February 28, 2013

Swindler’s List

It has been rumoured, off and on over decades, that an informal blacklist of seamen exists in countries like the Philippines and India. Circulated amongst body shopping outfits, names on the blacklist indicate mariners who have been, let us say, troublesome for their employers. Some may have been guilty of more major offences, but you can also get your name on the list for what the industry sees as crimes but are actually nothing more than the pursuit by a seaman of his legitimate rights- for example, an ITF mandated wage pay-out on a ship may have been accepted and not returned to the owners or a seaman may have insisted on pursuing medical compensation after he returned home. That is enough for the offender to be blackballed. 

I have always felt that the existence- or the power- of this blacklist is overestimated in the chaotic headhunting atmosphere in Indian shipping where poaching is rampant. However, anecdotal evidence suggests strongly to me- and I have sailed with hundreds of them- that Filipinos are sometimes subject to particularly virulent professional ostracisation. Whatever, I now propose, somewhat tongue in cheek, that the IMO, the ILO and the ITF should publish on their websites, and update regularly, a list of shipowners or shipmanagers that have behaved in an unethical, illegal or unfair way with seamen. I want to call this the Swindler’s List.

It will be a long list, let me warn you, because shipowners and shipmanagers routinely behave in a manner that may have come to be accepted as ‘normal’ by sailors and managers alike but is nonetheless criminally, legally or ethically unacceptable. Even big shipowners and their lackey shipmanagement companies- sometimes equally well known- are culpable here. Their numbers will dwarf the numbers of the relatively few seamen who behave similarly- therefore the essential Swindler’s List that will warn seamen about what to expect should they be employed by these setups.

The Swindler’s list should not be just about unpaid or late-paid wages. Also listed should be firms that disregard their basic legal duty of care, which binds them to provide to the crew a seaworthy ship well provisioned and manned for the voyage, and to maintain it as such. More condemnable industry practices aside, even cutting corners in essential maintenance of hull and machinery- and safety equipment- would be strong grounds for inclusion, as would be sending crews unprotected into piracy zones. I wonder if we can include short manned ships under this head too, whether they meet their (usually laughable) Safe Manning Certificate requirements or not. 

Owners and managers ignoring or circumventing contractual obligations would be on the Swindler’s List, of course. Unpaid or delayed wages would put your name in this hall of infamy, as would illegal employment practices like getting seamen to pay for a job or forcing them to sign one sided contracts that are legally iffy. Not providing timely medical treatment, or not continuing to pay wages and medical costs of seafarers who sign off on medical grounds- as contractually agreed- is something most shipmanagers and owners have been guilty of at one time or another. Regardless, even the well-known would be listed if they qualified. And so would managers who feel that depriving their crews of food and water is standard practice if one is having financial difficulties.

I did warn you that the Swindler’s list would be a long. Depressingly long, even, because illegal or unethical practices against seamen are widespread in our industry. So widespread, in fact, that we sometimes feel almost embarrassed bringing some of these up; many appear to be minor issues, but they total up to present a picture of an oppressive relationship between a seaman and his employers. I often tell young seamen that a seafarer has no friends; the implication is, obviously, that people in the industry will be out to screw you. That is a strong condemnation all by itself. 

Finally, I would like to see addressed the rampant apartheid that I have taken for granted all through my sailing life. Shipping proudly calls itself an international industry, but it discriminates every day on the basis of race, nationality and colour in a hundred different ways. Not just with wages, but in the general treatment of crews. I call this apartheid and not, more simply, discrimination. There has always been a de-facto segregation of white and non-white crews, recent East European and Asian crew mixes notwithstanding. If mixed, whites usually hold senior positions on board. The same happens when, say, Indians and Filipinos are mixed- this phenomenon is hardly restricted to favour Western crews. Everybody likes to pretend that this has been because of working imperatives, but I disrespectfully disagree. 

Everybody- including shore side inspectors and managers- are guilty here. Schizophrenically guilty, sometimes, because many live and work in countries where racist behaviour is completely unacceptable and would expose them to severe legal action if tried at home. But not when it comes to seamen. That breed, we all know, is somewhat less than human, so different rules apply. Correction. Often, no rules seem to apply. 

Which is why we need the Swindler’s List. 



Reid Sprague said...

Amen, Manu! This is an idea whose time has certainly come.

I believe something like this is being contemplated now by responsible seafarers-rights advocates, and it can't come too soon. If someone does implement a list like this, we should all support it strongly. There should be a strong seafarer input to the list, as well.

Thank you for putting this forward! Let's hope that the idea bears fruit soon, for the sake of the many seamen who sign up with a "reputable" company only to find themselves trapped in an abusive job situation, with their income and family's welfare on the line - and, as you noted, the threat of blacklisting if they speak up.

Let's put the shoe on the other foot for a change.

Anonymous said...

Probably we seafarers will be left "employer-less" barring a few reputed companies which too am sure will fall in "grey list" with their relatively less violations. Mere publishing of such list won't aid a seafarer. Whether justice was served and how these swindlers were penalized (if at all) could provide the comfort when a Seafarer joins a black listed company in a haste to refill his bank a/c.