October 30, 2011

2041: An Ocean Odyssey

Japan, the summer of 2041. The 28000 TEU containership 'UOV 162' has, after departure from Yokohama, just sailed out of Tokyo Bay. Its massive skysail has been already deployed high above the vessel; this, along with solar panels arrayed all over the superstructure- including the portable bank above the topmost tier of containers along the ship's length- will be the source of power for the UOV as it makes its way to San Francisco, her destination.

The ship slows down as a speedboat comes alongside. One by one, a dozen men employed by Yokohama port- navigators, engineers and deckhands- disembark. On the bridge, the pilot throws a switch, handing over control of the vessel to the owner's outsourced 'Control Room' in Mysore, India. He then makes his way to the pilot ladder and the speedboat, closing the only open watertight door leading into the accommodation as he does so.

There is now not a single human being aboard the 'UOV 162'. She will sail unmanned across the Pacific.  

Meanwhile, thousands of away in Mysore, CR Operators (CROs) 1 and 2 take control of the vessel.  Weather routeing services are automatically fed into their systems; passage planning is dynamic and automatic. Speed is slowly increased and the autopilot set. The pilot ladder is winched up remotely.  Additional pumps and machinery essential for safe manoeuvring are switched off.  In addition, for security, a voltage high enough to incapacitate a 120 kg human is fed to the superstructure and hull once the speedboat is well clear- SOP against gangs of pirates that have infested the oceans for more than half a century. 

The CROs will monitor the ship's performance throughout her passage- data will be fed continuously into their computers from the UOVs Bridge and the engine room. High-resolution cameras mounted high on the vessel's masts, the forecastle, poop and the bridge front will give the CROs a 360-degree visual all around the ship at all times. Radar and ECDIS screens will be duplicated at- and controlled by- the CR. Navigational equipment will be similarly operated. So will pretty much everything else. Anchors can be let go in emergency (and picked up too), sensors and CCTV cameras will detect fires. Carbon dioxide will be released throughout the entire vessel, including the accommodation, in such an emergency- something that was not safe to do in the days when seamen sailed the seas. 

Of course, the 'UOV 162' carries no Life Saving Equipment and hardly any portable fire fighting equipment. She carries no lifeboats or liferafts; most of the SOLAS regulations are now redundant anyway. No humans, so no safety of life necessary.

 The UOV 162 will sail for almost two weeks under the CRO's command. At the end of her voyage, another speedboat will come alongside, about ten miles before the San Francisco channel starts- carrying berthing men, engineers and a pilot. They will board, lower the skysail and take the UOV alongside using stored power and tugs. In port, company engineers will run diagnostics checks or conduct repairs. Then it will be time, soon after cargo operations complete, for the UOV to make its way back to Tokyo Bay.  

The UOV 162 has been making this round trip once a month for the last twenty years. In fact, by the year 2030 there were hardly any manned commercial ships left on the high seas- the few that existed were phased out in pretty quick time. Amongst the few exceptions were ships plying the rapidly melting Arctic, where constant manoeuvring was sometimes necessary in ice. But those seamen would soon go too; like the wildlife there, they were living on borrowed time.

The unmanned revolution took a little time to take off, but it accelerated rapidly after around 2015. To be fair, very small UOV (Unmanned Ocean Vessels) existed before then, operated by companies such as US based SolarSailor. Using a prototype that used wind and solar power, they could stay at sea for days, using finite amounts of on-board stored fossil fuel or solar generated electric power for propulsion.  However, it was only around 2015 that technology advanced far enough to allow small oceangoing vessels to stay indefinitely at sea- thanks to advances in wind propulsion that allowed that to become the main source of power. Propeller regeneration renewable-electricity was another source.  Photovoltaic cells could take care of many needs too, and massive banks of battery packs started being used to store reserve power.  Many were located low down on the UOVs, a new form of permanent ballast.  

The simultaneous growth in automation systems prompted the launch of the first UOV- UOV 1- in 2022, when a Japanese shipowner decided that a ship that burnt no fossil fuels and had no crew took care of his two biggest heads under expenses- fuel and crew costs. The amendment of the Loadline Convention in 2024- that now allowed s UOVs to be loaded deeper than manned vessels since they did not have to bother about safety of life at sea- made UOVs even more attractive for shipowners. In any case, the numbers of qualified, experienced and competent officers and crew had deteriorated to a point where insurance premia was going through the roof- if one could not get good crew, then maybe eliminating them altogether was the best alternative. 

There was a stampede of UOV ordering in the 30's, led by long haul bulk carriers, many of them owned by interested companies in China and Brazil. Tankers and container ships were the next to follow. The global consortium of tug and salvage companies that was formed in 2027 was the beginning of the end of the last oceangoing manned vessels - owners could now count on a tug being available reasonably quickly to tow a disabled UOV at sea in the unlikely event of a complete breakdown of machinery. Not just close to the coast- the consortium had placed salvage tugs strategically at sea every few thousand miles along ocean trade routes. Rates for hire were published monthly.

By the year 2040, just before the 'UOV 162' sailed out from Yokohama, more than 90 percent of the commercial ocean going fleet in the world was made up of unmanned vessels that burnt little or no fossil fuel. That they gave off no emissions made them much more palatable to a large part of the world that had mandated strict emission norms by the 2020's. In coastal trades, where mainly domestic tonnage was employed, control and regulation was much easier anyway.

In Mysore, the two CRO's - each a holder of a joint Deck/Engine Level 1 Certificate of Competency- heave sighs of relief as the UOV 162 clears the Japanese fishing fleet and heads out to the open Pacific. They normally monitor five open-sea UOVs during their four hour watch simultaneously, calling on additional CROs housed in the same complex if any UOV runs into bad weather, heavy traffic, reaches port- or in any emergency. They will then get eight hours off. A team of twenty CROs works in the Mysore Centre; they handle, in all, 15 UOVs at any point of time. 

 At the turn of the last century, when crew still sailed the oceans, eighteen officers would fill the slots on just two or three ships. Then the industry discovered, very quickly, that while ships were indispensable to global trade, seamen were not.

October 25, 2011

Last tango in Somalia: Western complicity with 'Pirate-in Chief'

I am convinced that the solution to piracy is impossible not because of lack of political will, but because it suits some Western nations to either have it flourish or to ignore it while they play their usual internecine geopolitical games with well-used blinders on. Or give vent to greed. The 'international community'- a euphemism that actually means NATO to the cynics amongst us- is not outmanoeuvred by the pirates. It is often an accessory to their crimes.

As I write this, President Faroole of the State of Puntland in Somalia seems to be on an official visit to the UK; he met the UK Minister for Africa Henry Bellingham at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, where he was felicitated, what with being the keynote speaker at the feel-good Combating Piracy Week Conference and all.  

Bellingham, the British Minister, welcomed Faroole on his arrival. “We are pleased to welcome President Faroole to London. The UK is developing a useful dialogue with the Puntland State of Somalia on matters of mutual interest, such as piracy", he said.

Very warm and cuddly, all this, except that Puntland is a pirate State and Faroole- at least by some accounts- is a warlord and a thug. He has been described in segments of the African press as the Pirate-in Chief and a godfather of the piracy cartel. But that is not all. The Puntland mafia is said to be involved in everything from human trafficking to African style atrocities on other tribes. 

In a publication last year titled "Pirates, Smugglers and Corrupt Tycoons – Social Bandits in Africa”, FAIR, a professional association of investigative journalists in Africa, quoted a March 2010  UN Monitoring Group report that said that “pirate economics” are so powerful in Puntland that "it is fast becoming a criminal state. The government of President Abdirahman Mohamed Faroole, instead of fighting piracy and developing his region and country, has started to share in pirates’ earnings. Senior Puntland officials, including Faroole himself and members of his cabinet have received proceeds from piracy and kidnappings."

"Over 30% of ransom payment was retained by Puntland government officials," the UN Group was quoted as having said.

The lethargic UN discovered this only in 2010; two years earlier, (and before Faroole was President) Yussef Hassan, editor of garoweonline.com (which describes itself as an independent news channel in Puntland), told CNN in an interview that 'government officials' were directly involved with piracy' in Puntland.

Reports from Puntland speak of men, women and children thrown overboard after being crammed into boats and promised a better life across the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.  There are also horrendous stories of the rape of local women by drug-crazed pirates under the Puntland administration's protection. In addition, government protected goons are alleged to have shelled villages and murdered men, women and children in the Horn of Africa; there are tales of inhumane deportation, rape and mutilation that go along with these atrocities. The recent famine in Somalia has opened another revenue stream; reports say that displaced Somalis are being severely ill treated in Puntland which takes a third of humanitarian assistance from the transitional Somali government, pockets large amounts and simply 'deports' the refugees of famine.  

So why is Dr. Faroole being welcomed in the UK? This is because the West covertly supports Faroole. It gives Puntland money for development. It gives it more money for 'fighting the pirates.' Then Puntland gets more Western money, this time to 'rehabilitate' pirates. Huge amounts were paid additionally to Puntland to hire 'Saracen' to fight piracy. Saracen is a South African mercenary outfit that is widely believed to be connected to publicly discredited (and quietly used by Western powers in Iraq and elsewhere) Blackwater founder Erik Prince.  The Saracen deal with Puntland is now apparently off, but much of the money is already paid and gone.

In the midst of all this is the fact that the US war on terror is changing course in Africa, and the West will continue to support Faroole and his like for many reasons. This is in line with Harry Truman's "He's a bastard, but he is our bastard" failed line of suffocated thinking that has been the mark of Western foreign policy for ages. They feel that they need Faroole today; he is a powerful warlord and the West likes powerful warlords, especially if they make the right noises as keynote speakers and are willing have dirty work outsourced to them. To hell with their record. To hell with their crimes. To hell with Third World seamen hostages.

Faroole- or other powerful men in Puntland- is playing both sides against the middle, and the West is lapping it up. It continues, for its own reasons, to refuse to acknowledge the links between the Shabaab and the pirates- even as, just last Friday, Reuters reported that the "head of the United Nations counter-piracy unit believes that cooperation between pirate gangs and the militant Islamic al Shabaab group is growing, as the militants grow increasingly desperate for funding".

In exchange for Faroole's support, say some Africa observers, he and his pirate gangs are immune from US drone attacks that are increasingly targeting terrorists in Somalia. Stories circulate of how pirates go directly to the Ethiopian army barracks in Puntland with a share of ransom money extorted from shipowners. The US backed Ethiopians then guarantee that there will be no attacks on pirates or their lairs in Somalia, critics say. I presume that the United States of America - as drone controller- is involved vicariously in these guarantees, if they indeed exist.  The US is expanding its predator operations in Eastern Africa (see The Moor's Next sigh published two weeks ago) but so far not a single Somali pirate has been killed on the ground in the pirate state of Puntland.

Under these circumstances, Faroole's London trip may be brazen, but the only thing I find surprising about it is that the British no longer feel the need to be circumspect about doing business with warlords. Of course, the UK is a country that is benefitting tremendously from the spread of piracy, what with a large chunk of the anti-pirate bandwagon located there. They have other reasons to jump into bed with pirate warlords.

This security scenario will get worse now that Somalia’s deadly chaos is spreading to Kenya. Rattled by the kidnapping and killing from its resorts by Somali pirate gangs (or Al Shabaab, or both), Kenyan troops invaded Somali territory last week.  They have threatened more attacks after it became known that one of the hostages, a handicapped cancer stricken French woman, had died in pirate/terrorist custody in Somalia. They are going after Shabaab sympathisers at home in Nairobi. Kenyan airstrikes on Al Shabaab enclaves in Somalia have been reported as I write this piece- expect an escalation by the time this is published. Expect the ' war on terror' to spread South from Somalia. Expect the expected.

 Agreed that Puntland is far away from the southern action, but I believe that Western countries will continue to strike deals with any warlord in Somalia in pursuit of their perceived interests that seem to fulcrum on fighting the Shabaab, even if it means protecting the pirate cartel that is sometimes hand in glove with the terrorists. The scene is very similar to that in AfPak, and the result will be identical too. The war on piracy will continue to be a losing battle; it is not surprising that no drone attacks, smart bombs or commando operations have been carried out against pirates in Puntland by the US; after all, few seamen come from NATO countries.

The West's double standards stand exposed today because they cannot answer this question satisfactorily: Why are there no attacks on pirates in Somalia even when proven links exist between them and the Shabaab? You are conducting drone attacks against Shabaab targets, aren't you? Are we back to the failed 'Good Taliban, Bad Taliban' AFPak policy days again?

There is no progress in fighting piracy is not just because some Western nations are protecting the perpetrators, but also because the same nations- members of the old boy's club that is the UN Security Council- control the international response to it. The UN, IMO and other international bodies are compromised; their officials are happy chasing their tails while this dance of death goes on in Somalia and at sea. The issue of piracy is just a junket for these international bureaucrats. Meanwhile, ships are taken. Crew are tortured. Some die. Some are taken ashore when their ships are released. Who cares?

Another final surreal report before I leave. The International Maritime Bureau is all over the news again with its usual suspect version of events. This organisation now credits the reduction in ship hijackings this year to better policing and intervention by international naval forces, the correct application of the industry's latest Best Management Practices and other onboard security measures. “Somali pirates are finding it harder to hijack ships and get the ransom they ask for. The navies deserve to be complimented on their excellent work: they are a vital force in deterring and disrupting pirate activity,” Captain Mukundan, head honcho of the IMB, is quoted as saying. “The number of anti-piracy naval units must be maintained or increased,” he adds.

Mukundan does not deem it fit to mention that the only reason pirates have been unsuccessful in recent times is that more and more ships are using armed guards for protection- a course of action some of us have been recommending for years.  Besides the monsoons, the lack of success that pirates have had in recent times is not because of BMPs or XYZs and not because of the actions of the navies of the same countries that felicitate Faroole and his kin. Fewer ships are being taken only because of the mercenaries that are being hired by owners to protect their assets, cargo and crew (in that order). These armed guards cost up to 1500 dollars a day (they each make more every week, probably, than the Captain of the ship they protect makes in a month) and are the only reason more ships are not being taken.

This may change in future. Escalating violence may well bring its own problems, and there may well come a time when a ship is hijacked in spite of its armed escort. Does not matter; we can then chase our tails some more, bring out revised BMPs, bask in hugely exaggerated self-importance  and hold some more anti-piracy conferences in London. Where, for a change, we can invite the ghost of Genghis Khan as keynote speaker.


October 22, 2011

Black Man's Burden: The Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme

("White man's burden" -a Kipling poem and a justification for colonial and imperial plunder that pretends that colonialism was a noble enterprise because the natives benefited from western civilisation)

At the end of last month, a glittering programme was launched in London that claims that it will assist seafarers and families traumatised by piracy. The Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme (MPHRP) is funded by the ITF and The TK Foundation and lists as partners the entire gamut of acronyms from the Western maritime world-BIMCO, ISF, IMB, IGP&I, INTERTANKO, INTERCARGO, IPTA, SIGTTO, OCIMF et al.  And of course the IMO, without whom we would all be at sea.

 "The programme speaks for an alliance of shipowners, trade unions, managers, manning agents, insurers and welfare associations representing the entire shipping industry, from crews to owners", the MPHRP says.

My first reaction: What are they doing setting this up in London when the mariners and the families they say they want to help are thousands of miles away? Then it occurred to be, as I dug a little deeper, that this was little more than the same old regurgitated stuff we sailors have been fed over the years.  A useless feel-good initiative.  Another way to make money and peddle influence. Another way to be seen to be doing something, even if it is ineffective. Just one more way to burden the predominantly Asian seafarer. Just another round of BMPs. Just another brick in the wall.

Take a look at what the MPHRP intends to accomplish as first priority- in their words, not mine:

"In its first phase the programme is developing:
* "good practice" guides for use by shipping companies, manning agents and welfare associations to support both seafarers and seafarers' families through the three phases of a piracy incident from pre-departure, during the crisis and post release/post incident,
* associated training modules,
* an international network of trained first-responders with appropriate skills within Partner and associated organisations,
* access to a network of professional aftercare,
* a 24 hour seafarer's international telephone helpline
The programme is working on a series of training modules and resources for shipping companies, manning agents, seafarers and those who provide first response and welfare to seafarers. These will be launched at the end of 2011.

Good God.  It seems that yet another crapload of BMPs, training requirements and publications is to hit shipping shortly. This statement from the ITF's Roy Paul says ominously, “We have already been listening to seafarers and recording their experiences. Those will lay the foundation for new guides for seafarers, families and employers, for training in their use, and for building the networks of human and medical help that are now desperately needed.”

Thank you for listening to seafarers, Mr Paul, although your partners could have listened to this seafarer eleven years ago when two high speed skiffs were chasing me and my crew on a passage from Aden to Mombasa.  You could have listened to the cries of hundreds of seafarers taken hostage over the years. Anyway, better late than never and all that tommyrot, I guess. 

I admit that we seamen are thrilled and touched in the head today that you are listening to us. We avidly note that the MPHRP will soon, as it says, " present its series of Good Practice Guides for Shipping Companies and Manning Agents for the Humanitarian Support of Seafarers and their Families involved in Piracy incidents," and the scintillating topics that will no doubt support us and our traumatised families will include, in your new organisation's words, "Introduction to Good Practice,  Developing an action plan,  Pre-departure preparation and training, When under attack, When captured and held hostage,  Preparing for release,  When released and Post release." 

May I suggest that a new topic be added to your riveting reading list? Suggested title, "Preparing in triplicate for kissing your ass goodbye while following MPHRP Good Practice Guides."

Perhaps I am being uncharitable. Perhaps the second phase of this stellar MPHRP initiative (to be rolled out in 2013, probably, because the Good Practice Guides are obviously so immediately critical) will include actually doing something useful, like taking all those alphabets and acronyms and getting them to try to solve the problem of piracy, instead of Good Practice Guiding it to hell and high water.

Meanwhile, may I remind the good folk at the MPHRP once again that the victims of piracy are mainly in the Philippines, India- and even the Ukraine, and not in Western Europe, where almost all the MPHRP resources seem to be presently located?  Even if the MPHRP plans to foray into countries like India, as I expect  they will, may I remind them that there are a truckload of cultural, language and accessibility issues in reaching piracy affected mariners- including difficulties with victims living in rural areas- that cannot begin to be managed from London? How does the new acronym-MPHRP- intend to interface with those traumatised souls or their families? By using partners- owners and country managers or even local industry or regulatory bodies-and relying on their goodwill? Ha bloody ha. I can guarantee you that everybody but seamen will make money, and the victims will be further traumatised as a direct result of these actions.  

May I ask that you take a look at the economic cost to Asian seafarers of being taken hostage? Many of these sailors are too afflicted to sail again after their ordeal. Sole breadwinners of families are economically snuffed out by piracy, compounding their misery manifold. Who will pay for this? Who should pay for this?  Some of your partner shipowners or insurance companies methinks. Unlike some western seafarers, these people will not sign book deals or be paid handsomely to appear on TV talk shows anyway.  

May I have the temerity to suggest that much of the maritime world - including some of your partners- lies discredited in the eyes of most seafarers today when it comes to piracy? Many of those same Asian seamen- that one of you boldly admitted recently were being used as 'cannon fodder' because they did not come from Western countries- simply do not trust you.  The pretence your partners propagate -of caring for seafarers- will no longer fly. Seamen in this part of the world know that London, amongst others, has benefited tremendously from piracy and has milked the holy cow for years. This has often resulted in, amongst other things, unnecessarily prolonged ransom negotiations while they and their colleagues have continued to be tortured. Some of the MPHRP partners may well be partners in these crimes, and many seamen- like me- will see this new acronym as just another racket atop all the old ones. 

The MPHRP and its partners probably know all this anyway; they may be indifferent or avaricious but they are not stupid.  Whatever. I do wish, though, that the maritime alphabet soup would stop trying to find new ways to exploit sailors from developing countries. We have had quite enough.  

October 20, 2011

Inside shipping: The war we do not see

It may seem that the hammering that shipping has been subjected to in the aftermath of the ongoing global economic cataclysm is the reason why many firms are reverting to their old habits of treating seafarers like dirt. Old tales of double accounting, seafarers paying for jobs, withholding of documents, delaying of salaries, signing of inequitable contracts et al are being retold. The industry would have you believe that this is an aberration, is not widespread and is an undesirable side-effect of the mayhem in the marketplace. I disagree; the maltreatment of seamen- particularly seamen from Asia- is a perennial disease. Only the degree of abuse changes with the economics of supply and demand.  

Ever since the depression in shipping in the eighties, an insidious and invidious hidden war has been waged against sailors working on commercial ships. The protagonists of this war are officials of shipowning and shipmanagement companies- although they have not conspired amongst themselves to wage war and there has been no strategic objective promulgated. However, the tactics employed by them over the last thirty years leave me with no doubt that the hidden agenda- perhaps even unrealised as such by some of those officials, many of whom behave by now out of habitual malignant ill will against seamen- is clear enough. This agenda involves the use of propaganda, lies, deceit and a not-too subtle degradation of the mariner's status in the organisation at every opportunity. This devaluation suits shipping's Edward Bernays just fine since their manipulation of the perception of seafarer worth seeks narrow commercial advantages as its aim. The more mariners 'stay in their place' and the more they are perceived by the broader industry as 'good only for sailing, and sometimes not even that'- then more the odds that they will continue to remain at sea, making money for these companies at personal cost. Shipping must be the only industry in the world where a 'management level' official- with a tonne of operational experience, to boot- plateaus professionally in his early thirties.

The battle is one sided, but it is still being waged all the time, overtly and covertly, by almost every small and large minion at many- even most- shipowning or shipmanagement companies today. (Shabby treatment of seafarers is a given in government setups like the MMD or DGS too, but for reasons more to do with misguided bureaucratic self-importance than commerce). 

The battle is waged when second rung clerks of often third-rate calibre are unleashed on crews at every interface with these body-shopping outfits. The overt battle has other weapons in its armoury when it comes to senior officers, who are more subtly made to feel inferior to their counterparts ashore, some of them ex-sailors now often unfit to sail for one reason or another. Officers will be often treated poorly at every stage of their interaction with the office, whether at sea or not. Even entry-level management trainees are treated much better ashore, especially in businesses with high attrition rates, but shipping must serve its hidden agenda; it must cut off its nose to spite its face. 

The aim is to make it clear- at every stage- that the 'office' is the boss, never mind that the office is a support setup for the ship and not the other way round. Never mind that the email was sent to the Master by a minor lackey in the office who wouldn't recognise a ship if it jumped up and bit him in the behind; that lackey expects his email to be given the same attention that one from the CEO would get. Senior management often backs his fallacious thinking. It is the principle of the thing, in this battle; reality has nothing to do with it. The unsaid principle is, devalue the sailor.  

The insidious, covert battle is usually more sophisticated, and seems to follow Goebbels's philosophy that if you tell a lie big enough and often enough then people will believe it. Although you have gems like, 'Indian seafarers are pricing themselves out of the market' (which they have been doing for thirty years, apparently, according to the propaganda machine- somebody should ask it how they thrived)- although you have these gems of misinformation, other propaganda is more whisper and innuendo than pronouncement. 

The notion that sailors enjoy high salaries is flawed to begin with. To compare, one must allow for the fact that- ashore- weekends, public holidays, employee's leave entitlement, medical leave etc mean that many employees work hardly seven months of the year. (104 days of weekends, 30 days leave a year, 10 days medical/casual leave and another dozen or more days of public holidays total to five months, give or take). A sailor, on the other hand, works anywhere from ten to twenty-four hours a day, sometimes (hang the rest period requirements, I am talking about reality here) around the clock. The pressures on him are tremendous, and not comparable to those of anybody in his organisation ashore. For a start, their lives are never on the line. Consider the fact that when a sailor does not work he is not paid, 'round the year wages paid' claims from some companies notwithstanding. Consider the years totally spent- and money spent, too- appearing for certificate of competency exams, or attending to emergencies at home. Or even company seminars. Unpaid.

Now do the math. You will find, as I do, that a senior officer's salary should be near double what it is today to be on par with middle management's ashore (this calculation is made to make all of you feel better, although I believe that a Master's wages should be in line with what is paid to senior management, not middle). The canard of 'high salaries at sea' is yet another example of pure and unadulterated drivel put out by the industry. 

Much of the whisper campaign will imply that all mariners today are of poor calibre and temperament and so not even comparable to clerical staff ashore. They will say that today all sailors are greedy, grubby and finicky about the smallest thing in the 'contract,' if that shady piece of one-sided paper can actually be called that. They will give you examples of seafarer 'demands', forgetting to mention that the negotiation of terms is hardly unique to shipping, and that unreasonableness is only when one demands things not in the contract. Unreasonableness lies more in the demands of body shoppers than those of mariners, in my experience.

These are just a few of those lies; I am sure all of us can think of many more. I used to be sometimes amused, sometimes annoyed- but always puzzled- at such malicious behaviour when I was sailing. Then I realised that this was not malice, but a hazily calculated attempt at trying to keep me down. Ex-mannning setups I worked with will tell you better whether they succeeded in this juvenile endeavour; I know I started having fun after I understood the game they were playing- very entertaining, it all was. One cannot and should not take children too seriously.

Today, I watch from the sidelines, sometimes anguished and sometimes angry, as this war damages the industry near-irretrievably. Thirty two year old Masters tell me why they are quitting. Young Second Mates talk to me with lesser composure and greater angst, but some of their reasons are similar to those of the seniors'.  Young cadets tell me why they will quit 'within five years'. And ratings look shell shocked, convinced that the choice they made- or that was made for them by family, in some cases- was absolutely the wrong one.
 There are many reasons why we cannot attract mariners of calibre today- or retain them long enough. Not all of them have to do with a war that we do not see. However, most of the reasons have a common undercurrent that guarantees that we do not attract or retain the kind of people we need. "We have better options elsewhere", prospective sailors and seafarers of all ranks are telling the industry today. "Besides, shipping does not need us anyway. Because if it did, it would not overwork and underpay us. It would illuminate a possible career path for the deserving amongst us. It wouldn't treat us like dirt." 

If I were honest, I would have to empathise with them as they take their money and run.


October 15, 2011

The Moor's next sigh: spreading terrorism and piracy in Africa

                              graphic  AFP

Gen. Carter F. Ham, Head of U.S. Africa Command, was not talking about piracy last month when he warned of the threat of a pan-African Al-Qaeda linked terrorism network capable of endangering Western interests across Africa. He wouldn't: I sometimes feel that the world needs a press release issued by pirates and terrorists announcing their latest joint venture before it acknowledges the depth of that nexus. Perhaps the business of anti-piracy is so lucrative in the West that this will not happen anyway, although the number of analysts who link Somali piracy to terrorists- and not just terrorists in Somalia- is increasing. In this connection, Indian Defence Minister Antony's recent cryptic comment that "some other powerful forces sitting somewhere else" were behind piracy is actually quite revealing (and IMO Secretary Mitropoulos' quick rebuttal- “We don’t think the Somali pirates are backed by any terror organisations" even more so, reflecting the head in wet sand thinking that has become the hallmark of that organisation that seems to be besieged with the hidden agendas of some of its members.)

The truth is that terrorism and piracy are natural allies with common interests.  They are loose allies today in Somalia, admittedly, with financial, operational and joint training links. I have no doubt that terrorism and piracy will continue to do business together across Africa- and elsewhere. As West African piracy tries to increase- using Somalia as a template- alliances between terrorists and pirates will proliferate across that part of Africa because anarchy and crime are old lovers. The security and financial consequences for shipping will be huge in the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of Africa if the General is right. Multiply Somalia by three or five.

The Al-Shabaab and the AQIM, straddling the two ends of Africa, are not the only extreme Islamist groups in the continent (see map).  The map is slightly dated; for example, there have long existed Islamist elements in Algeria and Morocco- and of course, thanks to NATO- now Libya to the north. The political future of Egypt- an ideological source of Islamist thinking- is unknown. The fear of a pan African terrorist consortium is real: of formed, it will stretch across the width of Africa and include Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Sudan  and Somalia- one of the homes of Islamist terrorism training today.  

Gen. Ham pointed to the Shabaab in Somalia, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in North Africa and Boko Haram in Nigeria as the three main groups that are working to coordinate activities. Generals have a habit of exaggerating to up their budgets and influence, but even so, there is enough corroborating narrative to take Gen. Ham's view seriously.


  • The rise of the Boko Haram- an Islamist organisation in oil rich Nigeria on the West coast- is particularly worrying. It's recent attack on the United Nations headquarters in the capital, which killed 23 people, has heralded that it is taking its campaign- so far restricted to local targets, police stations and such- international. Worse, it has claimed (with photographs) that its fighters trained with the Shabaab in Somalia, whose links to piracy are now accepted. Additionally, Nigerian intelligence says that the AQIM may be supplying personnel, weapons and training to Boko Haram. The AQIM already gets substantial money from kidnapping and smuggling. What will stop them from adding piracy to their list of crimes in West or North Africa in future?  

  • From The Journal, "US officials say they are concerned that Al-Qaeda -- under pressure from US operations in Pakistan -- is moving to expand operations through its affiliates in East Africa". 

  • The recent killing of US born terror satrap Anwar Awlaki in Yemen is part of a US pattern of warfare that threatens to up the ante. President Obama is a big predator strike fan (drone attacks have multiplied four times since the Bush days). An array of secret drone bases is being set up in Africa, the Middle East and Indian Ocean. Fleets of 'hunter killer drones' are already in place in the Seychelles, Ethiopia and Djibouti. The US clearly sees Africa as the new war zone. Shipping is already a target in this battlefield, and so the number of maritime targets- not just ships- will only increase with the expansion of the US war.

  • The inevitable fallout of continuing NATO adventures (or misadventures, depending on whom one talks to) in Africa will just continue to put shipping at additional risk or dilute Western naval involvement against piracy. Note their hesitancy to get out of Libya. In addition, some NATO member countries are broke. The US alone is in debt to the tune of 15 trillion dollars. How long can they afford to protect commercial shipping anyway?

  • "A dozen countries on Africa’s west coast, including Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria export significant quantities of oil, so the risk of more piracy there is high," feels former US Ambassador Dan Simpson. (Remember that the idea of attacking tankers makes both the pirates and terrorists salivate for different reasons). Simpson adds, "The Nigerian government has a hard time controlling what happens to its own oil on its own territory, particularly in the Niger River delta where there is serious resistance to central government authority. Its efforts to rein in this problem on land may be one reason for the rise in piracy off West Africa". In yet another incident within the last few days, gunmen have attacked a ship supplying an Exxon Mobil offshore rig near the Nigerian coast. One sailor was kidnapped and another was wounded.

  • Some other countries in the region have a history of attacks on oil installations, kidnapping of foreign employees and disruption of pipelines. Attacking ships will be more of the same for the folk who do this- whether nationalists, pirates or terrorists. Somalia and the Gulf of Guinea have shown them the way.

  • The Mediterranean is heavily policed now, thanks to the Libyan war and the refugee issue. However, future attacks on shipping here cannot be ruled out; there is nothing terrorists would like more than to attack ships in the strategic Straits of Gibraltar. They have tried before; remember the Morocco plot?

Now for the good news. The major difference between Somalia and West Africa (or even the north, although the jury is still out on Libya and Egypt as I write this) is that the region has functioning governments who would loathe to see oil or mineral revenues hit- and so will take action much faster and more vigorously than Somalia ever did. This is not be as simple as it sounds, however; for example, much of Nigerian oil lies in the Catholic south of the country that is a target for the Islamist Boko Haram.

Another plus: unlike Somalia, the African west coast does not have natural safe pirate havens where hijacked ships can be taken to be held, so I have greater confidence that the level of anarchy seen in Somalia will not easily prevail in Western Africa.  Nigeria and Benin are already running joint patrols in the Gulf of Guinea; Ghana and Togo are expected to join soon. That said, piracy there can certainly increase manifold from present levels; it already has, this year.

For a change, shipping should look at the wider geopolitical and security picture and act while there is still time. Else, it will just repeat the Somalia (and now West Africa) experience elsewhere on the continent. We knew which way the wind was blowing there too, but we sat on our hands and so we are where we are.

Shipping should expect a diminishing level of involvement- oil or not- from NATO in African anti-piracy operations. It needs to promote solutions to its own problems, for once. It needs to become proactive in pushing these before the fire spreads. Even at its usual anaemic speed, shipping should start generating international pressure through all its emaciated bodies- industry associations, IMO and government ministries included- to strengthen and encourage west and North African nations to take action against both pirates and terrorists today. Beset as it usually is by lethargy and almost comatose as it usually is in response to anything substantial, the industry needs to nevertheless wake up quickly and smell the coffee.  Unfortunately, shipping is lazy and indolent; terrorists and pirates are not.  


October 06, 2011

Rampant seafarer torture and abuse: the reality of global fishing

If you thought that life on cargo ships is tough, here is a look at the horrifying conditions that thousands of seamen Shanghaied into the global deep sea fishing fleets- both legal and illegal- face routinely today. Slum like living conditions, 18-hour workdays and beatings are commonplace- and rape and even murder is not that unusual. The abuse and denial of human rights is staggering as it is global, and severe ill-treatment of fishing seamen extends across both developed and developing countries. And, although the torture of fishing fleet workers seems to be particularly nasty around South East Asia and Africa, the owners of fishing boats often come from countries that are relatively wealthy.

An average of 24,000 fatalities occurs annually in the fishing industry- seventy nine times higher than the overall occupational fatality rate. Fifteen million people are employed worldwide in fishing; 98 percent of these work on boats less than 24 metres long. The illegal fishing industry alone makes anywhere between $10 billion and $23 billion a year. Yes, billion. 

Stories of abuse surface periodically, briefly, and are soon forgotten. The ongoing scandal in New Zealand is one: the mainly Indonesian crew that worked on the Korean fishing boat 'Oyang 70' that was plying in New Zealand waters when it capsized (and killed three of the crew) are now talking. They say they faced months of abuse aboard. The fishing boat- that a company in Christchurch looks after- was a hellhole. Racial epithets were commonplace, safety and working conditions abysmal. The men say they suffered beatings, overwork, sexual harassment and inadequate pay, clothing and food on the Oyang 75. New Zealand is conducting an enquiry, and all signs indicate that it is taking the matter seriously. 

Most countries do not. The Thai's, for one. Thousands of men from Myanmar and Cambodia sail on Thai fishing boats every day, but many are slaves, working in inhuman conditions under threat of death. Beatings on many boats happen "every day, every hour," says one crewmember that ran away. People who try to escape are savagely beaten and tortured in front of the rest of the crew; some are shot. A crewmember was warned, "One bullet costs only 25 Baht ($0.83)."  Another was beaten regularly with a gun butt. Men worked for up to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, spending months (even, amazingly, years) trapped, sometimes off the African coast, as fishing  "mother ships" were used to refuel or to add crew. Human Rights Watch says that the Thai marine police in one area say ten bodies a month wash up ashore.

The United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP)  said two years ago that more than half of Cambodian migrants trafficked onto Thai boats said they had seen their Captains killing one of their colleagues. The Thai fishing industry is worth half a billion dollars a year (yes, billion) and supplies the Japan, EU and US. Official figures say 35,000 'migrants'- mainly from Myanmar and Cambodia- work here. Thousands are trafficked; it is part of the business model. "The immunity of traffickers, especially the collusion with the official law enforcement agencies, is really diluting the government's effort and efficacy of its policies and programmes to combat human trafficking," a UN official has commented. 

Let us go west now, where Filipino fishermen working in Europe were found to be 'physically and racially abused' by Northern Island's fishing industry in 2008. Foreign fishermen were sometimes paid as little as a fifth of the UK minimum wage. The BBC said then, that although the abuse was not widespread, "evidence was found of horrendous working hours and pay and intimidation." Crew worked up to thirty four hours without sleep, being paid a paltry £20 for five days work- most of which was spent in calling home. In addition, if the boat could not sail because of bad weather or whatever, they simply were not paid. Crew had been kicked and had their heads bounced off against walls; one was near strangled. They were threatened with deportation- and having to shell out a thousand pounds for a ticket back home- if they complained. If you are earning four pounds a day, that is money you simply don't have.  

"Abuse or semi-slavery" is what the treatment of Vietnamese and Indonesian crews in South Africa is being referred to- in reference to Irish or Scottish, Taiwanese and Korean fishing boats- according to the ITF. "Recurring reports on endangered fish workers and on fishing boats which could well be slave galleys, fishermen forced to work long hours with very short rest periods, absence of adequate protective clothes and safety equipment to cope with often extreme weather conditions, bunks for sleeping that are too short for grown men, beatings, abuse, and humiliation, not to speak that apart from being underpaid, some fishermen have been simply not paid at all, paid partly or only after delays and external intervention," a report says.
 I am not yet talking about countries like India and Pakistan (or the two Koreas) where aggressive national posturing results in thousands of innocent fishermen being shot at, harassed, imprisoned or tortured in jails- Prisoners of War in a conflict nobody will even acknowledge. In defiance of UNCLOS provisions that call for fishing boats straying into foreign waters to be released along with their crews once a reasonable bond is posted, detained fishermen spend years in jail without trial or after they have served their sentences. 

I will talk of illegal fishing boats, however- part of a lawless global armada of tens of thousands of decrepit, barely seaworthy rust buckets.  The horrifying conditions of the crew of these boats- whose owners stay hidden, who ply illegally and who are staffed by trafficked crew at the absolute mercy of their Captains- are almost unbelievable. The ITF has condemned the gross violations of human and labour rights aboard a vast majority of these thousands- maybe even tens of thousands- of vessels. Systematic cheating by owners and agents of wages and extreme physical violence against crewmembers is rampant, it says. The London based Environmental Justice Foundation said a couple of years ago that it had found "horrific" human rights abuses aboard what are IUU fishing vessels (Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated) in a four-year investigation off Eastern Africa. 

"Crew members have reported being punched, beaten with metal rods, deprived of sleep, imprisoned without food or water, and forced to continue working after injury; the worst cases of violence include murder."  By the way, many of the boats had official European Union numbers, indicating they were "licensed to import their catches to the EU and had passed strict EU hygiene standards".

A sampling of some of what fishermen say they face routinely- some from New Zealand's  'Oyang 70':

"One 19-year-old victim witnessed two separate incidents whereby a Thai captain decapitated a member of his crew."

 "Officers are vicious bastards ... factory manager just rapped this 12 kg stainless steel pan over his head, splits the top of his head, blood pissing out everywhere..." 

 "I told the Master can't leave him 'cause he's bleeding all over the squid. He said 'oh, no no he's Indonesian no touchy no touchy'... I ended up giving over 26 stitches ... bit of a mess." 

"... absolutely appalling conditions just like a slum ... they are slave ships." 

"Live like rats." 

On sex abuse- "The captain asked one by one to give him a massage ... from head to toe ... we don't want to do it, but I am pressured to do it... every day." 

"Galley boy, good looking boy on a Korean boat was raped by four Chinese crew who got him...." 

"Working in the fish hold with no air or ventilation in temperatures of 40-45 degrees. It was rusty, greasy, hot and sweaty. There were cockroaches everywhere in the galleys. All they had for washing was a pump bringing up salt water. They stank. It was heartbreaking."

"The payments (remittances to families back home) are required to go through brokers affiliated with the captain. In many cases, the money is stolen."

"Workers are subject to constant beatings and forced to work in inhumane conditions, often for days, without sleep or meals. Wages and travel documents can be withheld for years." 

There is also the story of a woman who lost her husband when the Oyang 70 sank. Back in her home country, says a friend of hers, "they said husband's insurance money has not come from the Korean agent and if you want to get insurance money, you must sleep with the Director of the agency for a few days." 

It is criminal that the continued trafficking, slavery, abuse, torture and killings of workers in the fishing industry are disregarded by the international community. No doubt, we have glossy publications of conventions covering fishing vessels lined up on some official shelves somewhere. No doubt, concern about fishing seamen abuse is expressed periodically at the moribund UN- and at its equally stagnant offspring, the IMO.  But expressing concern means and costs nothing. It solves nothing, as seafarers of all hues will tell you.

Somebody will also tell me, no doubt, that the 1977 Torremolinos Convention- and the later Protocol- is the SOLAS of the fishing industry. No doubt, somebody will also try to draw my attention to the STCW-F convention, and tell me the 'F' stands for Fishing Vessel Personnel- but let me warn you that I will object strongly to this.To me- considering that nothing is done to protect tens of thousands of fishermen from horrendous abuse- that 'F' should stand for something else. Pardon my French.