October 15, 2008

Single-handed sailor. (An open letter to the unconcerned.)

Greetings from the three quarters of our planet that you will never see! Welcome to the world of the forgotten Indian mariner!!

We are the tens of thousands of Indian Captains, officers engineers and crew at sea. We move the ships that carry your oil, steel, grain, fertiliser and a million other goods. Whenever you tank up your car, shop at the supermarket, move into a house or otherwise live your daily lives, we have made a lot of it possible.

You see us only sometimes, though, either on stock photographs holding sextants and gazing at the horizon or on TV being blamed for pollution and other environmental disasters.
We are here to tell you that neither of these pictures tells the truth.

The countries of the world call us, the merchant navy, their 'second line of defense', yet they weaken our own defenses every day. As I write this, three hundred seafarers are held hostage by armed hijackers in Somalia. Mrs. Goyal, the wife of an Indian Master held hostage, is doing the rounds in Delhi alone and unsupported to try to get her husband and his crew released in Somalia. Industry organisations are conspicuous by their absence at her side. The Government is dithering as usual. Three weeks have passed.

This is not a new threat, by the way, as many would have you believe by implication. This is years, even decades old. The hijackers have known terrorist links. Ransoms have been paid by ship owners for years encouraging this lawlessness while the international community has stood by, impotent and uncaring. Western naval coalitions have admitted they cannot guarantee our safety. They have asked owners to take steps to protect themselves. Owners place their financial interests above our survival, so don’t hold your breath.
Meanwhile, we continue to look for protection, but realise that we are abandoned. Some of us even say out loud that the emperor has no clothes. Most don’t see that, most choose the blinkers they put on; most should hang their heads in shame.

Meanwhile, the shipping recruitment industry in India and abroad continues to serve us platitudes and hogwash on how they support seafarers. When we are held hostage, the buck is passed from owners to managers to recruiters. The Government does little. The industry continues to want to hide the true state of affairs from new talent for fear of discouraging them. It continues to want to do nothing except body shop.

India is one of the largest pools of qualified manpower in the maritime world, yet it accepts the reduction of workers on ships to dangerous levels without second thought. It has recently even encouraged further short manning on Indian ships. Everybody is jumping around to show that they are more loyal than the king on this one.

The world admits that it overworks us to the point that fatigue impairs our judgment. It even makes regulations similar to those in the aviation industry mandating rest for us, and then blatantly ignores its own rules. In fact, it systematically delays, ignores or otherwise undermines any efforts at improving our working conditions, because such improvements cost money.

It worries about the projected shortfall of tens of thousands of seafarers over the next few years and the fact that few youngsters want to sail today, yet governments, national and international organisations and the Industry do precious little to address this issue in any systematic manner.

Some countries trust us to bring massive ships into their ports, and then treat us like criminals and terrorists once we are there. They violate our human rights in many ways, denying us shore leave, arresting us for accidents, sometimes even detaining us after we have been proved innocent in their own courts. Moreover, they do this despite the international industry wide outcry against all norms of civilised behaviour.
(Two innocent Indian Officers are detained in South Korea as I write this; both were exonerated by the Korean courts. Hang your heads in shame again.)

Our own sound byte hit media ignores us. We don’t seem to sell anything, so advertisers and news anchors move on. They feed on us rarely, though, like vultures, with screaming headlines and concerned voices, which mean nothing beyond today’s ratings. (Case in point, the recent hijack of the Stolt Valor with 18 Indians. One or two news channels carry this story, which is sensationalist, inaccurate, ill conceived and will be canned as soon as ratings drop. Hostages released or not. Welcome to the jungle.)

Our own governments sideline our petitions; we are not vote banks. Our society takes us for granted.

The country grows fat on back of the oil and material we bring in, yet does nothing for our welfare.

Our fellow citizens do not know what we do; they stereotype us as dumb sailors. They do not want their children to work with us. They want to enjoy the benefits we provide and yet do nothing to make us stronger. They are worse than spectators to our plight, because they do not even know what our plight is.

Indian Officers are acknowledged as the finest in the maritime world, and have been for decades. Yet we are unsung and undefended at home. Worse, we are ignored.

We spend months away from our families at a time trying to make an honest living. Yet drowned seamen never get media attention, though dead seagulls after an accidental oil spill do.

We contribute substantially to the Indian economy. Tens of thousands of Indian seafarers work abroad, earning good foreign salaries, most of which are remitted back home. This has been going on for decades. Yet, and although Shipping carries the vast majority of goods into and out of India and is a vital element of a growing economy, Industry demands for a level playing field are brushed aside.

Members of our fragmented industry do not look beyond their own individual self interest. Headhunters call themselves managers. Small accountants with big calculators compromise safety at sea. We watch, spectators with no say in matters of life and death. Ours.

We have no national seafarer organisations worth the name. We have no lobbying groups. Therefore and consequently, we have no voice and no say in anything, including in our own working conditions. We have, though, self appointed guardians of ‘seafarer interests’, most useless, many with their own axes to grind, many with huge conflicts of interest and some even downright and proven corrupt. The list of their acronyms covers all the letters of the alphabet; their usefulness covers nothing.

The industry reacts to every change and every threat very predictably; part of it regulates and most of it rubs its hands at new revenue streams being generated in training us poorly and in our own time. It then adds the workload of this regulation to our overworked working life. It does so without consultation, thought or empathy, all the while ignoring with cynicism old regulations that mandate minimum rest for us. It does so in the complete absence of any HRD policies or oversight on existing workloads. And then it is surprised when it gets the reputation of being a backward industry!

Some of us started working when barely out of our teens. We do our jobs to make a honest living. We do not expect gratitude but we do not expect ridicule either. We do not expect to be ignored and marginalised and held hostage by either armed terrorists or unarmed managers and bureaucrats. And we do not accept being treated as criminals by your world any more.

We were always the forgotten people, but now we are being ground into the dust.

The irony is that tomorrow your world will need more of us.


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