September 24, 2015

Shipping: the sweatshop industry?

Leading peer reviewed medical journal ‘The Lancet’ published a report on mortality recently; the British seafarer union Nautilus International applied some of the findings to seamen, linking their MLC approved near-hundred hour working week to a host of deadly medical dangers. It should startle us that working hours at sea, even under the much hyped MLC regime, expose our seamen to diabetes, stroke, cardiac diseases and cancer. That should really worry us, but it won’t. And even these dangerous hours of work are still routinely exceeded at sea. 

Since nobody cares about seamen, The Lancet almost certainly had high pressure (and much higher paying, compared to the paltry wages seamen get) shore jobs in mind when it published the report. Nonetheless, it said, amongst other things, that incidents of stroke were connected to long working hours and that such hours, especially at night with inadequate rest, were directly linked to heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

Nautilus draws an analogy between these findings and the asbestos scandal many moons ago, when established findings linking the use of asbestos to cancer were ignored by the industry for years- decades, even- until the stuff hit the fan when people went to court in Western countries and the insurance companies had their legs chopped off. I don’t know about my contemporaries, but many years ago, I felt dismayed and cheated when the asbestos link to cancer finally reached me. By then, I had been working, of and on like many of us, with asbestos on ships for years- years during which the carcinogenic effects of the substance were well known to everybody in shipping. No warning reached me; nobody did anything about the cancerous substance we were breathing in every day.

The Lancet’s findings will be similarly downplayed and essentially ignored today, like all those many findings linking fatigue directly to safety already are. It will take a US style class action suit in India or the Philippines or some such major labour supplying country to change anything- a suit that links premature death at sea to long working hours without adequate rest. The IMO, Flag and Port States, managers, industry associations and national legislators from labour supplying countries are going to do nothing except dig their heads firmly in the sand; that, as we well know, is their default setting.

Since no class action suit is not going to happen, this will. The way this industry operates will mean that it will continue to attract fewer and fewer youngsters of caliber into its murky fold. We will get the dregs, and the world will suffer along with us when incompetent, underpaid, demotivated and fatigued seamen run their ships aground, or crash them into each other, or other fun stuff. 

Meanwhile, everybody will continue to ignore fatigue and its massive impact on health and safety. Shipmanagers will continue to promote widespread fudging of working hour figures when they can get away with it- and find creative ways of circumventing regulations, like paying a bonus instead of overtime, when they can’t. While all this song and dance is going on, we will continue to kill our seafarers softly and almost maliciously. 

Unless its mentality changes, this industry risks being lumped together with other sweatshop industries that do not even pretend to care for their workers, who run them into the ground with scant regard for their health. I suspect it is already thought of as a sweatshop industry in the eyes of many of the seamen it employs, or those youngsters who are looking at seafaring as a career. 

It has betrayed its seamen so regularly that it probably deserves that label.


September 10, 2015

Screaming in Yemen.

Don’t ask me why, but I like Yemen, even though everybody is always screaming at me there.

I landed at Sanaa’s airport to join a ship maybe ten years ago around 5 pm after four days on the 'road' (Hyderabad Delhi Singapore Sanaa with time in Delhi and Singapore only to visit offices for work). No sleep at all. My flight to Aden from Sanaa was early the next morning.

The terminal was all khaki including the construction. Looked like Rommel's Desert Rat headquarters only no desert.

Nobody spoke English except in sentences of two or three words. Maximum. And screamed at high pitch with maximum volume to boot.

On finding out I had a laptop, they took it and my passport away. Somebody indicated those would be returned to me later, I think.

About eight to twelve people, including me, had onward flights the next am. We spent the night in one room with zero water or any other facilities except some tea bags and half a kettle of water and a kind of bathroom. The kettle was not working.

Next morning, the rush at the single open counter reminded me of a market I had visited in Cairo, with huge bunches of locals converging on the single guy behind the counter screaming and apparently fighting. Maybe they thought they were Indians.

When I could, I asked about my laptop bag and passport. The guy picked up my bag from behind the counter and screamed, "Yours??", and gave it to me without waiting for an answer, like Pontius Pilate.

What about my passport, I asked him. "On plane!!" he screamed at me.

I was so tired and fed up I boarded the plane (coming from Saudi Arabia somewhere and going to Aden). At the entrance to the aircraft, I asked a flight attendant for my passport. Sit, he said. Then, when I sat, he brought me some foul smelling juice and said, "Here" and went away.

I was so tired and fed up I went to sleep.

Inside the Aden terminal, before customs, one guy came up to me and shouted, "You Captain?" When I said yes, he pointed to my suitcase lying nearby, and screamed "Yours?" When I said yes, he screamed at somebody who took my suitcase away.

Ok this guy knows stuff, I thought. So I asked him, where is my passport? His English was good, so he shouted, "You no have passport????" in a shocked tone an Indian rural patriarch would use if his daughter eloped and married outside the community, caste, religion and country all at once.

Suddenly, about twenty feet away, I saw somebody in uniform carrying a passport that looked like it was Indian. This time I screamed, Passport!! Whereupon everybody and everything froze, the uniform smiled, and gave it to me.

Turned out my suitcase had been sent to the hotel; the guy with the good English had come to pick me up.

At Sanaa, intermittently in the night, I thought I heard small bursts of gunfire, like somebody was celebrating. Fortunately, this was not my first trip to places like Yemen so I knew I would probably be ok.

I had still to get into that cab in Mukalla, see Osama Bin Laden's picture stuck on the dashboard like Indians stick their Gods, and have the cab driver scream at me, "You Muslim?" That was a few weeks later.