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Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The future of seafaring . . .

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.

An article on piracy and steps on board from January 2011

This was first submitted for publication in SAILOR TODAY in January 2011, and is even more valid today, so here goes, repeated . . .


It is now about time that a simple demand be made by seafarers working on Indian flag ships - that a contingent of Indian Navy personnel be carried onboard all our ships operating in blue waters between Aden, Singapore and the Southern Indian Ocean. Attacks within Indian Economic Zone as well as not too far from the oil exploration areas are now becoming commonplace, and before tragedy strikes or they become another accepted danger of being at sea, a strong, message needs to be sent across clearly that any Indian merchant ship is going to not just be safe in Indian waters but also respond vigorously internationally.

It has also to be stated and is an open secret that more than a few foreign shipping companies are openly carrying armed personnel on board, and the crew as well as officers onboard are certainly benefitting from this, lifeboat capacity and other minor issues be damned. It is easy for those sitting in their little ivory towers in Mumbai and Delhi to pontificate on rights of innocent passage - what do they know, many of them have armed guards to protect their petty little backsides the moment they step out of their offices.

So what are seafarers supposed to do, then, about this reality? Especially for those sailing under the Indian flag . . .

1) Insist with your shipowners that they provide armed guards onboard in case the vessel is trading Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean. The current defined danger area is bounded by the Indian coast, Arab coast and African coast as well as 15 degrees South and about 78 degrees East already, as per a NATO report. Look on a map, and see how far this gets us?

2) Insist on vastly increased levels of personal insurance and danger pay. There has to be at least 15-20 years worth of salary, protected by inflation, as insurance. In addition, triple pay, at least. This is the least that people who are putting their lives on the line need, and close to keeping in line with much lesser than what those in the Armed Forces get.

3) Make this point very clear during the revalidation classes, as well as every possible interaction with the company ashore, preferably in writing. Take the trouble to get in touch with the Union, MUI or NUSI, both have been very pro-active of late, and there is every reason to cooperate with them - especially Mr. Abdul Gani Sarang, whose doors are always open, as personal experience shows.

4) Reach out to the media, print and television, and let them know what you feel. Get on to the internet, blogs and all, including photos. Write to your elected representative, Ministry, and others. File pre-emptive RTIs. The pen is your strongest weapon, and the keyboard a force multiplier.

At the end of the day, WE shall have to make our voice heard, and dignity as well as safety restored. The pirates, such as they are, don't dare venture near Israeli flag ships, as well as ships of some companies they know are carrying armed personnel on board - about time they ran and turned tail when they see the Indian red ensign too.

Veeresh Malik

Here's an RTI on l'affaire RAK AFRIKANA that I filed . . .

Shri S.G. Bhandare, PIO, or incumbent PIO, under RTI Act of India 2005,
Public Authority the Dy. Director General of Shipping,
Jahaz Bhavan,Walchand H. Marg, Mumbai - 400 001 ( India)
dtd: 10th May 2011
Greetings & Jai Hind!!  Most humbly request information under the RTI Act of India, 2005,  please provide me with the following information. THIS INFORMATION IS SOUGHT IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST, AND THERE IS OVER-RIDING PARAMOUNT LARGER PUBLIC INTEREST TO BE GIVEN THE INFORMATION I HAVE ASKED FOR.

1) Please provide me a certified copy of following documents held by or available to your public authority. I would also like to inspect all concerned files online personally at New Delhi.

a) Please provide me with full style and address of the RPS agencies involved in recruiting and sending Indian seafarers on board the following vessels which have been hijacked/pirated for the period from
01 January 2010 onwards:- mv RAK AFRIKANA, mv ASPHALT VENTURE and mv SININ.
b) Please provide me with full style and address of the entities who are registered owners, beneficiary owners, desponent owners, tax-haven owners, secret owners, any other owners, as well as any entities holding lien on vessel and cargo of the above ships with Indian seafarers onboard:- mv RAK AFRIKANA, mv ASPHALT VENTURE and mv SININ.
c) Kindly provide me with information on whether contact has been established by DG Shipping with the entities mentioned in 'a" and "b" above, and if so, details thereof.
d) If any of the above said statutory records is not available, the complete details of how it was destroyed / weeded out in each case..
e) Electronic access to the catalogue (or catalogues) of all records of your public authority duly indexed in a manner and the form to facilitate right to information, either over the computer networks or in the form of a diskette or other electronic media at the prescribed fees.
Sent by eMail and signed hard copy, (signed) and humbly submitted,
Veeresh Malik,  D-61, Defence Colony, New Delhi - 11oo24   (mobile: 00-91-99118-25500)
Note 1:-Application fee of Rs. 10/- in cash shall be submitted within 30 days as per procedure laid down by DoP&T at PIO, DG Shipping, Mumbai, or at any one of the nominated APIOs located at the specified Post Offices in India, and a copy of this application along with receipt shall be sent to you co-terminus. Interim, you are requested to commence processing this RTI Application as per the RTI Act-2005 with effect from date of submission of this electronic copy, also as per the RTI Act-2005.
Note 2:- The public authority, Office of DG Shipping, Mumbai, has not yet published their arrangements to accept / accompany electronic payments for e-filings as per section 6 of the Information Technology Act 2000, is requested to do same, - and hence I am constrained to go to extra expense / trouble to file a routine email request by Postal Department also.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Part II on the mv WISDOM aground at Juhu Beach report for Moneylife

And here's the second part of my report

The MV Wisdom fiasco: The story gets murkier and murkier

The mystery behind what the 36-year-old Anchor Handling Tug (AHTS) Seabulk Plover, with the 26-year-old container ship MV Wisdom, due for scrapping, was actually doing along the Indian coast for almost two weeks before the container ship landed up on the beach off Juhu, now begins to deepen

""The next surprise is that on departing Colombo, the tug & tow combo gave their destination as "Cochin", but records available online do not show them as having visited Cochin Port. Certainly, it is possible that they did not enter the port, and simply steamed past slowly or they may have even stopped for stores and supplies-but then, did they report themselves to the Maritime authorities? This information is not available on the Cochin Port Trust website anymore.

Likewise, there is no report of any such report being made while passing Mangalore or Mormugao, the other two big ports en route. The Mumbai Port Trust website, likewise, does not show anything. It is likely, however, that they may have made their reports to these ports as they steamed past, and this information is simply not updated in the public domain, unlike in the rest of the world.""

mv WISDOM grounded off Juhu, Mumbai Part I

Here's the first article I did at MONEYLIFE on the grounding of the WISDOM off Mumbai.

Why was the MV Wisdom allowed to get so near the Bandra-Worli Sea Link?
Did the container ship being towed to the Alang junk yard have permission to sail so close to the coast and sensitive Bombay High oil installation? Who plotted her course? And how come nobody interrupted her voyage

Rule paramount which is drilled into our heads right in the beginning of our training is: All seaworthy merchant ships have a right of innocent passage through non-inland waters worldwide. However, a ship headed for scrapping, either under her own power or tow, does not come close to land or coast, as far as possible, for multiple reasons. If she does, then she needs to inform the authorities, who will then decide if she is to be provided with what is known as "the right to innocent passage" guaranteed to all seaworthy ships of all nations. Because a ship headed for scrapping is not seaworthy. And if a national authority wishes to, it can certainly deny her the right of innocent passage through her territorial waters, till a point where she has to enter the territorial waters for scrapping, or with precautions to prevent exactly what happened with the Wisdom.