February 26, 2015

Of insects and reptiles

In India, the scandal connected with the recruitment of seamen and the placement of cadets for training on ships is worsening by the day. That this widespread depravity is institutionalised by now is an open secret. What is slightly lesser known, however, is the creative ways that are routinely used by degenerate ‘shipmanagement’ executives, in criminal collusion with touts spread across the country- to bleed, financially, aspiring seafarers to death. The whole shebang is not just a ‘placement’ scandal any longer; it often is simple human trafficking.

For some agencies, the placement of cadets and ratings is not just a part of a business model that derives its major revenues from management fees; it is the entire business model instead. There are many ways by which this is done. One way: tie up with a shady ‘shipowner’ in the Middle East or elsewhere who has an ageing, rotting hulk that is arrested or close to abandonment in some godforsaken port. Send first time cadets and ratings on this so called ship- often not much bigger than a dhow- that will never sail again, and will sink if she attempts to do so. Send the owner his cut of the few hundred thousand rupees each youngster has paid to you. Provide little food or water to the crew, and ignore everything else due to them. Pay them no wages. Then, after a couple of months, sack them to make way for fresh blood that has paid the next round of ‘placement fees’ from. Repeat endlessly.

In what is perhaps an extreme example, a cadet who had been roped in this way told me once that, with no money even to make a phone call home, he was reduced to swimming to other ships at anchor and begging their crews for food. Moreover, he claimed that he had gone to this ship- in a Middle Eastern country- through a recognised (by the Indian Directorate General of Shipping) company!

But this is not the worst that happens. Indians (and other mainly Asian nationalities) suffer much worse, especially when, after being trafficked to a strange country, they find, eventually, that the ship they were supposed to join does not exist. They are held captive, threatened, beaten and made to work as unpaid labourers. Their passports are taken away and their families are extorted for more money, or for ‘dues’ still owed to the traffickers. These are not isolated incidents, by the way. And they are increasing.

The best that a youngster can hope for, after paying a few hundred thousand rupees for a job or an on-board training berth is that he (thank God most seafarers are men, can you imagine what will be done to the women unfortunate enough to be trafficked?) will be sent on a ship that actually exists, dilapidated junk that it probably will be. The best that he can hope for is that he will somehow get some seatime and experience, survive long enough to earn some money or appear at his competency exams.

The industry in general and the Indian authorities in particular are ignoring this travesty completely.  Under these circumstances, the bizarre- Kafkaesque, actually- heralding of the Maritime Labour Convention as something that protects seafarer rights (this is a myth, as David Hammond of Human Rights at Sea pointed out in London earlier this month) by the usual suspects, including the IMO, is as absurd as it is cynical.

All that shipping seems to care about, when it comes to seamen, is that accidents caused by human error are increasing. Shipping does not wonder why. It is happily blinkered as it tom-tom’s catchphrases like ‘The Human Element’ instead. Perhaps the term is cleverly thought out, though, since it makes seamen like me feel like cockroaches under the microscope. It does not care enough to wonder why the cockroach- angry, unmotivated and oppressed- is not performing as well as it should.  

Shipping seems to be too dumb or too comfortably numb to ponder the possibility that its own reptilian behaviour could have something to do with the insect’s poor performance or motivation. 


February 20, 2015

An email from Capt Sidhu...

I am publishing this email that I received from Capt BS Sidhu with his permission, in its entirety (except the salutation) and without my comments- which would mainly consist of a stream of profanity anyway. Because this sort of thing that all Indian seamen have to put up with is not the exception; it is the rule.

I have been an avid reader of your blog for the past couple of years and it has given me great pleasure to absorb the accurate (warts and all) state of affairs of the Indian shipping and manning etc etc. I think we are past redemption and there is no way we can get back to our commanding heights of professionalism of the 70s and the 80s. We will wallow in the back waters while China, Phillipines and the E. Europeans steal a march on us.

I hope u find the following narrative interesting which I underwent.........


You have been 40 years at sea. You are at the peak with all your experience and hopefully will fade away from sailing the seven seas gracefully. However, the powers that be have plenty of spanners to throw in your supposedly benign works.

Your GMDSS certificate is due to expire.

But, hey, the Powers that be in the Ministry of Communications, in their wisdom, have other plans to shaft you nice and proper. You can only renew the said Cert. within 3 months of expiry - your joining the ship be damned. And also, forget your new browsers, no Chrome, no Safari, no Opera - it is the good old Internet Explorer they want for you to browse the site! Back to the steam age. So, I reluctantly put away the iPad, iPhone and iPad the Mac. The old Windows laptop was given away to the maid's college going girl, so you are at a dead end. A quick trip to the mall and you are a proud owner of a low end basic laptop after forking out Rs. 24000/-. Now you can freely access the Wireless Ministry and DG Shipping sites on the IE as per their norms.

After carefully downloading the GMDSS Renewal Form and instructions, you are off to find a Gazetted Officer. The good ole Notary Public just doesn't seem to cut it with the Wireless folks for attesting all the various photocopies. So at the Local Estate Office you find a beady eyed  lawyer who will get it done for Rs. 1000/-. You are in a tearing hurry and agree for some dicey Gazetted Official's stamp to endorse your documents. Next day, you discover, that the Application Form too has to be endorsed. Again back to the avaricious lawyer who suddenly ups the ante for the solitary page to Rs. 1500/-. What the heck, you pay him off and finally you are in a position to send the documents by Regd. A.D. and hope for the best.

Your joining the ship is creeping up fast on you. So your company man in Delhi gets into the act with his buddy at the Wireless Ministry to push things. They promise 20 days instead of the customary one or two months. You are delirious with joy when the coveted Renewal Cert. Arrives after about 27 days.

Now on to the DG Shipping site. You are overwhelmed with the 20 odd documents you must photo copy and carry the originals to the MMD for verification. Painfully, you go step by step and collect all the requisite documents along with your latest snaps as per their stringent rules.

Then the agonising MMD Noida Rules - documents are only to be submitted between 1000 & 1200 hours. Outstation candidates be damned. Against all odd you make the Office at 1145 and hastily fill up the form handed to you by a mournful clerk. (Of course it is not available online - so you have to be harassed all the way) Then you run across the road to the designated bank to deposit a princely sum of Rs. 3000/- for your STCW endorsement. All done, you are up in heaven because your forms are accepted though the clock has struck 12. (Shades of Cinderella) You are informed to collect your STCW Endorsement the next day between 1600 & 1700 hours. Outstation candidates be damned again. You trudge out of the depressing building and seek out a hotel to avoid another trip to Delhi.

You come back the next at 1500 hoping to get an early delivery of the Cert. No joy. Rules are Rules you see, you poor sailing denizen of the Seven Seas. Finally, you are calked at 1645 hours and grab your hallowed Cert. Then, the express run to catch your train back home. You make it with 4 minutes to spare.

You wonder on the ride back .... Was this ever in your mind during your heydays. Is this what you deserve after 40 years? You are about 18000/- chips out of pocket. (forget the laptop) All this hullabaloo for a piece of paper which can easily be processed over the Net. What the hell was INDOS about if you still have to send and carry reams of paper at every Govt. Stop???
God bless the Indian Maritime Sector.

Best Regards

Capt. B. S. Sidhu

February 19, 2015

Selective regurgitation

Every once in a while, shipping latches on to a statistic, phrase or a quote from somewhere or the other and repeats it endlessly. The phrase it chooses to repeat, usually to the point of tedium, often glorifies seamen or seeks to elicit wide-eyed awe at what they do for a living.
A big reason shipping does this is because it thinks that its seamen will buy the platitudes and ignore the reality of how the industry treats them. A second reason is that by glorifying seamen, shipping wants the rest of the world to look at the industry favourably, and therefore give it a commercial break or three.  

Along with the evergreen and trite ’shipping carries 90 percent of everything’ and the ‘seafarers are our best assets’ kind of stuff regularly dished out, I have noticed another worn quote gaining momentum in industry circles in recent weeks, which says that seafaring is the second most dangerous occupation in the world.

Let me get one thing out of the way first: I disagree with that statement, because I can think of many occupations that are riskier. Shipping is dangerous enough; let us leave it at that. It is more important to me that, like with the other banalities trotted out, that quote is dishonest.

To the best of my knowledge, the statement can be traced back to a 2002 or so Oxford study that looked at statistics of mortalities in UK based professions over twenty years. It said, based on these numbers, that deep sea fishing was the most hazardous profession with commercial seafaring coming in as the second most dangerous. Seafarers were 26·2 times more likely to die at work compared with other British workers, and deep-sea fishermen were 52·4 times more likely to do so.

Around the rest of the world, a lazy- and, as far as seafarer issues are concerned, regressive- industry that does not even bother to keep statistics of the people who die (or are missing injured, held by pirates or kill themselves) simply took the British quote and rebroadcast it out of context. It is doing so again. 

That this quote has resurfaced has partly to do with Rose George, her recent book and articles. The book “Deep Sea and Foreign Going: Inside shipping, the invisible industry That Brings You 90% of everything” was written after a short five-week journey on board a container ship. Her recent articles have pointed out, amongst other things, that 2000 seamen die every year at sea. The industry has been quick to pick these up and regurgitate them to anybody who will listen in a bid, not to increase awareness of seamen’s issues or improve safety, but to glean some sympathy for itself. 

Other stats are also used for this purpose, such as one that says that seafarers have a one in 11 chance of being injured during their tour of duty – much higher than in other occupations. Also rebroadcast is a Seacare Australia finding from 2012; the national safety regulator said seafarers were working in the most dangerous industry, where injury risks remained “significantly greater than in other high risk industries”. 

It is too much to expect the vast majority of shipmanagers to look beyond the statistics and quotes that they select for their self-serving ends. I will only point out, though, that these numbers and phrases have come from studies in countries and from ships belonging to owners that have a much better track record on human rights issues and safety than the vast majority out there, and that the conditions that most seamen endure are usually worse. 

I leave you with just one statistic that shipping will definitely not promulgate, and that is that this is a high-risk occupation for suicide. Dr Stephen Roberts, a specialist in maritime and public health from Swansea University, said so in a 2013 study. He found that, during 1979/80 and 1982/83, merchant seafarers had the second-highest suicide rate after (surprisingly) veterinarians; and in 2001–05 the second-highest rate after coal miners. Seafarers, he said, had a higher than 620 per 100,000 people suicide rate, which brought the profession into the “highest-risk occupation for suicide” category.

Regurgitate that.


February 12, 2015

Dry Straits

The Baltic Dry Index crashed, at the beginning of February, to its lowest level in almost three decades. Is the long touted bellwether of economic activity- bellwether being the sheep that leads the herd with a bell around its neck- trying to tell us something? 

To be sure, the BDI’s importance has declined over the years. One reason is that the BDI measures shipping demand for dry resources such as iron ore, cement, grain, coal and fertiliser, but the overall shipping market, with container and tanker trade thrown in, is today much broader than it used to be. 

The BDI may not be the sole indicator of the future any longer, but a 60% drop in three months is not something that should be ignored; it has spiralled well below 2008 levels, when it crashed 90 percent in a few months to herald the global economic crisis.  

Some say that the oil price crash has much to do with the BDI’s tanking, and that the index is inherently sensitive to oil prices since moving massive amounts of dry cargo is an energy intensive activity.  That may be true but I believe it is also convenient- but it is hardly the full story. What is happening, I think, is also that the BDI’s constituents are being squeezed breathless from both the demand and the supply sides. Somewhat bitingly, one writer has called this the ‘structural convergence of massive mal-investment meeting economic reality’.

Dropping demand from a slowing China is a biggie hitting the BDI, and is reflected in today’s lacklustre commodity prices. That country’s economic expansion will be the lowest in a quarter of a century this year, and it is the biggest buyer of coal and iron ore in the world; unsurprisingly, here is where much of the heat is coming from. And, some of the rest of the world is in even worse shape. The Russian rouble has crumbled. Europe’s growth is forecast slower, according to their central bank. Japan’s recession continues- even deepens. Brazil is in some trouble, and India is still a question mark. No wonder the price of everything from copper to iron ore has collapsed.

For shipping, the supply side is equally fraught. The dry-bulk fleet has exploded 80% since 2008. Shipbroker Poten and Partners say that, at the beginning of this year, a staggering 336 Capesize bulkers were still on order. The waters have been muddied somewhat by some owners rushing to try to convert large bulkers to tankers in an attempt to take advantage of the present demand for tankers- low oil prices leading to increased stockpiling and a relatively benign fleet expansion in that segment. But this is easier said than done. Lack of management experience in tanker operations from big bulker operators and the lack of ship conversion expertise at many yards are major obstacles here, not to speak of the ships that have reached a stage of construction where they are beyond conversion anyway.

No, things are looking terrible for dry bulk shipping right now. The Baltic Dry Index may not be all that much of a forecaster of global economic activity any longer, but its crash is still telling us something. Just four statistics tell the story. It hit 11,753 in May 2008. By December, it had dropped 94%, to 663. At the time of writing this piece, it is at 590, close to its all time low of 554 is July 1986- twenty-eight and a half years ago.

Ignore these numbers at your own risk. 

This piece was published in the Marex Bulletin today. It is a mere coincidence that the BDI crashed yesterday to its all time low- 553 points, one point below the previous record low set in July and August of 1986.



February 05, 2015

Sailing into the mystic

Just last week, when I was sitting in my favourite chair with the cat in my lap and a whisky in my hand, working out some distressing financial problems that eventually will not matter, I recalled something that I had first realised on a ship long ago. That, like human life, the sea ebbs and surges relentlessly, and that all one can do- all one should do- is to let the waves wash over you. Just ride them while you still can. 

That the sea teaches you many things is a trite understatement. In reality, those of us who have sailed find it has transformed our very lives. It does not really matter that some of us choose to forget what we have learnt at sea once we step ashore- many years later, if we are lucky. Our existence has been changed completely anyway, whether we remember the lessons of the metamorphosis or not. 

For me, the beauty used to lie in the fact that I was often not even aware of what the sea had taught me.  The wonder used to be that, just when I thought, somewhat arrogantly, that I had learnt everything, the lady would teach me something new. She still does, even a few years after I have hung up my sea boots. She still teaches me things. Not just about me, but about life itself.

For many years, I used to think that the qualities that a life on the water promoted were obvious. After all, everybody knows that sailing teaches you, amongst many other lessons, the values of integrity, self-reliance, resilience, mental and physical toughness, fortitude, patience, discipline, quick-thinking, tolerance, independence and responsibility. Good lessons to learn, no doubt, even if a trifle mundane.

The greater, magical power of the sea was revealed to me later, with the gleaned knowledge that the ocean mirrored life itself in all its serenity and brutality. Coinciding with the knowledge- realised anew- that we have all come from the sea and perhaps that is the reason why some of us want to return to it, my experience became almost mystical. It transcended learning, because many of my questions did not have any answers. But that did not matter; no answers were needed. The experience was everything.  

The young man who went out to sea used to seek adventure and escape from the alternative- the treadmill of a soul-sucking office job. Alas, no longer, but that does not really matter.  The reasons for making the choice are irrelevant to the outcome. In this calling, they will find adventure and escape even if they are not actively seeking it. They will discover the answers without asking the questions. And for those- very few, today- that still actively seek the maverick existence without dollar signs in their eyes, everything they find will be a bonus. It will be more than that, actually, because the experience will transform them wondrously. At the end of it all, they will find, as Van Morrison sang, their souls and spirits flying into the mystic.