March 27, 2014

Deathbed abuse

Prelude: In April this year, representatives of seafarers, shipowners and governments will meet in Geneva at an ILO organised event to vote on an amendment to the MLC 2006, which, if agreed, would make it  mandatory to safeguard the financial interests of abandoned seafarers. I am not holding my breath; remind me to publicly apologise if anything substantive comes out of that junket.

It is perhaps natural that when shipping companies- as others- go bust they should die. Whether they are fit for resurrection, however, should depend on how long and how badly seagoing employees were abused by these firms as they lay on their deathbeds.

In a first instance of its kind, the Directorate General of Shipping withdrew the operating licence of Varun Shipping this month, apparently since mandatory vessel certificates were overdue ‘for several months’ and also- we are told, although I don’t believe this- because of non-payment of arrears of crew wages.  In a suspicious turn of events that smack of cynical orchestration, the company sought a fresh licence immediately after its old one was withdrawn, seeking to operate its ships under Varun Global Ltd, a Group Shipmanagement company. This was confirmed by Yudhishthir Khatau, Varun’s Chairman and Managing Director. Varun will go the ‘normal’ other route, it appears, where ships are owned individually by separate paper companies so that liabilities of one company doesn’t hobble the entire fleet.

I could ignore all that too, if this de-facto Varun bankruptcy had not been accompanied by the seafarer abuse that is all too common in most such cases. This is not simply to do with non-payment of wages or wage arrears. On March 10, the Captain of the ‘Maharshi Vamadeva’ asked for help from the Indian Coast Guard after the health of three officers who had been on a long hunger strike deteriorated.  The ship had been anchored since January 7 off Mumbai with zero support from the company, the Captain said; the 25 crew had not been paid since September last year. We know the rest of the story- little or no food, water, medical help or fuel, seamen going crazy- because we have all seen and heard it before. To add to the crew’s misery, they were not even allowed to escape, unpaid or not- the change of crew scheduled in January did not materialise.

Varun - named after the Hindu god of the oceans- had been in financial difficulty for many months with the usual stories of abandoned ships and suffering seafarers doing the rounds. The DGS had, in October last, asked Varun to produce a financial package to cover crew wage arrears and drydocking expenses. Varun- with a debt of almost 180 million USD in September ‘13- was forced to sell a couple of its VLGCs at the behest of lenders, but that wasn’t enough. Or maybe it just wanted to start afresh.

The Maritime Labour Convention has done little on the ground to address the abuse of seafarers that is almost a given if an owner is in financial difficulty. We saw it with Pratibha Shipping earlier, when powerful interests combined to shaft the crew, some of whom died in the drama off Chennai at the time. In this case, too, the CMD of Varun is not an ordinary shipowner. A graduate from Wharton, he is or has been a President of BIMCO, Director at the Indian Register of Shipping (which presumably registered Varun’s Indian fleet) and President of the Indian National Shipowners’ Association. He has won many awards at events hosted by organisations such as Lloyd’s, Seatrade and at the India Shipping Summit. So has Varun.

The behaviour of such a company towards its crew, therefore, underlines the fact that the pedigree of the shipowning company is immaterial. Generally speaking, shipping sees no comebacks to treating its crews abysmally; shipping, as an industry, is deliberately structured to make seafarer abuse almost the first instinct of a shipowner or shipmanager whenever the chips are down.

The blinkered will say that this is the way the world turns. That employees face delayed or unpaid wages when their companies go bankrupt in other businesses too. There too, the management sometimes seems to get away scott-free while workers suffer. Why should shipping be any different?

That is a facile response, because shipping is different. Seamen are not ordinary employees (Hell, most of them are contractual workers, not employees anyway, but let us ignore that). An ordinary employee still goes home if you don’t pay him. Unless he is dead broke, he still eats, sleeps and gets medical attention if he needs it. The payment of his arrears is a higher priority for a company compared to a seaman’s, because the worker ashore has visibility. Maybe a union or a politician will support unpaid employees. Maybe they can go to court or to the company’s lenders. Maybe a hundred other things.

A seaman has nothing when he is stuck on a ship like the Vamadeva, effectively abandoned by its owners. Usually no food, no water, no electricity and no medicines. Sometimes not even- for months- the wherewithal to call his family on the phone. If in port, he survives on the kindness of charities; if at anchor, he survives by catching fish. He cannot go home, either because he can kiss his wage arrears goodbye if he does or because no such possibility exists- if the ship is outside port limits, for example. This is a guy who may be earning thousands of dollars per month on paper, by the way, not some labourer on a subsistence wage. Those ashore cannot even begin to imagine a seaman’s trauma in such a circumstance; those who compare this scenario with a bankruptcy ashore do not have a clue.

But those in shipping can and do. That they do not choose to pay their crews- that they feel they can treat, with impunity, seamen like they are animals on a dung heap- is why shipping is where it is today. And this is why smart seamen do not trust an average shipowner or shipmanager further than they can throw him.


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