December 26, 2013

Sleight of tongue

Lloyd’s List has rolled out a list. Recently published, the ‘Hundred most influential people in shipping 2013’ ranks the global maritime elite. Listed, in descending order, are shipowners and executives, energy czars and mining billionaires, crude oil exporters and shipping financiers, Walmart and Cosco, Indian Mukesh Ambani and Norway’s John Fredriksen, aggressive Greek magnates and risk-taking European mavericks, terminal managers and charterers, IMO’s Kozi Sekimizu and VShips’ Roberto Giorgi, vetting group Rightship and salvage company Titan- amongst many, many others. There is even- as has been since 2010- a Somali pirate on this list, although there is a new representative of that ilk this time and the ‘pirate’ spot has been demoted to number 90.

And in what appears to be a cruel joke, but is probably well meant, is that at number one, topping the list of the ‘Hundred most influential people in shipping, 2013’ is ‘The Seafarer.’

Now one could stretch imagination and insist that a seafarer is most influential because she or he is at the front line and, so, the final executor of whatever is planned. I don’t buy this, because the same reasoning applies to any industry (but, for example, we don’t go around saying that the bricklayer is the most influential person in the real-estate industry, do we?)

Besides, influence implies power. To therefore pretend that seamen- the most powerless group in shipping bar none- are influential is almost breathtaking in its inaccuracy.

“Seafarers ultimately must be applauded for their service to society,” says Lloyds’ List, with reference to the top ‘influential’ spot. I respectfully disagree again. Seafarers are professionals working in a job for money. Nobody goes out to sea to serve society and even seamen don’t expect this kind of hypocritical applause. In any case, I haven’t seen a single seaman shedding a single tear because society is not applauding him.

The whole treatment of seafarer issue has been badly warped and mutilated. I have seen the industry carrying on with its ill treatment, abusive neglect, abandonment and disrespect of seamen for almost four decades. Little has changed except for the worse. The additional sword of criminalisation that hangs over many seagoing heads today does not make a seaman feel powerful and trite phrases like ‘seafarers are our best assets’ that spew out of the mouths of the truly influential people in shipping do not fool a seafarer an iota. In fact, they make a laughingstock of those who speak that tosh.

This industry behaviour is widespread and schizophrenic. It is deeply patronising and an insult to every seafarer’s intelligence when we say that she or he is the most influential person in shipping.

In case the truly influential are listening, let me say this. Seamen usually have very good bullshit detectors; it goes with the territory. They may be the least influential, but they know crap when they smell it. They don’t give a rat’s behind about being applauded by society or being acclaimed as your ‘best assets,’ as if they were silicone implants.

Most seafarers would like to be treated as valued human beings by the industry. Not the most valuable, just valued. Treated with dignity. They know- even without the truly influential telling them repeatedly, and how many times have we heard this, too- that working on a ship is not rocket science. They know, too, that most rocket scientists- and many of those who try to belittle them for their own piddling and puny agendas- would not be able to do what they, the seamen, do.

The flip side of all this is that seafarers have become thickened to industry behaviour, and, in turn, don’t really care for shipping’s long term welfare. They care enough to want to see their next few contracts secured, of course, but not much beyond that. They have been here long enough; they know the game and the way it is played. They know that only fools get taken in by sleight of tongue.

Those who sail do not have enough influence to even guarantee that their wages will be eventually paid. They risk, as Thomas Brown of Seacurus says, becoming cash flow casualties of their employers' insolvencies. Yeah, yeah, the MLC addresses this. Or not, as the truly influential say, claiming that abandonment repatriation is covered but wages are not. Or wait… we will have tripartite talks (unions, owners and governments) in April next year to see what we can do about this annoying thing. We will do what we have always done: use delay and obfuscation to try to avoid giving seafarers what is their basic right.

Seafarers the most influential people in shipping? Horse manure. Not surprising, then, that every time somebody says ‘best assets’ or every time somebody refers to this year’s Lloyds’ List’s top 100 ‘influential’ rankings, I hear, in my mind, a reverberation – a booming and collective roar.  

That eruption sounds angry, but it isn’t. It is just the sound of the collective peal of laughter of the one point three million seafarers out there. 


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