November 22, 2012

Watching the dust

Karvan guzar gaya, gubaar dekte rahe- Neeraj
(The caravan passed, we just kept on watching its dust)

A new survey of shipowners and managers by Moore Stephens says that the expectation is that lube costs will rise the maximum- about 2.8% a year- within operating costs. The next biggest increase will be in crew wages- 2.3 per cent this year and 2.4 per cent in 2013.

One respondent claimed, “The biggest single factor in operating cost increases these days is the scarcity of Filipino and Chinese seamen.” An unremarkable statement, perhaps, except for the confirmation of the fact- long forecast by some of us- that the Chinese seafarer will seriously threaten his shaky Indian counterpart sooner rather than later. Has that time arrived? Is that statement being echoed by enough managers out there? Is the Indian seafarer not even fit to be mentioned in the same breath as his Filipino or even (gasp) Chinese colleague? Is the Indian mariner not even a serious contender anymore?

Ignoring for a moment the contradictory propensities of the average shipowner, who wants -above all else- cheap but competent crews happy to serve long contracts, statements excluding Indian seamen from a company’s long term plans are becoming less guarded and more commonplace. Sure, shipowners who have their eggs- figuratively speaking, of course- in different manning nationality baskets do not want to antagonise or panic any one nationality by indicating preferences or trends; they will continue to proclaim their commitment to Indian mariner right up to the time that they show him the door. 

To be fair, many managers have, both privately and publicly, expressed severe reservations about the competence, attitude and cost effectiveness of increasingly substandard Indian officers and crews currently coming out of the Indian seafarer factory. I share their angst, but I do not absolve them of culpability in the dismal state of affairs. The decline- or decimation, more accurately-  of the Indian seafarer’s  has more to do with the corruption and complete disarray within the country’s maritime establishment- both in government and the private sector- than with the motivation or seriousness of the youngsters entering the profession. Or even the lack of professionalism shown by more established seafarers, whether officers or crew.

Synchronicity of events cannot be avoided, and neither can be managed completely the paradoxical demand for higher numbers of competent crews that exists today in a market that is otherwise haemorrhaging. The thing is that, despite high demolition activity, the supply of new tonnage will continue to flow for some time to come. Newbuildings will continue to be bigger, more complex, greener, more fuel efficient and technologically more advanced, and environmental regulation will increase. All this will mean an almost exponential increase in demand for greater numbers of more competent, better educated and better trained officers and crews.   

Given the overriding proclivity of the average shipowner to seek cheap crews, it becomes clear to me that something has to give in this matrix; in any case, the notion that higher wages always lead to higher competence is fallacious.

Within all these contradictions lies a window of opportunity for the Indian seafarer, that is provided the country’s maritime establishment- government, private sector employers and MET setups- get their act together, weed out corruption and regain focus. The Indian mariner proved, not that long ago, that he is capable of handling evolving technology. That he is cost-efficient. That he can be motivated and professional. That he can make money for the shipowner, and that his wages are justified.

He can well prove this again, but the decaying establishment has to stop getting in his way.

That window of opportunity is small, though, mainly because the Chinese have not yet focused on marketing their seafarers to the extent that they could have. They have internal issues, sure- including local industry demand, language difficulties and circumspection on the part of many youngsters about working abroad at sea. But all this can change quickly. In fact, in China, with its authoritarian form of government by diktat, this can change very quickly indeed. When it does, if China gets even half as efficient as the Philippine seafarer factory- riddled with problems as it is- that window will slam shut in the Indian mariner’s face. 

The caravan will have passed and we will be left watching the dust.


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