May 17, 2012

Beggaring belief

Scarcely a day goes by when ships or seamen are not in the news these days- as usual, for the wrong reasons.  For example, in the last week or so alone, I have been told many things by the press. That pirate attacks have become more brutal. And that so and so ship with x number of crew has been held for y number of years. In Pakistan, family members of mariner hostages have stood like beggars outside a mosque on a Friday, pleading with presumably religious passersby to drop a few rupees into their donation boxes, to be used towards ransoming their loved ones. Families of seamen in India have gone record once again berating the government for continuing to do nothing to help while they run around trying to find out if their sons were dead or alive in Somalia. (I ran into a senior Master who does not sail anymore. He asked me, referring to piracy, "We stopped sailing at the right time, didn't we?")

Elsewhere, I met a youngster who had completed his pre sea GP Rating course three years ago and was still looking for his first job on a ship. Like many, his lower middle class family had taken a loan to send him to an approved institute back when they still hoped he would make a career at sea. The rating told me he was done begging at shipping companies and was looking at other options to pay back the loan, at least. (I idly wondered if a life of crime was a workable option.) The man seemed to be spending a lot of time standing outside the many maritime training institutes in his city, dissuading ratings  from enrolling there or joining the career.  

Seems to me that we in shipping are training our young men to end up as beggars. And, since shipping has always had a bottom up approach to everything- or should it be bottoms up approach? - we have now graduated to even training mariners' families to beg for the lives of their sons and brothers. 

The economic upheaval that shipping will go through in the next few years will make things worse for seamen. The bite is already being felt up and down organisations, especially with ship owners and managers downsizing and laying off people. Thing is, most employees ashore have some protection, from voluntary retirement schemes to golden handshakes to some kind of half decent severance pay. Hardly any seaman from this part of the world enjoys any of those benefits. Best-case scenario for him is that he is not recalled for another contract. Worst-case scenario is that the managers or owners do not even pay him his earned wages. We all know that the worst scenario applies more often than we care to admit. Seamen are rarely laid off anyway; one has to be paid round the year for that to happen.

Those cursed with long memories should be puzzled by the fact that paying  for a job or a training berth was almost unheard of a generation ago. Things were not always this way; the rot has been a gift of the STCW 95 convention and has deepened with every STCW amendment. Of course, I am even more puzzled by the fact that nothing is done to tackle the rampant problem of youngsters paying for training berths or their first jobs, because this kind of corruption is so easy to reverse. Then I remember that it is the Indian shipping industry, its regulators and the Indian Government that we are talking about here, and I stop being puzzled.

The outcome of making beggars out of our seamen- not just with jobs or ransoms but in so many little ways that all of us recognise, from asking for 'leave' to treatment while joining-is inevitable.  The industry's inability to attract decent calibre is linked directly to that propensity of ours, seen from the time a seaman is ready to join to the time he asks for 'leave' and even later. The degradation of Indian maritime certification and competence is but a logical consequence of this industry attitude, and that is something which will automatically result in an incrementally shrinking Indian maritime pool. It is a vicious circle; it is a "chakravyuh"-the near impenetrable military formation in the Indian epic Mahabharat-that our industry luminaries revel in not breaching.

All this is why the canard that sophisticate industry insiders spread at every chance - that seafaring is a profession of choice even today and that Indian seafarers are (almost automatically, it would seem) some kind of chosen people within the profession- is so difficult to digest. In fact, it beggars belief.


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