February 27, 2014

On the money

The hundred and fifty year old Mission to Seafarers- the wonderful ‘Flying Angel’ of my cadetship days- said last month that shipowners who do not pay seafarers their wages are more damaging to the industry than Somali pirates. More crew have been abandoned by owners over the last ten years than taken hostage, it says. It goes on to quote UN figures that say 2,379 sailors have been stranded on 199 ships in the past decade, with many more unreported.

Whether those statistics quoted are actually UN figures is immaterial; I have long treated the UN- or IMO’s- figures and resolutions with extreme scepticism anyway.  I am sure, though, that the ‘many more unreported’ statistics will actually be a multiple of the 2379 number, and a large multiple at that. And this is only for merchant ships, I bet. If one takes into account the horrific tales of treatment and abuse of fishermen across the world, a substantial number of whom work in slavery with no pay for years (with the additional dangers of torture and systematic abuse- even murder- to boot) , the numbers may run into the tens of thousands.

The Maritime Labour Convention 2006- the much touted ‘Seafarer Bill of Rights’ - took a full seven years to come into force, which is telling in itself. Now, six months after it its implementation, shipowners are still fighting the notion that seamen’s wages are guaranteed under the MLC. They don’t dispute that costs of repatriation are covered because doing that will bring them trouble- no State wants abandoned foreign citizens littering its soil; who will pay to send them back? But, left to their own devices, shipowners- even those owners that have never left a single seaman unpaid- still have no intention of guaranteeing those seamen’s wages. That is telling, too.

There is a propensity to think that unpaid wages is a third world owner and Flag of Convenience occurrence, and that most shipowners do not abandon their crews. But seamen know different. They know that dodgy shipowners are sometimes first world entities flying first world flags. They know that the flag of the ship or the nationality of the owner is little protection. They know that a scoundrel has no colour.

And fishermen know, judging from reports that have come out from the UK, Australia and elsewhere, that they can live and work- and sometimes die- in slavery in first world waters employed on ‘first world’ boats, not just in South East Asia or Africa or other parts of the third world. The UK, for example, has passed a new bill- the Modern Day Slavery Bill- to address this human trafficking problem. That such a bill was needed is telling in itself.

Returning to the merchant fleet: the MLC, in my view, was brought about mainly to protect shipowners from the first world from unfair competition from the politically incorrect third. The focus on unpaid wages post abandonment today is because of two reasons. The first is the sporadic media coverage of the extreme reluctance of shipowners to guarantee crew wages by saying that the MLC doesn’t cover them. The second is that in the recession, more shipowners are doing what they have always done when they run into financial difficulty; abandon their crews.

Merchant seamen know all this, or sense all this. They know - as Deirdre Fitzpatrick of Seafarers’ Rights International says, that “the industry is structured in a way that allows seafarers to be abandoned.”

Which is why most seamen everywhere send the unspent part of their wages home every month.  
Management graduates in suits call this risk management; Seamen in greasy overalls have been forever calling this ‘not leaving your money with the Company.’ Even though I worked for the better run setups, I too did the same thing with my money for more than thirty years.

That is not just telling. It is an indictment of shipping and the people who run it.


February 23, 2014

Remember Fukushima?

(This piece was written almost a month ago and was awaiting publication before I could post it here. In the interim period, TEPCO, the operator of the plant at Fukushima, has said that a 'new' 100 metric tonne radioactive water leak has occurred out there. Radioactive water- from amongst the huge volume of contaminated/clean-up water stored on site- has leached into the ground once again.  TEPCO says, once again, that 'it doesn't believe' that radioactive water has leaked into the nearby Pacific.) 

The international conspiracy to hide the almost incomprehensible – and ongoing- disaster at the aptly named Fukushima nuclear plant beggars belief. It also portends the shape of things to come, guaranteeing, almost, that world leaders will deceive the masses in future on matters that concern the very survival of massive populations. 

The Japanese Liberal Democratic Party in power railroaded a sweeping secrets protection bill two months ago, triggering outrage in Japan but- surprise!- support in Washington. The draconian law is widely regarded in Japan as a way of using brute force to crush civil liberties and kill damning reports that keep on coming out on Fukushima. That the Japanese government bungled badly in handling the aftermath of Fukushima was always well known, but that their mismanagement probably caused the disaster is not. 

It is certain, judging from independent reports, that there is a massive international cover up- or official international silence, which amounts to the same thing- about the fact that the leak was much bigger than acknowledged, went on for much longer than declared and that massive- massive- amounts of radioactive water were run off into the Pacific for a long time after the disaster (is this happening even today?) That the effects of the disaster are being felt thousands of miles from Japan, and that these are being hidden from the international public. These facts, plus others- for example, that Japanese gangsters regularly rounded up expendable homeless Japanese from train stations to work at the radioactive clean-up in Fukushima- will be almost certainly suppressed with the new bill in future. 

Just one report. Scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in California say that dead sea creatures are blanketing 98% of the floor of the Pacific off California- the number was at 1% before Fukushima. Multiple stations in the Pacific have reported similar figures, prompting researchers to question whether the Pacific is dying. Since human life is dependent on healthy oceans that give us the oxygen we need to breathe, the death of oceans is believed to herald the extinction of mankind.

Those in power across the world have taken moral bankruptcy to a new level. That they want to play games with nuclear weapons or restrict their proliferation to where it suits them was always a stupid idea. That the powerful represent countries that either want to sell nuclear energy or buy it is no excuse. That they will claim that they are hiding the truth about Fukushima to avoid mass panic is a specious argument. And that they will push, at international bodies, for restrictions on ship emissions - that contribute some 3% to global greenhouse gas emissions- while simultaenously- genocidally even- covering up Fukushima is hysterical hypocrisy that makes me remember Rostand and his famous quote-"Kill one man and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a god.” 

The world needs to be told the truth about Fukushima. 


February 20, 2014

Indian seamen- declining standards after each recession?

Many factors are blamed for the decline- in calibre, numbers and demand- of Indian seamen. Like in the fable of the blind men and the elephant, everybody seems to have a pet theory.  I, for example, have often blamed the STCW regime for, in reality, lowering standards instead of raising them. However, what almost all of us have ignored so far is the long term impact of recessions on the psyche of the industry and its people afloat and ashore, and why this cumulative impact is a significant contributor to this decline. 

Indulge me for a moment while I explain.  Before approximately 1980, an overwhelming majority of deck cadets went out as apprentices to Indian companies after they had undergone some pretty good training- academic and practical- ashore.  On-board training lasted for two or three years and was the first step into a permanent job that was theirs for the taking. The system was similar for junior engineers.  Officers on board took the trouble- even the sadists amongst them! - to teach and train these youngsters. This was an unspoken tradition that was almost never breached. At Scindias, the company I joined as an apprentice, this sense of tradition was palpable, but other companies were almost as invested in their trainees.

Then, in the early eighties, the recession hit. In India, the face of the carnage was Scindias floundering (and eventually closing down), SCI – the largest employer of Indian seamen and officers by far- telling some of its junior officers there were no jobs for them ‘for five or six years,’ massive numbers of laid up ships, desperate cost cutting in maintenance and all crew matters, gross ill treatment of Indian crews by most shipping companies whether Indian or foreign, protest marches by seamen in Bombay and Delhi, magazine headlines and stories of Second Mates parking cars in Delhi to survive. And crowds of applicants landing up at shipping companies for every job advertised.

That the end of that recession did not end the many unsavoury- sometimes downright illegal- malpractices connected with ships and their crews is a known fact; many of these continue even today. What happened in addition is that the idea of a permanent- or even long term- employment in Indian shipping companies was thrown out of the window.  There was never a feeling of permanency in foreign companies anyway, but the concept that Indians would work on Indian registered ships on contractual terms –as happened in and after the eighties- was alien. This practice is well established by now, as is unfortunately established a widespread belief that working conditions- not just wages- in even the better managed Indian companies are much worse than those in even average foreign companies. 

The loss of a sense of belonging to a company gradually translated into little attachment to it. A culture of low commitment has encouraged unprofessional behaviour ashore and afloat. Not surprising, then, that, for example, the Indian Chief Officer who trained his Indian cadets with professional pride and a sense of duty has ceased to exist. Foreign companies are a mishmash of nationalities anyway, although a few are trying to get around the problem by imposing stricter on board training regimes. And, while there is truth in the complaint that Indian shipping companies trained earlier generations of officers, many of whom then left them (usually after their Command or promotion to Chief Engineer) for foreign companies, there is no doubt that the emotional disengagement of seamen from their companies accelerated hugely after the end of the eighties, whether in Indian companies or foreign.

The end result is that, in this industry of low commitment and short term relationships, few anywhere have any belief in the old tradition that said, with pride, that we will pass on our experiences to the young.

Postscript: Will history repeats itself? Many Indian shipping companies are in deep financial trouble today; some are insolvent and others are teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.


February 13, 2014

King rat

I know an investment banker who has just started his own venture capitalist outfit, but he really should be a guitar player, as he himself admits. That is what will really make him happy. Both of us know that he will never quit and follow his dream, though. He is too heavily invested- financially and otherwise- in work. Besides, his lifestyle would change drastically, his wife and young children would be affected and his whole existence would turn upside down if he quit his business. The pursuit of happiness will always remain a dream; he really can’t take time off- even a year- to try to be happy; work would go to the dogs.
Imagine if this friend of mine were a seaman. He could take time off- even a year or more- without a significant impact on his profession; a profession that, thanks to a contract system, automatically gives one the flexibility and the time to do whatever one wants. We can take a year off- or two, as I have done once or twice- to do other things and still go back to sea. Or not. We can pursue other passions.
It is so easy, but it is remarkable to me how few of us choose to do so. It is striking that so many of us choose to make a rat race out of a profession that is anything but one. This is despite the fact that most of us live in our own homes, not company owned or rented, and enjoy no other perks, the loss of which would hit our family’s day to day lives. This, despite the fact that many of us have enough savings to last a year or two without any significant changes to our lifestyles. Despite the fact that we spend months at a time anyway at home – for exams and between ships - living off these savings.  Doing something that excites us should be easy. The pursuit of happiness can be easily funded if you are a sailor, because the profession gives you the flexibility you need.
“I have to go back now,” a Captain with twenty years of command experience tells me, worried about his son’s admission to a good college, the interviews for which are next month. “The company is calling me.”
Something that has baffled me all my life- how can a company that does not pay you during your off time have control over it? It does because you let it, is why. Because you are too timid, too scared or too insecure about your abilities and are therefore not confident of yourself, is why. Because they have fooled you into committing to a ‘permanent job’ mind-set while they have the option of chucking you and your next contract into the garbage in a heartbeat, is why. Because you have no spine, is why.
Perhaps I am being harsh, though. Perhaps servitude makes this guy happy.
Perhaps it is a cultural thing too- Perhaps many Asians brought up in feudal societies succumb to authority more easily. Perhaps large populations and the competition they generate lead to greater job insecurities. Perhaps that is why so many choose to surrender, so easily, the one big advantage a seaman’s contractual job gives him- the flexibility of choosing when to work and when not to.
As I have indicated, I have taken a couple of years off a couple of times, and taken long periods off work even otherwise. I am here to tell seamen that it is ok to do so, and that they will not find it difficult- if they are any good- to find a contract in the same or another company. I am here to tell them that it is ok to treat employers with the same mind-set that they treat you- a non-permanent one. I am here to tell you that the system, such as it is, works as well for you as it does for them, if you let it. But you have to choose to exploit it.
Treat every contract as a one-off employment and perform professionally. Then, even if you take a couple of years off, chances are the same guys will want to employ you again. Even if they don’t, there are others who will.
Alternatively, of course, you can always choose to be cowed down and cowering. Just be aware, if you do, that this is all your own doing. Just be aware that the act of cowering may raise some suspicions in some employers’ minds that you are not much of a seaman to begin with. Just be aware of what you are giving up when you abrogate your right to choose when to work and when not to. Just be aware that there is no rat race out at sea, and that your running in one, while oh so convenient for your employer, is all in your mind.


February 08, 2014

The Mariners Action Group

Reid's comment left on another post of mine deserves a separate posting by itself.

Do give it your full consideration. The Mariner's Action Group is doing good work. 


Dear Manu,

Mariners Action Group (a volunteer seafarer's service organization that was originally formed in response to the MV Iceberg 1 piracy) has established an employers online rating form which is simple to use and confidential. It can be found at: http://mariners-action-group.weebly.com/seafarers-rate-your-companies.html

The information a seafarer enters on the form will be screened for obvious spam or misuse, and then published in a table on another page of the Mariners Action Group website (the table can be found under the "Company Ratings" button on the MAG Home page). Personal information about the seafarer is not used.

The rating form has been up for several weeks and has not yet received much traffic. So users may have feedback about such things as improving the form's availability or ease of use, and those comments will be very welcome.

For the time being, please leave feedback on the website's contact form - we will give all comments serious consideration and respond if possible.

So please, Manu - and all of your informed readership - have a look and see what you think. I hope this will become another source of information for the beleaguered mariner to allow them to avoid bad employers.


Mariners Action Group


February 06, 2014

The continuing squeeze of the Indian seaman

Now that 2014 is here, the same well regarded shipping pundits that were forecasting, less than a year ago, a revival in industry fortunes this year have quietly postponed that event to the future. I know that trying to talk markets up is not unique to shipping, and, since tomorrow never comes, this may seem a good strategy; the only negative being the complete erosion of credibility in these so-called forecasts amongst those who remember.

I suspect that continuing new shipbuilding orders on top of existing overtonnaging and upcoming regulatory financial burdens will make the recovery, whenever it comes, quite brittle. Meanwhile, as everybody struggles to make the bottom line blue instead of red, Drewry Maritime Research has published a report saying that operators have kept overall operating cost increases down to something between 1 and 3 per cent last year. Manning cost increases have been kept below 2% and non-core assets are being sold, the report adds. What it does not say, of course, is how much skimping is being done in shipboard maintenance, how much safety is being compromised or how much crews are being squeezed- wage and work wise- to keep costs down.

John Green of the seafarer welfare charity Apostleship of the Sea says that cost-cutting is adding to stress on seafarers, whose working lives have been ‘dramatically affected.’ He says that many more seamen are now not being paid or are suffering, in silence and in fear of being blacklisted, from poor employment practices.

The problem for sailing seamen is that they do not usually have access, in real time, to how bad things are in any particular recession. In any case, shipping keeps its skeletons well hidden; although seamen know that ill-treatment of crews is far more common than is ever acknowledged, they have no reliable means of finding out exactly which shipmanager or shipowner is doing what to which crew. The ILO does maintain a list of ships with abandoned seafarers but that seems incomplete. In any case, abandonment is just one of the employment abuses seamen are exposed to.

So seamen try to keep themselves informed using anecdotal evidence and rumour, a situation unchanged since the eighties.’ In this internet age, there should be a better way of doing this; perhaps seamen’s welfare organisations should share information on dodgy shipowners and shipmanagers and post it on a common website, since the commercial part of the industry isn’t going to do it.

Another thing the industry isn’t going to do is raise crew wages in a hurry, even when it can finally- hopefully- afford to do so. I fear that shipping is looking at a squeezed future long-term, and that hoping that a cyclical industry will soon see a repeat of the boom years is folly. I say this because increasing regulatory costs- especially environmental- are here to stay, because freight rates will remain under pressure and because shipping will probably look at increased maintenance and insurance costs because crews of the near future will be less able and less experienced.

For existing seamen, especially from Asia, things are going to get tougher. With consumer inflation historically running at near double digits in both the Philippines and India, for example, a seaman is likely to see his savings eroded and his retirement lifestyle under immense pressure if his wages don’t keep pace with the rising cost of living. I have written about this earlier, so I will only point out again that my generation of seamen survived because the dollar went up more than seven times versus the Indian rupee during the period that we were sailing. I would not bet on the same thing happening again over the next few decades, recent Indian Rupee weakness notwithstanding.  

Particularly badly hit will be those seamen who do not have the inclination or the calibre to seek alternate careers ashore. An earlier generation of seamen- mine included- could think of both quitting sailing and staying away from soul destroying ‘office jobs.’ That is going to be increasingly difficult in future, if not downright impossible, especially if people want to come ashore earlier. The few who go out to sea to escape the rat race today may find that they are forced into it when they are older.

And those who do seek careers in shipping ashore will see, in India at least, greater numbers of ex-seamen competing for a reducing number of shore jobs. Some will quit shipping altogether, as they do today, and move on to other industries.  The ones at the bottom of the food chain will be the hardest hit as usual.

Barring the few that are looking for a different working lifestyle in India, the profession is already shunned by anybody worthwhile. Body shopping outfits- which is what many of our agencies really are- will continue to prey on the unsuspecting for as long as they can; India has a huge population and we like to believe our ‘demographic dividend’ will continue to feed the mill, come what may.  

But demographic dividends only apply if large numbers of people are willing, able and qualified. And they do not apply if the ability of a profession to financially sustain an individual long-term becomes a question mark.