, even, because illegal or unethical practices against seamen are widespread in our industry. So widespread, in fact, that we sometimes feel almost embarrassed bringing some of these up; many appear to be minor issues, but they total up to present a picture of an oppressive relationship between a seaman and his employers. I often tell young seamen that a seafarer has no friends; the implication is, obviously, that people in the industry will be out to screw you. That is a strong condemnation all by itself. 

Finally, I would like to see addressed the rampant apartheid that I have taken for granted all through my sailing life. Shipping proudly calls itself an international industry, but it discriminates every day on the basis of race, nationality and colour in a hundred different ways. Not just with wages, but in the general treatment of crews. I call this apartheid and not, more simply, discrimination. There has always been a de-facto segregation of white and non-white crews, recent East European and Asian crew mixes notwithstanding. If mixed, whites usually hold senior positions on board. The same happens when, say, Indians and Filipinos are mixed- this phenomenon is hardly restricted to favour Western crews. Everybody likes to pretend that this has been because of working imperatives, but I disrespectfully disagree. 

Everybody- including shore side inspectors and managers- are guilty here. Schizophrenically guilty, sometimes, because many live and work in countries where racist behaviour is completely unacceptable and would expose them to severe legal action if tried at home. But not when it comes to seamen. That breed, we all know, is somewhat less than human, so different rules apply. Correction. Often, no rules seem to apply. 

Which is why we need the Swindler’s List. 


February 26, 2013

ECDIS Now A legal Requirement For All Ships

This is a guest post from Nick Purcell, Marketing Manager at ECDIS-Info.com 

The shipping industry is highly dependent on vessels getting to their arrival destination safely. Navigation is perhaps the most important part of operating a boat. Having a well trained crew can make all the difference when it comes to staying safe and saving time. There are also several legal requirements to consider when it comes to owning and operating a boat. So if you operate a boat then make sure you understand how to navigate properly and abide by the laws of the sea. ECDIS is now a legal requirement for all ships, read on to find out why.

What is an ECDIS?

ECDIS is short for Electronic Chart Display and Information System. If you own or work on any kind of ship then you need to know about it, as it is now a legal requirement for all ships.

If you work in this industry you will have come across an organisation called the IMO, which stands for International Maritime Organisation. They specialise in the safety of international ships and work to reduce pollution caused by ships. The ECDIS complies with IMO regulations.

In the past, people have used paper navigation charts to help them chart their course. However, the ECDIS eliminates this requirement by providing a hi-tech electronic version. This clever devices utilises real time information in order to pinpoint a ship's location. It can also help to avoid potential hazards, land and show objects within the vicinity of the area. The ECDIS locates your position using a combination of GPS, automatic identification systems (AIS), fathometer and radar. It offers an automated decision aid and electronic navigational charts. Its main purpose is to help mariners with planning and monitoring routes.

Electronic Chart Display and Information System's are now expected to be installed on all new build ships, with keels laid either on or after 1st July 2012.

Who Has To Have It?

All ships have to have an ECDIS, no matter what size they are. It is now a legal requirement.

What Are Nautical Charts?

If you are new to the seas and are unclear on what a nautical chart is, they are maps made to help people navigate at sea and they can be in paper or electronic form. They do this by displaying information about the depth of waters, potential dangers, elevations and ways of improving navigation. They must be carried on board all ships to comply with the latest safety regulations.

The Legal stuff

In 2009, the IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee approved new regulations for the mandatory carriage requirements of ECDIS.

2.1 All ships irrespective of size shall have:

2.1.4 Nautical charts and nautical publications to plan and display

the ship’s route for the intended voyage and to plot and monitor

positions throughout the voyage; an Electronic Chart Display and

Information System (ECDIS) may be accepted as meeting the chart

carriage requirements of this subparagraph

As mentioned above, all ships have to have one. The only exceptions are if your vessel has been permanently taken out of service and cargo ships on international voyages but below the agreed tonnage limit.



February 21, 2013

Of RIP agencies, lambs- and wolves

That the rampant exploitation of new entrants into the profession of seafaring is now a publicly acknowledged fact may taste like victory to some, but this victory is Pyrrhic, for it carries within it the metallic taste of future defeat. The many corruptions that pervade the training and ‘placement’ space are not going to be reversed by chest-beating about just one of them; the deep rooted rot requires amputation, not aspirin. The system must be destroyed and then rebuilt; there is no other way, because the purification goes in too deep.

In India, the Directorate General of Shipping has finally acknowledged that something needs to be done about the ‘placement’ of cadets for on board training. “Considering the gravity of the situation,” a recent DGS circular says, approved MET institutes will be allowed to operate their own recruitment placement services (RPS) to place their students aboard ships for required seatime. Hitherto, RPS agencies have been external body shopping outfits. 

For the life of me, I cannot understand how this will change anything. As things stand today, individuals- including in many DGS approved RPS agencies- are taking hundreds of thousands of rupees under the table for every student they ‘place.’ Many MET institutes are hand in glove with this practice. How then, will giving MET institutes RPS authority help? What is needed is a clampdown, with criminal prosecution, on the touts in the business- sadly, some of them ex Masters- RPS or not. Adding more wolves to the same jungle is hardly going to help the lambs. RPS is an inappropriate acronym, actually. They should be called RIP agencies instead.

Unfortunately, as in most everything, shipping concentrates on tactics and ignores strategy when it tries to solve problems. Small wonder then that it fails, because knee jerk reactions are- like a beheaded chicken’s still twitching limbs- quite useless when the head is missing. For example, the industry also seems to believe that raising pre-sea training standards, combined with somehow (magically) increasing training berths on ships will expediently result in Indian seafarers becoming- magically, once again- in great demand overnight. This will never happen; because this will do nothing to address issues related to the calibre of the entrants, their attitudes, the widespread con game that ‘placement’ is today, or the unwillingness of the industry to invest in its crews instead of poaching them. All core issues. 

A detached observer will undoubtedly say that the model for fresh recruitment in any industry must have a vital component that gauges the demand and then meets it, and that a contract ridden business model must have sticky elements that dissuade- even guarantee- that people do not switch jobs too easily. That those jobs must be provided in the first place- which means, simply, do not train more people than you can employ. 

Anybody will tell you that on-board training of cadets must have the trained and their teachers- other officers and crews- speaking the same language. I have seen Indian cadets, for example, learning nothing from East European and Filipino officers simply because there are crippling language difficulties between them. When the much acclaimed (and, in my view, very dubious) distance learning programmes that reduce seatime requirements cannot even be read properly by officers or trainees with nothing but rudimentary English language skills, the whole exercise becomes  even more farcical.

And even my cat will tell you that the apocalypse is nigh for any maritime business where giving jobs to professional seamen is the way the business- and its employees- choose to make their money. ‘Placement fee’ is what they call it; me, less charitable than most, calls it pimping. RIP pimping, to be more precise.

The present training and recruitment model is lunatic. The question begs to be asked- if Indians were preferred seamen thirty years ago, then why the hell is it that- despite increased regulatory oversight, and despite complicated international conventions on training and certification- their stock is headed southwards today? Could it be that we need to go back to the past to relearn what we did right then? 

Don’t tell me, please, that it is the attitude of the new generation that is the overwhelming factor here; 
don’t use their slipping commitment- which is a fact- as a red herring. Besides the many other factors that are more important reasons, a seafarer- like any employee everywhere- is as committed to a company as the company is committed to him. If one must judge by that yardstick, mariners are angels in comparison to their employers. Competence does not develop in a vacuum.

Don’t tell me either that Indians have priced themselves out of the market. That is rubbish; crew never set wages, employers do, based on supply, demand and the availability of cheaper alternatives. Besides, professional standards do not drop with higher wages- they drop because of reasons like lower calibre of entrants, poor training and low commitment all round. European professional standards have not fallen over time, whatever has happened to the job market there, so why should Indian standards fall today?

In this litany of lunacies, the biggest lunacy is that shipping seems to think that training and manning are discrete functions divorced from each another; they are not. In an ideal world, no seaman would be trained that didn’t have a job at the end of the exercise, This is why the older system of sponsorship of cadets and guaranteed sea berths was superior to the system we follow today, where we, blind, deaf and dumb pushers of the mother of all lunacies- greater STCW mandated ‘training’- do little except throw our young to the wolves.


February 14, 2013

Maritime regulation: faking it

I have not sailed for a few years. If this goes on much longer, I will perhaps remain qualified to comment authoritatively- provided I have my ear to the ground- on many seafarer issues. However, I will be dangerously unqualified to participate in the culture of inept regulation that plagues shipping, because I will be outdated. I will not know, any longer, what happens on a merchant ship on a day to day basis. I may pretend to be an expert, but I will be faking it.

That is the first problem with shipping regulation- it is promulgated by outdated fuddy-duddies, many of whom have not sailed for decades, or by people from a non-maritime background. Or even by people who have a ‘fighting’ naval background and have no clue- their experience of international waters and ports being limited to exercises or goodwill visits, and perhaps war- as to what a merchant vessel is all about. These ‘experts’ are luminaries in regulatory bodies because of political patronage or because of over-rated academic credentials, many obtained through programmes paid for by the taxpayer; they are rarely there because of their ability to understand the practical issues involved, something that is essential before even one regulation to cross one road is made. 

There are many other problems that feckless regulation burdens the industry and its mariners with. Chief amongst those is the fact that we are today more concerned with the paperwork being in order than the seamanship being first rate. The ‘don’t get caught’ ethos overrides everything as it follows ill-thought out regulation that is either unenforceable or is enforced in an atmosphere of patronage and corruption. This impacts safety directly, and is therefore extremely dangerous. 

Another strain that seems to run through maritime regulation and its implementation is the ‘shore people know best’ attitude. This results in regulation and its implementation being thrust down the throats of crews in an atmosphere of absolute arrogance. Besides being dumb, this attitude can never promote safety or even simple efficiency. This hubris- whether displayed by shoreside shipmanagement offices, regulators or private or State inspectors-is stupid and paradoxical. We are prepared to trust crews with hundreds of millions of dollars of ship and cargo, but we are not prepared to listen to them. (We must regulate their every moment of existence, though, because those bad boys sure as hell can’t be trusted).  It is inevitable that this hubris leads to hostility, which is hardly the atmosphere in which useful regulation should be implemented. 

Of course, there is so much over regulation in shipping today, and more is coming, but where is the money to implement it? What do the fuddy-duddies think will happen, for example, to the implementation of the MLC in its totality, if cash strapped shipowners simply cannot afford it? Or the millions required to implement the Ballast Water Convention? 

The way in which what is to be regulated is decided upon is also highly suspect. Some critical issues are ignored- container weights and lifeboat release mechanisms, for example- even if they have cost tens, even hundreds of fatalities at sea. Useless regulation- ISPS, for one- is pushed through for the wrong reasons. This pandering to regional – usually Western- economic or political interests may not continue for too long, given that Asia is set to replace, or at least equal, Western dominance in shipping. Regardless, this does not promote good or fair regulation.  

Given history, it is no surprise that we are seeing, once again, an undermining of new regulations that have been thrust upon us. For example and from all accounts, the provisions of the Maritime Labour Convention, many unenforceable, some say, are being very selectively implemented- creative ways of fudging work hours and rest periods continues unabated. Another example: ECDIS courses have mushroomed with new regulations and requirements, but too many are not worth the paper they are written on. (And, sometimes in some countries, it is not necessary to even sit through them to get a certificate).

I can tell you with absolute honesty, as a sailor not yet outdated, that administrative overload was a pain in the unmentionables during much of the twenty odd years after I first got Command. It is close to agonising, this pain, when one is calling fifteen countries a month in Europe or six ports in different States in the US, as I sometimes was. The increasing mountain of paperwork connected with useless regulation- and with the propensity of cheapskate shipmanagers to pass on clerical work that belongs to their offices on to crews- is a major reason cited by many senior officers choosing to quit sailing. Do we really want experienced seamen leaving in droves, and the inevitable impact this will have on the industry, just because regulators or managers can’t get their acts together?

The fuddy-duddies are not part of the solution, as they would like you to believe; they are part of the problem. Please shoot me if you see me headed down their way. 


February 07, 2013

Torture on the Iceberg- and the dances of pygmies

The tragic, compelling story of the atrocities suffered by the hostage crew of the Iceberg 1 begs to be told anyway, but the reason I do this now is because another bunch of five Indian crew of another ship have just been released, after more than a month in captivity on the other side of Africa- off the Niger delta- where pirate attacks are steadily but unsurprisingly spiking; they have almost tripled in the last year. There is no doubt in my mind that the violence will increase too, just as it did off Somalia, while everybody sat twiddling their thumbs. As they do today; crews will pay, with blood once again, for the callousness of the pygmies who run the industry.

The Iceberg story is not a pretty story; seafarer stories these days rarely are. Where does one begin? With 75 year old Yemeni Captain Abdul Razak, who was hung upside down for almost a whole day and flogged? Or with his Chief Engineer and compatriot, Ali Mohammed Khan, whose ears were sawed off while he cried in pain for mercy? Should one start with the tale of the courageous Indian Chief Officer Dipak Tiwari, who was tortured and beaten because he repeatedly- heroically- stood up for his crew, and who disappeared more than a year ago? Or should one start with the tale of the Yemeni 3rd officer Wagdi Akram, who went insane and killed himself over two years ago, after the pirates told the hostages that their kidneys, livers, hearts and other organs would be removed and sold?

Does one need to really chronicle the daily saga of pain and humiliation, for 33 months, of concentrated psychological and physical torture of the entire crew, of starvation diets and filthy water, or of regular beatings with electrical cable and wooden planks after being hung upside down? Of losing teeth during these beatings? Of being thrown overboard or being left in the sun the whole day? Of being shot at, over their heads? Of the debilitation of one meal a day of rice and dirty water? Does one even express surprise at the destroyed health of the crew? Or shock that each and every member of the 24 crew was subject to repeated and barbaric torture? 

Does one even try to get the industry to understand the despair of hostages, who were told daily by their captors that they would die in Somalia because nobody was going to come for them? Does one have to dig up even more horrific stories in a desperate attempt to wake up the pygmies and spur them into taking action to ensure we don’t have a sequel to the story in West Africa tomorrow, somewhere else the day after? 

Where, on the hierarchy of pygmies in this sordid tale, do we put Yemeni shipowner Yazir Mohammad of Dubai based Azal Shipping, who abandoned the crew as soon as the Iceberg was taken, not even paying them their salaries after they were taken hostage? Three and a half million dollars. That’s what the pirates asked for at one stage. Negotiable, of course. Azal offered $100,000- some reports say $300,000. And then broke off negotiations.

Where, on this same hierarchy, do we put governments, the IMO, the industry and its bodies and unions, who knew ransom was the only way and chose to do nothing? Where do we put Panama, the Flag State? Where do we put the Indian government on this list, who a reporter from a local news channel says has told the released Iceberg crew to shut up about their ordeal and the hijack?

Do we even mention the fact that, as the trial begins in Mumbai of 120 Somali pirates captured by the Indian navy, pirates have offered to swap their comrades for 46 Indian crewmen still held hostage in Somalia?

I don’t know about you, but I prefer to concentrate on the one giant in this story of pygmies. Missing Chief Officer Dhiraj Tiwari- all of 27 years old- who repeatedly placed himself in harm's way in an attempt to protect the crew, protesting to the pirates against the abuse of his shipmates. For this he was singled out time and again, beaten and tortured. His courage in the face of overwhelming brutality was last seen in September 2011, when he disappeared after a particularly severe beating. Pirates told the other crew that they did not know where he had gone; some of the crew thought that had been murdered, but nobody knows for sure.

I pray Dhiraj is alive; I pray for divine fortitude for his family.

I am told that an agnostic’s prayers are especially powerful, but I do not know. Whatever, they will surely be more powerful, I trust, than the sounds of song and dance from the pygmies.