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. 


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