June 19, 2015


I am often openly critical of the IMO; I believe that, like its parent UN, the organisation is compromised by commercial interests to the point where it is hamstrung at best and completely ineffective at worst. It is also far too bureaucratic, too far removed from the reality of shipboard operations today and usually does too little too late- often years too late. Then, it always has a readymade copout at hand for its failures - the regressive and only partially accurate excuse that it can only reflect the collective will of its members. Actually, these sorts of excuses are really a call for its own overhaul.

Even feeling as I do, I read with some bemusement the conclusion drawn by most in the shipping media after a recent survey of about 450 respondents that was conducted by Singapore based ‘Maritime CEO.’ Maritime headlines everywhere explicitly said that the survey showed that “the IMO is not doing enough to protect the lives of seafarers.”   

In reality, it appeared to me that only a slim majority -53%- had polled that the IMO could ‘be doing more for ship’s crew’, but leave that aside. My point is that the IMO is not set up or geared to care for seafarers or protect them; it is set up to serve the commercial industry. Its apologists will no doubt try to correct that statement of mine, telling me that the IMO is mandated to legislate on the three pillars of safety, security and the environment, and that all three obviously involve (and cover) the crew. I will then laugh loudly at their naiveté.  

That is theory, folks- and theory is when we know everything but nothing works. In practice, (to complete that old saying, practice is when everything works but nobody knows why) the IMO is, unfortunately, as far removed from the sailor’s daily reality as as Michelle Pfeiffer is. 

The IMO’s main job is- or has become- the maintainenance of the status quo. Its member Flag States- as compromised as the organisation is- try to protect the commercial interests of their own national or regional powerful lobbies. Its Consultative Member list, with a few exceptions, consists overwhelmingly of associations of mainly western shipowners, managers, brokers, agents, broader industry affiliations, niche industry affiliations, equipment and machinery manufacturers and the like. All these represent special interest groups that drive the decisions made at the IMO. Everything is seen through this primary prism.

There is no special interest group worth the name for seamen. That orphan has no parents to look after him. Here, too.

Pigs could fly. We could live in an ideal world, where the Secretary General of the IMO could declare that its mandated responsibilities towards maritime safety, security and the environment require, as a first step, sufficient numbers of men and women to crew each ship, not some ridiculously low number that suits shipowners and managers but is detrimental to basic safety. That it requires that these crews be sufficiently rested; that they not be involved in administrative and data entry duties that are peripheral to their job because some bean counter in an organisation that has consultative status at the IMO says so. That the crews be properly and appropriately trained, which is not the same thing as being trained as per the STCW conventions at all; those pander to the MET industry and do not have too much to do with proper training or even the real requirements of training.

In short, the IMO could start with pressurising its member States to follow existing maritime regulations instead of making new ones that usually do nothing much except try to justify the organisation’s existence. 

But pigs won’t fly, so you can all relax. And wait for the next IMO approved ‘Day of the Seafarer.’ Or wait for yet another round of platitudes from yet another Secretary General, along the lines of how seamen are indispensable, telling us about half the world freezing or starving without them, and how the industry should be more concerned about seafarer welfare and all.

Maybe there are still some seamen left out there who will buy that eyewash, but I somehow doubt it.  


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