November 03, 2011

Seafarer (in)competence and the fallout of the 'Race to the Bottom'

 Filipino mariners are under fire again. The flashpoint this time is the Rena grounding and oil spill in New Zealand- the country's largest environmental disaster. The Rena was manned completely by Philippine nationals, and questions are being asked about their competence.  The Green Party has called for an investigation on the adequacy of Filipino seafarer training; referring to the action taken in May by the Lisbon based European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) that threatened to ban Filipino seafarers from EU ships unless issues raised by the agency were not satisfactorily addressed. That Damocles' sword has still not been sheathed.

“Given the tragic consequences that can occur when things go wrong at sea, it is of the utmost importance that our Government ensures that all vessels entering New Zealand waters are crewed by well-trained individuals,” said Green Party Co-leader Dr Russel Norman. “Considering that the Rena was a flag of convenience ship, crewed by Filipinos – whose training is under question – I hope the Government will consider greater scrutiny and regulation of our coastal shipping vessels and crews," he added. 

Interestingly, even before the Rena grounded on Oct 5, the European wing of the  International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) had said at the end of September that Filipino crews "should be subjected to targeted inspections and unspecified control when calling in EU ports", according to a Lloyd's List report. Philippe Alfonso of the of the European Transport Worker's Federation had written to the European Commission, quoting earlier EMSA findings and expressing concern about the quality of training at some maritime academies in the Philippines.  “The ETF urges the commission and the member states to adopt the necessary measures to remedy the breach. These measures could include targeted inspections and controls for Filipino crews calling at EU ports until such moment when EMSA receives satisfactory reports of improvement of the present situation,” he had reportedly written.

Now EMSA is coming to audit India this month, the grapevine tells me. I am unsure exactly what they are coming to inspect, but it appears that the visit is official and the Directorate General of Shipping is preparing for the EU inspection. It is perfectly possible that India may be next in EMSA's firing line- keep in mind that EMSA derecognised Georgian certificates late last year because of competence and quality of training issues. India or the Philippines are not Georgia, sure, but these countries may find that their armour is not as thick as they once thought it was.

The Indian maritime education juggernaut should be worried at these developments, because some of the comments made by the Green Party in New Zealand, the ITF in Europe -and in the EMSA report on the Philippines- apply equally to this country:  Here are a few of those:

"Mr Alfonso (of the European Transport Worker's Federation) points out that concerns include the functioning of the maritime administration, insufficient quality procedures, insufficient monitoring of schools, inaccurate approval and review of courses, the level and quality of training, the poor quality of inspection of maritime training institutes and the allegedly insufficient qualifications of instructors and assessors"- David Osler, Lloyds List.

"The ETF believes that every seafarer in the world should comply with the same requirements and that it would be wrong for European seafarers effectively to be subjected to stricter training and regulation than third-country nationals".- Philippe Alfonso, ETF

"Unfortunately, Filipino seafarers have become fodder in the global race to the bottom to produce and transport goods as cheaply as possible, and could be missing out on the proper training they need and deserve"- Russel Norman, Green Party, New Zealand.

Anybody connected with maritime training in India will tell you that these people could very easily be talking about this country, not just the Philippines.

As expected, the threatened derecognition of Filipino STCW certificates by EMSA- and other ban calls- have raised hackles in the Asian shipping world. There has been much written about the criminalisation of the Master and some other crew on the Rena; there has been criticism too, of the seemingly arbitrary and high-handed approach of EMSA and others, with some saying that the derecognition of STCW certificates should not be a matter for local agencies, the ITF or political parties to either comment on or threaten mariners with. Many point out that the Flag-of-Convenience business model is what is to blame, as it is inherently flawed and cannot be allowed to continue if we desire safer seas or cleaner oceans.

Some say that EMSA- founded in the aftermath of the Erika and Prestige disasters- should be examining the deplorable behaviour of European nations, ship owners, managers and classification societies before it points fingers at the training systems of developing countries. Some are angry that the Indian authorities have even permitted an audit of their training infrastructure. One serving sea Captain says, "How will Europeans react if civil aviation authorities in India demanded that they be allowed to audit European flying schools or their country's aviation administrations, on the grounds that many European pilots are flying on Indian airlines?"
I take all these points; they all have some merit. I will even add one or two of my own- that EMSA or anybody else will find it much harder to browbeat the Chinese, either today or especially years later, when their nationals proliferate in commercial shipping, as I believe they will. Even if the Chinese training and certification systems are weaker than ours are- certainly the case today.

My main objection, however, is that EMSA and the others have once again chosen to target just seafarers rather than address other 'root causes' (that term should please the jargonists that overwhelm us) of poor competence on the ground- Flags of Convenience, short manning, fatigue, corrupt or inefficient international and national administration et al. Not to speak of other participants in the 'race to the bottom.'

In the end, I think that all these arguments- including mine- are valid but diversionary.  The fact is that the quality of seafarers in India is dropping to levels where we often attract the dregs of the available talent pool, such as it is. Additionally, our training apparatus leaves much to be desired and must be overhauled irrespective of what EMSA may say. The fact is, also, that ships are being built bigger, casualty statistics are rising- and will continue to do so, because the calibre of the modern seafarer and the calibre of the maritime educational and administrative system is suspect. Bigger ships will mean a bigger scale to everything, including accidents.

Western populations are becoming much more sensitive to ecological and environmental issues; the rest of the world will slowly follow. When all this is put together, there will be much greater public pressure to examine the professional credentials of the men and women who crew commercial vessels. Answers will be angrily demanded after every accident on every coast- they already are.

A good thing, overall, I think, if it improves safety and environmental protection. Sorely needed. In fact, let me go a step further, tongue in cheek, and say that I would like to see EMSA- or the Green Party, or the ITF- take this beyond issues of competence. I want to see them stopping ships sailing from their ports- or banning them altogether on their coasts- for other reasons besides the supposed incompetence of crews. I want them to ban ships also because, for example, the Flag of Convenience the ship is sailing under is a little too convenient. Or because the crew are too fatigued to operate the vessel safely. Or because the vessel is calling so many ports in such a short span of time that unfatigued safe operations are obviously physically impossible with the number of crew on board.

I bet the fur will really fly if we set all the cats amongst all the pigeons all at once.
(Between the writing and publication of this piece, PMI Colleges- the largest and oldest maritime college in the Philippines- has been forced by local authorities to close down its maritime education programmes for failing to comply with local and international standards. An estimated 10-13,000 students are affected). That news is here;  Philippine Government clamps down on oldest and largest maritime school )

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey loved reading your blog! You have the same anger and agony as me a fellow Indian sailor.
Keep up the good writing. If u have seen any of the Philipines competency exam question papers you will turn beet red as I did for sure!