August 12, 2010

Duty of Care.

The rape and subsequent suicide-or is it murder? - of a South African Cadet on the ‘Safmarine Kariba’ cannot be written off as an aberration. There seems to have been a pattern of sexual abuse of both female and male cadets across that particular Cadet programme. No doubt maritime lawyers will write tomes of opinions on the incident; the ship was registered in the UK, was in Croatian waters when the South African trainee Geveza jumped (or was pushed) overboard after being allegedly raped by the Ukrainian Chief Officer. A legal nightmare; exactly what lawyers love.

Some of the rest of us may find it puzzling that it was only after the tragedy that other trainees, both male and female, spoke out about what looks like a pattern of sexually abusive behaviour on the ship and in the wider Transnet programme in South Africa. Surely, in these days of emails and mobile phones, youngsters would have reported sexual abuse to the company or recruiting office, or at least informed folks at home? If not when at sea, at least from some port?

What stopped them from doing so, I suspect, is a combination of factors. Inexperience and awe of the powerful, for one. Those Cadets report being told that the Captain (and, by extension, the senior officer?) was God, and ‘what happens at sea stays at sea.’ Maybe some of us have forgotten, though I have not, that senior officers- especially the Chief Officer- was the single entity on a ship that could make a Cadet’s life hell, and often did in the good old days- though hardly in the Safmarine Kariba manner.

Then there is, more so today, fear of losing one’s sea berth. I can’t say about South Africa, but the maritime sector in India is teeming with Cadets who are unable to find a training slot at sea without bribing somebody or pulling strings. Being signed off a ship (as some South African cadets were reportedly threatened with, if they did not submit) must be terrifying if one’s parents have taken loans and one’s future is at stake even otherwise.

That is not all. The fact of the matter is that a sea career is not for everybody. It requires a particular kind of mental and physical toughness. Most youngsters that I see in programmes today- again in India- do not display this strength. Neither does one get the impression that the sea is a calling as it was with many in older generations; these Cadets seem to have drifted into the profession either because they couldn’t do anything else or because they have dollar signs in their eyes. Either way, they are ill prepared for the physical and mental hardships- even rigorous hardships- of a sea life. You can bet that they will be found struggling when something goes wrong, as it inevitably will, the sea being what it is.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not implying, in any way, that the Cadets in that South African programme were even partly to blame for what happened. If the allegations are true, all the people involved (including an administrative officer, judging from reports) should be severely prosecuted. What I am saying, however, is that we must recognise the circumstances that lead to the abusive behaviour- sexual or otherwise- on board, and find ways to deal with the issue. The mind-sets of the youngsters we train at sea today will not change; we have to find ways of protecting the young we take into the profession.

It is paramount, in my opinion, that two simple steps be taken on any ship that employs youngsters, especially female youngsters. One, they should have free access to the Master wherever any sexual harassment is seen to be involved. Two, free simultaneous access to the Office- by email or phone in case they want to report abuse. They must be encouraged not to hesitate should there be need to report abuse. In fact, it may not be a bad idea for a crew manager to call them up and talk to them occasionally.

I make these recommendations with a little apprehension: for one, a Cadet’s life is, by definition, prone to harassment, and these steps can well boomerang with some Cadets using the opportunity to make false allegations, similar to some dowry allegations against husbands in India. For another, it is annoying for a Master when crew liaise directly with the office. On one ship, Filipino crew used to regularly call up, on their mobile phones, manning agents in Manila, ‘arrange’ their own reliefs and then would come to me asking me to confirm their signing off dates from managers. (My response was a refusal; if you want to talk to your office instead of to me, then you have to get them to talk to the owners. I am not getting involved in a three way here.) However, I still think my suggestions are valid: we must make an exception in the more serious matters of possible abuse; there must be a system to protect youngsters against any rogue senior officers on board. We have a duty of care towards them.

I overstress personal safety when I teach youngsters in trainee programmes, to the point that I am perhaps boringly repetitive. The last thing I want happening is a trainee going and killing himself at sea because he was unaware of basic personal safety. I underline the fact to them that handholding the raw is difficult at sea in today’s times of minimum manning, and that safety awareness is therefore critical from the start. Perhaps I should talk to the kids about basic personal security too, one of these days.

Meanwhile, I can bet that intake into Cadet programmes in South Africa has taken a severe beating after this incident, as it should. Crimes at sea are hardly unusual, and in fact may be lower, statistically, than similar crimes ashore. However, the fact of the matter is that the reputation of the industry as a seedy one is reinforced by such incidents. The only way to counter this is by having a transparent robust and workable deterrent system in place. We want to encourage teenagers, including women, to go out to sea; it is our moral duty to protect them from criminals we may have inadvertently employed as their seniors.

To those who disagree with my approach, or believe that I am overreacting, let me ask you this: How easy would you be with sending your eighteen year old daughter to sea today?