Are Indian seafarers pricing themselves out of the market, and if so, what can be done? That was the question put to me and initially, with the accompanying data viewed in purely mathematical terms, it did appear to be the case.
For example, and all figures approximate, in USD and basis contractual wages per month or pro-rata. Indian officers are typically between these two figures.
Newly promoted Master/Chief Engineer: North-West European countries / 13000 and Far East Developing countries / 6500
Entry level 3rd Officer / 4th Engineer: North-West European countries / 5300 and Far East Developing countries / 2200
The argument or hypothesis put forward is that Indian officers need to voluntarily start accepting salaries closer to the salaries accepted by officers from the Far Eastern countries if they don't want to see themselve being out-priced from the market. Obviously, this does not take into account flag-state requirements, and applies more to open
register employment opportunities - though even some flag states are now relaxing this when it comes to employing foreign nationals on their ships.
This would be correct if the maritime industry was a simple operational industry, where the financial aspects over-rode everything else, and humans could be increasingly replaced by machines and computers. Or treat the sailor as sub-humans. To some extent, that is the way the industry has evolved over the past 2-3 decades, but there is simply no more elasticity left in the constant battle to reduce head-count on board by every means possible. How much more can the owners and flag states play around with so-called safe manning, before port states start imposing their own conditions, is already being played out.
If anything, as enquiry reports in more than a few accidents have shown lately, fatigue and lack of competence are the two biggest reasons going hand-in-hand while safety and efficiency take a beating. Certificates of competency and time-sheets are one thing, realities are another, and ship-owners as well as operators must realise that the issue is deeper than just salaries or rather the daily-wage kind of contractual numbers.
One solution would be for the same people advocating further reduction in head-counts to spend some time on board real working ships, as pursers, to try and understand the realities involved. And on terms and conditions as applicable to 3rd Officers.
Because. Then only will management, especially financial management, learn that the modern young seafarer, as with any other career professional, is looking for more than just money. There are two other very important parameters involved:- future potential and respect at the workplace. Nothing more needs to be said or written on how both these paramters have gown downhill over the last 2-3 decades.
Not that salaries have kept pace either. Compared with other avenues open to younger people, merchant navy salaries have not kept up. Simple as that.
Speaking with a few youngsters in the Merchant Navy on the subject, one can understand their frustration - managements tend to ignore the fact that their frontline operational staff expect more than just money. Leave alone a reduction in wages, many of them were of the opinion that even doubling of wages without improving working conditions and future potential meant nothing to them.
Which takes me back to the solution - which has to go back to basics. Tthe Indian seafarer was and should still be linked to the Indian flag ships. That is where the solution lies - there will be no dearth of very well qualified people willing to work for lower salaries as long as the other two parameters of respect at the workplace and future potential are met. Sadly, the Indian flag shipowners have defaulted on this responsibility terribly over the last few decades, and this needs to be resolved first.
If, hypothetical if, the Indian shipowners simply matched terms and conditions offered by the Indian Navy to theiir younger officers, then many of the same younger officers see no reason why a 20-year working life could not be something easy to achieve. With all the other benefits that accrue to shipowners able to plan for the future. And more.
The example of the coastal and foreign going Chinese flag fleet can be quoted in this context. The example of how many of us in the '70s and '80s chose to stay on with Indian flag vessels at lower salaries for the same reasons can also be quoted.
By all means, think about reducing salaries to make the Indian seafarer more competitive, but it can not be a stand-alone. It may sound strange, but bench-marking the Indian Navy for this is not such a wild idea - the two services have always been related and till not too long ago, the best who came out of the Training Ships actually went to the Indian Navy.
The rest, the not so best, or the better than most, take your pick, can then certainly work in the open registers.
And there, let market forces decide.