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.


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