June 25, 2010

No Mama, no Papa

Is the Indian shipmanning industry under serious pressure? Some of the seafarer numbers and remittance figures coming out of the Philippines make it appear so- although, in the absence of reliable Indian seafarer statistics (or indeed, any comparable statistics out of this country)- how would I know? We do not even know how many of our ratings are unemployed, though the DGS suspects enough are, and has put a moratorium on raising intakes by training institutes.

Filipino ‘sea based workers’ (a term that includes those employed in the cruise industry) sent home a record US 3.4 billion dollars last year- a 12% year on year rise; the trend is continuing in 2010 as European shipowners switch to cheaper crews, a fact borne out by remittances from Europe. Just five years ago, in 2005, total Filipino sea based remittances were at US 1.7 billion; these have since doubled. The Philippines Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) has some interesting statistics: the number of ratings has actually fallen from around 140,000 to 92,000 in the last two or three years. The number of officers has, however, jumped from around 51,000 to 79,000, an increase of fifty-four percent. (Incidentally, there is concern in the Philippines, as in India, that officers are quitting sailing much earlier in their careers than ever before)

To those still sceptical about the Filipino story, let me point out that Manila, not Mumbai, was chosen to host the 2010 international diplomatic conference on the adoption of the revised convention on STCW. The maritime world obviously thinks that the Philippines, not India, is the place to be as far as shipmanning is concerned. Thing is, they have thought so for many years now: Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden each have a major presence in that country in maritime training, and Japanese and other overseas employers will train, directly, a couple of thousand officers in the next few years.

Those of us who have seen the metamorphosis of the Filipino seafarer over the last few decades know that the POEA has had a lot to do with it. Although no such body exists in India, this is not an India vs the Philippines debate: substitute China, Ukraine, Nigeria or whatever for the Philippines a few years hence and the same rules will apply, and so will similar outcomes. The fact is that the Indian seafarer’s commitment to his career is dwindling and new recruits of calibre are hard to come by. With nobody to address this issue- or, indeed, to have a good look at the entire MET setup that needs an urgent overhaul- this weakness can destroy us. Falling standards do not inspire confidence in shipowners, and they certainly don’t warrant higher wages.

The historical comparative advantage of the Indian seafarer is being frittered away. We have no centralised apex body that examines seafarer employment related matters, promotes Indian seafaring to shipowners or to domestic youth, keeps statistics or databases or standardises mariner contracts. The authorities that were supposed to do some of these, at least, have failed. Middlemen in the MET and recruitment setups and corruption are doing the rest. And so, the Indian seafarer- especially the Indian rating- has, as a Filipino Bosun used to tell me in another context, ”No Mama, no Papa’.

The system is- by and large- corrupt, seedy, self serving and brainless. It does nothing for the industry; all it is interested in is lining the pockets of individuals, whether they be petty government officials or private touts. This is the biggest reason why the Filipino seafarer global marketshare is almost five times ours. The other reasons floated by some in the industry (seafarer commitment and demands, for one) are red herrings. They contribute to the killing, sure, but the corruption ensures that the slash across the throat slices the jugular .

Everybody knows this; some even try to fight it. Some large ship management companies choose new recruits carefully, sponsor them, train them at their own (relatively decently run) institutions and employ them on their clients’ ships. A few maritime training institutions outside the orbit of the biggies are trying to give good education to those that they do manage to attract, even if they are hamstrung by not being able to guarantee their graduates post sea training berths. Individuals with commitment and a desire to give something to the new generation of seafarers are still around across the industry.

However, these snippets are stray happy incidents in the tragedy that continues to unfold. These are the exceptions to the rule. The rot that has set deeply within the Indian seafarer selection, documentation, training and recruitment processes- in fact, with anything to do with that oh-so-fashionable term of this year, the ‘Human Element’- cannot be fought piecemeal. This system too, like so many in India, is falling apart and needs an immediate overhaul. If we cannot overhaul it, then the present system needs to be thrown away: nothing less will do. Happy snippets will never ever change the story of the broader tragedy. To change that, we need a completely new story, with chapters that make sense.