September 27, 2012

Another brick in the wall

An email sent by the students of a running batch of General Purpose Ratings training at a DG approved institute in Delhi has gone viral. That may be an overstatement, actually, because nothing connected with shipping- the invisible industry- is on anybody’s radar long enough to really go viral. Whatever; the email was forwarded to me by four different sources on the same day on the second weekend of this month.  

I will not name the institute, for reasons I will explain later.

Forwarded emails are often suspect and usually exaggerated. Unfortunately, although this one may well be overstated, I fear that it is genuine enough at the kernel. Sent to a dozen senior officials at the DGS, MMD, IMU and Board of Examinations for Seafarers Trust (that conducts both entrance and exit examinations for GP Ratings trainees), the letter is addressed to the DGS and begs (the words “humble request” are used) that the abysmal conditions at their academy- infrastructural, academic, faculty related, administrative and the woeful state of ‘placement’ related issues- be addressed. The subject of the email says it all-“Please Help All the GP Ratings of July 2012 Batch.”

Of the fifteen points listed in the missive, many relate to infrastructure. The allegation is that the institute has an absence of even basic facilities, and suffers from leaking roofs leading to flooded dormitories and wet bunks, worms in the swimming pool, dirty stinking toilets that are almost never cleaned (with just one bottle of Harpic being issued every month for the purpose), dangerously low ceiling fans above the upper bunks and unbearably hot and humid classrooms. These accusations would be bad enough, but worse follows- no drinking water in the dormitories and none available at night, presumably since the main building is locked. Unhygienic, insufficient and substandard quality of food is another.  

I don’t completely buy the convenient reasoning that some institutes put out in response to such complaints, which says that future seamen should be used to harsh- even hostile- living conditions. There is no excuse for keeping trainees underfed and malnourished anyway. But even I would perhaps grudgingly accept this facile argument if the training at such establishments was even remotely acceptable. It is often not. “Most of the classes are not conducted and we are always subjected to cleanship” (euphemism for cleaning or maintaining the institute) even during class hours, allege the students in Delhi. Claiming that the library and computer lab are never available to them and are in fact being used by another non-maritime institute, the accusations go on to say that faculty  is insufficient for training- which is why, perhaps, so much time is spent on cleanship.

Complaints from the students and their parents fall on deaf ears or elicit veiled threats from the administrators, says the letter. An administrator is quoted in Hindi saying that he- a rich man- will kill the students and make their bodies disappear and nobody will even know. A Director at the institute dishes out abuse and threatens expulsion and the destruction of careers, students say, adding that he has ‘mercilessly’ beaten earlier trainees. Large amounts have been taken from the students for arranging jobs - the widespread racket that is called ‘placement’ - but nothing is done. “We are frightened to know all the past facts from our instructors, teachers and the students of previous batches,” the email says. “You (DGS) are our last hope…. This training environment (is) not teaching us anything rather threatening us daily and we are living in a very poor and pathetic condition.” 

I have, after much thought, not named the MET institute, mainly because I do not know if all these allegations are true. You can decide whether it sounds like the truth, fabrication or exaggeration; I will only say that all that is actually the secondary issue here. 

The fact is that such conditions exist in more than a few maritime institutes across the country, and everybody knows that. The fact is that it is unimportant whether those appalling conditions exist in that particular institute in Delhi, because they exist elsewhere, and I will bet the last shirt off my ageing back that they are much more widespread than you or I imagine.

All maritime institutes approved by the DGS that conduct GP Ratings courses are subject to strict guidelines regarding infrastructure, course structure, hours of tuition, syllabus, equipment- and almost everything else. Each deficiency mentioned in the email, for example, concerns something that the DG s examines before initial approval, and at each annual audit thereafter- or surprise audits that it can choose to conduct anytime. The institute must keep proper records of everything. At these audits, it is common for surveyors to examine dormitories for liveability, toilets for cleanliness, general infrastructure, lesson plans and records of classes conducted by each faculty- who are not supposed to teach more than so many hours a day. I have seen DGS surveyors examining everything from classrooms, equipment, dormitories, faculty credentials, wiring, fan heights, toilets, faculty sufficiency, their appropriateness and their hours of work. I have seen them going through student feedback forms. It seems impossible that a MET establishment can run like the one in Delhi is alleged to have; it seems inconceivable that an institute can function with glaring deficiencies under almost every head of the DG guidelines. But many do.

Why? Short answer- this is India. There is not enough space out here for the long answer.

 I am beyond anger here, and well into despair.  For imagine a 17 year old youngster, little more than a child, just out of the tenth grade wanting to make a career at sea. His unschooled poor or lower middle class parents are thrilled when he gets through the common entrance examination. They take a loan to fund his training, content that the subsequent career will make the loan repayment easy. The youngster joins a DG approved institute; if this is like the one described in the email I have been talking about, he is bewildered and increasingly disheartened at the conditions and lack of training. He hears disturbing stories about joblessness in the future, but it is too late, because another loan has been taken by the time he graduates- this one for ‘placement’. His parents are now in hock for a figure that can be rounded off to half a million rupees, counting interest. 

Two years later, he is still jobless and has abandoned all hope. The interest on the loan is still being repaid, with no end in sight.

Just imagine. Imagine all that.

Now imagine if that boy were your son.



September 20, 2012

Encore and sigh

After another frustrating day at the office, missing the sea and want to read Go to sea 

Inside shipping - the young, the restless and the unskilled

The degradation of seafaring skills over the last couple of decades is an undisputed fact. There is no single reason for this; this bastard has many fathers. Nonetheless, what is surprising to me is the pretended astonishment, by many in the industry, at the illegitimate birth; some of us have been arguing for long that the low calibre of entrants into the industry, when coupled with poor training and the widespread contract based high-attrition culture afloat and ashore would- in an era when experienced officers were quitting earlier and younger officers not sticking long enough to become experienced- inevitably lead to a serious erosion of skills and experience. 

The ship manager’s blinkered characteristic is to look at short term profit at the risk of long term catastrophe, but that is hardly unique behaviour. Ship-owners and P&I clubs should, one would think, look slightly longer term. They do, in a way, but their horizon is clouded with the same obsession with the bottom-line, and their worries surface only when inexperience and mediocrity at sea starts hurting their wallets. The recent Swedish Club study is a typical case in point.

The Club says that there has been a 60% increase in hull and machinery claims over the last three years, and blames the shortage of skills as the main culprit for this spike. Specifically, it says that “lack of knowledge, the failure to follow procedures and inadequate resource management” are three big reasons for increase in H&M claims. (I take it that ‘inadequate resource management’ means-wonderfully euphemistically- short manning.)

The question is, of course, what shipping is going to do about the spreading drought of experienced officers and crews, particularly when their jobs are getting more demanding by the day. If history is any indicator then it will do nothing, or at least nothing new; I suspect it doesn’t know how, for it has always been a reactive industry with low initiative when it comes to humans at sea. 

The thing is that I don’t think the industry has realised that the shortage of good seafarers is a problem that will undoubtedly magnify and can cripple marine operations in the future. Switching to cheaper nationalities will not solve anything this time- the issues are competence and experience, not numbers or (the inappropriately named) Safe Manning certificates. The intensity of ship operations- whether at sea or ashore, the increasing complexity of equipment and machinery and a thickening veneer of regulation will require significantly greater understanding of complex, interconnected issues and will demand higher competence and smarter execution from the mariner of the future. That is a given. (Connected aside- I shudder when I think of some officers I have sailed with who were incapable of basic Radar or ARPA operation and interpretation. Imagine those guys behind an ECDIS screen.)

Also given is the fact that high calibre youth from almost any part of the world will find a career at sea even less rewarding in future than they do today. So, we will continue to see the present trend when officers- of much lower level of competence than desired- spend  a decade or less at sea before leaving the industry for good; each will be therefore available to shipping for just a half dozen years or so after certification. Experience will naturally evaporate; seafaring skill will be the biggest casualty. The shortage of competent and experienced officers will be felt acutely; the financial repercussions of a widespread skills shortage may well cripple a maritime adventure. 

No, switching nationalities will not solve this one, and neither will increasing wages; a time will come when dramatically increasing wages is no longer possible in a business model that cannot proportionally increase its revenues. To pre-empt this disaster, shipping has to do the Doctor Spock act- it has to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Shipping has to forget its absolute focus on the balance sheet and concentrate considerable energy instead on the humans it employs at sea (inadequate resource management so far, the Swedish Club would say!). It has to find ways of attracting the right manpower, training and up-skilling appropriately and retaining it. It has to find a way of rewarding imitative and competence appropriately and selectively- so far much of shipping does the opposite, just look at the way ship management company’s seagoing employees are encouraged not to not to ‘make waves’ or stick their necks out for fear that these will be chopped off- a sure way to kill initiative. Shipping has to do all of this soon; time, as usual, is running out.

There are enough smart people in shipping offices ashore out there. It is time for them to show us how competent they really are. It is time for them to debunk my notion that the skills shortage is a bigger problem on land than at sea. This is a problem of men, not machines, and new thinking is required; humans cannot be managed with a spread sheet. The stakes are high, sure, but I have to believe that this metamorphosis- that some will call Kafkaesque- is within the industry’s competence. 

The only question in my mind, which only time can answer, is this: If a leopard cannot change its spots, can it at least change its DNA? 


September 13, 2012

Christmas Island- or death

With more than 300 boat people having died route to Australia this year alone, the refugee crisis there does not seem to show any sign of ending.  Thousands of refugees– mainly Afghans, Iranians and Sri Lankans- continue to pay up to US $ 5500 each for the perilous journey from the Indonesian island of Java to the nearby Christmas Island, the Australian outpost close to Indonesia where asylum seekers are detained and processed. Almost two thousand arrived in Australia in August, the highest monthly total on record. Almost ten thousand have arrived this year already, more than double the figures for the whole of last year. Hundreds die during the transit. Official figures say more than 600 have perished since 1999, but who knows for sure?

Outside Australia, the plight of these refugees has been largely ignored thus far. That is nothing unusual- the same attitude has forever been on display towards the thousands of seaborne refugees that cross waters across the world every year, whether in the Red or Mediterranean seas or Central America- and the same attitude was on display towards the original boat people- from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos-a few decades ago.  (Even as I write this, a stuffed illegal immigrant boat has sunk of  Turkey’s western Aegean, drowning at least 58; scores of others are missing).

There are the usual tales today of capsized or disabled boats, distress calls, people smugglers abandoning their cargoes at the first sign of trouble, rickety overcrowded boats and tens of men, women and children drowning when their boats literally fall apart. The shadowy kingpins behind this human smuggling racket include a Pakistani based in Indonesia; a regular ploy is to bring the boats close to Christmas island and send out a distress signal, sometimes even by mobile phone, and wait to be rescued. 

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority and their Indonesian counterparts-BASARNAS- have obliquely and not so obliquely blamed each other for either abandoning the refugees or promoting calculated delay in rescue with the intent to discourage the boat people. Meanwhile, boats are being intercepted by the Australian navy almost every day.

In Australia, there is political acrimony and a hardening of positions with respect to the boat people on one hand and consternation over the humanitarian crisis on the other. A decade old plan- the ‘Pacific Solution’ that calls for refugees to be sent to Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island for processing at detention centres- has been revived. Australian newspapers are meanwhile reporting the body count religiously, while the authorities are hoping that the recent spurt in the numbers of boats will reduce substantially because the refugees have been so far trying their best to make it to Australia before the ‘Pacific Solution’ was reimposed. Now, it has.

The story of the Wallenius Wilhelmsen owned car carrier Parsifal last month should have brought, especially to the shipping industry, the crisis in sharp focus. The Singapore registered ship, with a crew of just ten, picked up 67 asylum seekers off Java after a distress call. En route to Singapore, the Captain diverted the Parsifal to Christmas Island fearing for the safety of his outnumbered crew after what was reported as aggressive behaviour by the refugees who wanted to go to Christmas Island. As it turned out, a couple of the asylum seekers had threatened to harm themselves, not the crew, though obviously the situation could have escalated rapidly.

The Parsifal story mirrors tale of her sister ship Tampa, owned by the same Wallenius Wilhelmsen, that had precipitated  a political storm in Australia when she tried to take 438 Afghan boat people to Christmas Island way back in 2001. The then Australian Prime Minister Howard sent Australian Special Forces aboard to stop Captain Rinan from landing the refugees, who were sent to Nauru after the ‘Pacific Solution’ was hastily put together in four days. Howard said at the time, "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come."

This is not the place to go into the pros and cons of Australian policy; I will only say that despite all the flutter, the numbers of these seaborne refugees heading for that nation of immigrants is small. They get disproportionate attention, though, thanks to their somewhat spectacular mode of attempted entry. They also expose themselves to criminal elements and crazy risk.

Masters of ships that sight boat people today are in a tighter spot than ever, for there is an additional security threat that these refugees potentially represent- one that was absent during the Vietnamese boat people days. Those of us who were sailing then remember the horror stories of Masters ignoring- illegally and inhumanely- overcrowded boats begging for rescue, or just food and water. We remember shore side managers asking us to avoid the area altogether if possible and ignore the boat people if not. We remember spineless Masters complying with this illegal directive. This time too, shipping has already begun to behave against the laws and traditions of the sea: a bunch of rescued refugees told Australian media last month that five ships passed them and their friends who were in the water for two days but refused to stop.

I will not defend such behaviour- there is no defence- although I am well aware of what promotes it. The fact that governments around the world routinely propagate policies that are dangerous both to the refugees and to the crews that choose to rescue them is no excuse for a Master to abandon drowning men, women and children at sea. The fact that shortmanned crews on cramped ships cannot easily accommodate- leave alone control- tens or hundreds of aggressive and desperate refugees is no excuse for manslaughter. The fact that the world does not re-examine is treatment of seaborne refugees and the cruel systems that govern this treatment is no grounds for cold-bloodedness.

Final idle thoughts: does shipping need armed guards to protect its crews from rescued refugees in ‘boat-people waters’? I am not advocating shooting boat people in the water, I hastily clarify, just wondering if armed guards will protect crews against aggression from survivors.

And, does the ISPS code- that has failed spectacularly to protect ships and crews from boat people, terrorists, pirates and robbers alike- need to be thrown in the bin at once?


September 06, 2012

Why the Maritime Labour Convention won’t work

Finally. Six years after being adopted in Geneva, the ratification process is complete and the Maritime Labour Convention will come into force around this time next year. Reams have been written about the MLC; alternatively described in glowing terms as the  "fourth pillar" of the regulatory regime - SOLAS, STCW and Marpol being the other three- and the "seafarers' bill of rights," much hype has been generated around it. 

Way too much, actually, which is another reason why it will probably fail.

The idea behind the MLC is solid enough. Seafarers be employed only by licenced agencies and entitled to decent living and working conditions, sufficiently manned ships, proper rest, regular communications home, regular pay, medical care (equivalent to shore based personnel), social security and welfare benefits for themselves and their dependants. The MLC regime says or implies that it will inspect something like a hundred thousand ships regularly as “a single, coherent instrument” that will provide a "level playing field" to all ship owners. 

(Aside- whenever anybody says "level playing field," I hear "I want protection!", so I wonder how many developed countries want to use the MLC as an economic stick to beat developing countries with) 

Anyway. Inadvertently conceding that much other regulation has gone southwards in practice, the (too) many pillars of the industry (where many a dying career is resuscitated with each new regulation) tell us that the MLC will not be just a paper exercise, and ships can and will be detained if the overall treatment of crews aboard is not "decent". Crews will be interviewed to ensure this. PSC inspectors will have wide-ranging powers based on what they observe- a yawning crewmember may ring alarm bells on fatigue, for example. And a substandard ship- that we seafarers well know can be pinpointed easily after a ten-minute walk through its deck, accommodation or engine room- will be unable to ply our safe seas and clean oceans any longer. And all seafarers will live happily ever after.

Poppycock in la la land.

The fatal flaw in the 'hail MLC' argument is that it presupposes that regulatory and industry attitudes will magically change next year. Or that corruption will reduce. Or even that the same people who circumvent or blatantly ignore essential elements of the existing three pillars- SOLAS, STCW and MARPOL- will suddenly and inexplicably start applying, with near-religious fervour, the same laws just because they appear in the MLC . 

The most striking cases in point I can think of here relate to proper manning of ships and fatigue- both covered by existing regulations, and both ignored almost completely. Does anybody mean to tell me seriously that the MLC regime will detain obviously undermanned ships and go head to head with Flag States over this? Or that rest period violations- a serious deficiency under MLC too- will now be scrutinised absolutely? Hah. 

Besides, MLC enforcement will - as all others before it- be likely used in the hands of corrupt PSC officials who will be hand in glove with the many substandard managers, unscrupulous classification society surveyors, calculating insurers and uncaring regulators out there. All of these elements will likely use the MLC to line their pockets, expand their fiefdoms or promote the commercial interests of their organisations at the expense of the seafarer. They always have. What has changed now? A new legislation? Haven’t we seen that happen before? There is hardly a surge of good faith out there this time round. Judging by the increasing statistics of ship owners who are reneging on paying owed salaries to crews or abandoning them, quite the opposite. 

It is also clear that some things have not been properly thought through by the MLC drafters. What looks good on paper often does not work; the potential for abuse within the MLC regime is large. Take one element of the complaint mechanism. It is not just the individual seafarer- protected in the MLC- that can complain about "not decent" working and living conditions. The whistle can be blown by almost anybody- a professional body, an association, a trade union or any person with an interest in the safety of the ship, including an interest in safety or health hazards to seafarers on board. Wow. Imagine what a disgruntled crewmember or dishonest shoreside functionary can do with this.

To expect that substandard shipping will disappear or that a seafarer will start being treated decently next year seems wildly optimistic. It is not just obviously third-rate ships or owners that are the problem; today, the vast majority of seafarers are treated indecently by managers or owners that are nonetheless considered "good" by a copious swathe of the industry. Go around with some stellar ship management company names and ask their seagoing employees confidentially, if you do not believe me. 

Under the circumstances, the best I hope for is that the MLC regime will make it marginally more difficult for substandard operators to survive, and that some progress may be seen over the next few decades. (I do not say this flippantly; seafarer fatigue became an issue in the late eighties, and, twenty odd years later, is still blatantly ignored despite all the STCW hoo-ha). 

One widespread problem with circumvention of existing regulations like SOLAS has been that sailors have not usually stopped ships because they are unseaworthy-it is not in their DNA. I can’t therefore see them stopping ships next August because living and working conditions are not ‘decent’- not in large enough numbers to make a difference. The MLC would work spectacularly well if- and only if- they were to do so. It will not work on the assumption that the industry has suddenly discovered some decency or goodwill towards its sailors; goodwill died and was buried at sea long ago.

Prejudging the event, I may be, and I am the first to admit that, but I have faith in the system. It will not change with just the introduction of a new piece of paper, regardless of how much hype precedes it.