February 21, 2013

Of RIP agencies, lambs- and wolves

That the rampant exploitation of new entrants into the profession of seafaring is now a publicly acknowledged fact may taste like victory to some, but this victory is Pyrrhic, for it carries within it the metallic taste of future defeat. The many corruptions that pervade the training and ‘placement’ space are not going to be reversed by chest-beating about just one of them; the deep rooted rot requires amputation, not aspirin. The system must be destroyed and then rebuilt; there is no other way, because the purification goes in too deep.

In India, the Directorate General of Shipping has finally acknowledged that something needs to be done about the ‘placement’ of cadets for on board training. “Considering the gravity of the situation,” a recent DGS circular says, approved MET institutes will be allowed to operate their own recruitment placement services (RPS) to place their students aboard ships for required seatime. Hitherto, RPS agencies have been external body shopping outfits. 

For the life of me, I cannot understand how this will change anything. As things stand today, individuals- including in many DGS approved RPS agencies- are taking hundreds of thousands of rupees under the table for every student they ‘place.’ Many MET institutes are hand in glove with this practice. How then, will giving MET institutes RPS authority help? What is needed is a clampdown, with criminal prosecution, on the touts in the business- sadly, some of them ex Masters- RPS or not. Adding more wolves to the same jungle is hardly going to help the lambs. RPS is an inappropriate acronym, actually. They should be called RIP agencies instead.

Unfortunately, as in most everything, shipping concentrates on tactics and ignores strategy when it tries to solve problems. Small wonder then that it fails, because knee jerk reactions are- like a beheaded chicken’s still twitching limbs- quite useless when the head is missing. For example, the industry also seems to believe that raising pre-sea training standards, combined with somehow (magically) increasing training berths on ships will expediently result in Indian seafarers becoming- magically, once again- in great demand overnight. This will never happen; because this will do nothing to address issues related to the calibre of the entrants, their attitudes, the widespread con game that ‘placement’ is today, or the unwillingness of the industry to invest in its crews instead of poaching them. All core issues. 

A detached observer will undoubtedly say that the model for fresh recruitment in any industry must have a vital component that gauges the demand and then meets it, and that a contract ridden business model must have sticky elements that dissuade- even guarantee- that people do not switch jobs too easily. That those jobs must be provided in the first place- which means, simply, do not train more people than you can employ. 

Anybody will tell you that on-board training of cadets must have the trained and their teachers- other officers and crews- speaking the same language. I have seen Indian cadets, for example, learning nothing from East European and Filipino officers simply because there are crippling language difficulties between them. When the much acclaimed (and, in my view, very dubious) distance learning programmes that reduce seatime requirements cannot even be read properly by officers or trainees with nothing but rudimentary English language skills, the whole exercise becomes  even more farcical.

And even my cat will tell you that the apocalypse is nigh for any maritime business where giving jobs to professional seamen is the way the business- and its employees- choose to make their money. ‘Placement fee’ is what they call it; me, less charitable than most, calls it pimping. RIP pimping, to be more precise.

The present training and recruitment model is lunatic. The question begs to be asked- if Indians were preferred seamen thirty years ago, then why the hell is it that- despite increased regulatory oversight, and despite complicated international conventions on training and certification- their stock is headed southwards today? Could it be that we need to go back to the past to relearn what we did right then? 

Don’t tell me, please, that it is the attitude of the new generation that is the overwhelming factor here; 
don’t use their slipping commitment- which is a fact- as a red herring. Besides the many other factors that are more important reasons, a seafarer- like any employee everywhere- is as committed to a company as the company is committed to him. If one must judge by that yardstick, mariners are angels in comparison to their employers. Competence does not develop in a vacuum.

Don’t tell me either that Indians have priced themselves out of the market. That is rubbish; crew never set wages, employers do, based on supply, demand and the availability of cheaper alternatives. Besides, professional standards do not drop with higher wages- they drop because of reasons like lower calibre of entrants, poor training and low commitment all round. European professional standards have not fallen over time, whatever has happened to the job market there, so why should Indian standards fall today?

In this litany of lunacies, the biggest lunacy is that shipping seems to think that training and manning are discrete functions divorced from each another; they are not. In an ideal world, no seaman would be trained that didn’t have a job at the end of the exercise, This is why the older system of sponsorship of cadets and guaranteed sea berths was superior to the system we follow today, where we, blind, deaf and dumb pushers of the mother of all lunacies- greater STCW mandated ‘training’- do little except throw our young to the wolves.


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