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Sunday, 16 January 2011

So, how many of us are there in the vastness of the oceans out there, then?

There is no cogent number on how many seafarers there are in the world, simply because there is a vast range - mainstream ocean going ships, armed forces, research vessels, coastal fleets, inshore transport, pleasure craft, support services, port auxiliaries, and the rest of it. Then, add to this, the vast number of "ir-regulars", from pirates in the Indian Ocean to people forced to work on fishing boats, and on to pure and simple "unknown ventures". The last known figure for seafarers on mainstream ships alone was about 1.2 million, by BIMCO - but way back in 2005. The ballpark figure for seafarers of all sorts, worldwide,  qualified in some form or the other, is around 4-6 million - and may well be more if one takes into account the number of people who are at sea variously and absolutely unqualified.

Add to this the number of people from other trades who, for one reason or the other, also work on ships - as inspectors, security personnel, repair workers, hospitality workers on cruise ships and similar - and can be said to have acquired reasonable seafaring skillsets - and you have an even bigger pool of people who can, in some way or the other, work on ships. And who will, obviously, impact the supply-demand economics. Ideally, much of this group of people should have been organised, in one way or the other. Truth is, the number of seafarers who are part of any ITF affiliated agreements, is said to be around 600,000 (ITF, 2010). So, at a modest estimate, almost 90% of the people who are "at sea" are really that - disorganised groups of people without direction or collective strengths.

Organised or otherwise - and it is important to remember that the global bastion of worker rights, People's Republic of China, does not permit its seafarers to be part of unions - all seafarers share one thing in common, though - being party to the tendency and economic requirement on the part of the owner and operator to always keep cutting costs. Sure, suitable noises are made about "quality", but if you compare quality of life ashore in other professions with the way quality of life onboard has evolved for the seafarer over the last few decades, then one thing is clear - the shipowners of the world are absolutely aware of how the largely "open register" system of ship-owning works towards making the seafarer a commodity which can be exploited almost at will.

There is yet another deeper issue at play - if salaries at sea are increased, and quality of life improved, then more people from the costlier developed countries will want to come to sea. These people will then certainly be well organised, as well as lobby with good success rates with governance in their own countries, to ensure reservations and jobs for themselves. However, at the same time, higher salaries will also lead to more qualified people from these countries coming to sea - and then leaving seafaring early. Because (i) they would have saved up enough in a short time and (b) their qualifications would find a ready market ashore.

This, if you are a shipowner looking at a bottomline before anything else, is disaster. First you spend a lot of money training up a lot of expensive people which will also make your ships uncompetitive. Next, these very people will move on rapidly, leading the shipowner into a fresh spiral of high training costs. So, basic truth Number One if you want to be a succesful shipowner is to ensure that the system works to keep seafaring as an inferior career choice, depending more on people coming in from poorer countries, where some minimum levels of competency can be obtained. After that, they have to ensure that their ships are able to employ such people, which is where the conflict between "better than just technically seaworthy" and "open reigster" comes in.

Are we, then, likely to see an improvement in quality of life at sea and for seafarers in the near future? Or will it always be a situation where salary is driven by supply/demand as well as cyclical surplus/deficit scenarios, tweaked around a tipping point, where 2% makes all the difference between good times and bad?

The answer, as always, is not as simple as pure numbers would lead many of us to believe. Here are some possibilities that may impact things:-

# The "Black Swan" effect - where a logical but unseen effect may suddenly cause a huge change in seafarer dynamics. Increasing prices of oil, shut-down of a major trade route, unpredictable weather, and more. The lessons of Suez Canal being shut down in the '70s are not all that far behind us, nor the effects of the various defaults and failures in the financial markets, or simply the possible effects of more regulations impacting shipping.

# Higher unemployment ashore in many countries, including the traditional seafaring countries in Europe which saw seafaring going on the back-burner, which could see more people come "back to sea". This, incidentally, is already being observed in England and Scandinavia. Shipowners will always prefer people from their own countries, choosing to save on the foreigners they end up hiring - sanctified by ITF, by the way.

# The faint chance that life at sea may well become better soon - with better communications, lesser working hours, bigger complements on board and most of all - introduction of suitable relevant HR practices pertaining to seafarers more than "crewing department" kind of treatment most seafarers are subjected to. Another simple truth and influencing factor - the freshest air is still what you get at sea.

In all this and more, morality and ethics have hardly any role to play, especially as far as shipowners and operators are concerned. The drivers are always, but always, purely economic. Due sounds are made, of course, towards flags and nations - but if true beneficial ownerships are analysed, then these seldom, if ever, stand any test of truth.

The seafarer, on the other hand, is expected to perform at sea as per a variety of unwritten traditions, the most important one being "ship before self". Never mind double book-keeping on wages, substandard food, tremendous over-work. The psychological demand on seafarers is simply unrelated to the reality of numbers whether onboard or ashore.

What, then, is the solution for seafarers? Or are they destined to keep on sailing, generation after generation, with working conditions aimed at keeping them in what is known as "inferior goods" conditions? Truth be told, again, seafaring jobs do tend to fall into the category of "inferior goods", witness the drastic decline in basic courtesies and respect (not) being extended to seafarers by "authorities" worldwide. Be it restrictions on shore leave, criminalisation, or simply the way the juniormost of Customs or Immigration or Health or other categories of people who visit ships officially treat them, it is very clear that the seafarer commands less respect in some case now than, say, a State Transport bus driver. Sad, hard words - but true.

SAILOR TODAY welcomes responses from seafarers - what ARE the solutions, if any? Or is seafaring as a career on a continuous downward spiral, to end up, as have other professions in the past, at the bottom of the options pool - activated only when economic realities ashore become bad?

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