Protecting seafarers, or violating their rights?

An incident with Chinese capesize bulk carrier FIVE STAR FUJIAN, which is considered to be abandoned by an owner, inspired publication of a salvo of articles, devoted to the problem of abandoned vessels. All articles explain in detail to the public, why black is black, white is white, and why good is better than bad. Once again we understand, that wages delays are not a good thing. Authors insist on some new measures to be taken, to stop the malpractice of abandonment and ill treatment of maritime labour. Everybody jumped at opportunity to kick, once more, dirty rich, which is the shipowner, defending the weak and the poor, which is maritime labour.

No doubt, defending seafarers’ rights seems to be a very noble undertaking, but one can’t but wonder sometimes, looking through some cases, just where may this noble fight lead, where are the boundaries, outlined by common sense and by basic human rights. Let’s look at FIVE STAR FUJIAN incident. Australian authorities banned vessel from sailing, because the inspectors found food supplies to be inadequate. Some months earlier, vessel was detained in one of EU countries, because PSC found crew cabins, including bed linen, to be too dirty. There are regular reports of arrests of seamen, in whose notebooks inspectors found child pornography, or whatever they found to be considered as such. The number of such cases is growing.
Special inspectors test crews on drugs and alcohol, any day and any time. I was on board of container ship, whose Master is my old friend, and witnessed how several crew members, young people, were ordered to return immediately to the ship, for such tests. They were (on their lawful shore leave in their free time) in Pattaya, of all places! And that’s Thailand. Masters whom I know, tremble with rage when we’re talking about Australian authorities, they hate Aussie officials even more than they hate USCG.

Now, imagine your home, visited by some inspectors, do-gooders, authorized to check your home, your privacy, your bed room and shower, your computer and your refrigerator, and impose on you penalties they find appropriate for your misbehaviour. They have a right to visit your home and check it any time they like, and test you for drugs and alcohol, too. And of course, if there will be any violations of the rules and laws, which were enforced without your slightest involvement, without ever asking you, they’ll punish not only you, but your employer as well. And if you happen to run your own business and employ people, you may expect troubles literally any time throughout the year.
Will you like it? Will you find it as something, which is done for your own good, or will you find it absolutely abhorrent and unacceptable, materialized Orwell’s “England 1984” utopia? Excuse me, but even child pornography in somebody’s personal computer is his own business, as long as he doesn’t sell it, or propagate, or use it in any other criminal way. Excuse me, but if Australian Coast Guard officers check my refrigerator, they’ll find its’ contents no match for their standards of food supplies, they won’t understand how can I live on such a diet. Excuse me, but my bed sheets are my own business, and if I like them dirt, it’s my own problem, and problem of my girlfriend, not a problem of the authorities.
But we do have a whole class of people, whose personal life is a subject to control and check by absolute strangers with their own ideas of what is right and what is not, and what’s worse, those unwanted inquisitors are backed by law, they are armed with a spectrum of possible punishments, from fine to detention and to arrest. You want to see Orwell’s utopia live? Go join merchant marine.

Many shipping companies proudly declare the policy of alcohol zero-tolerance, drugs zero-tolerance, and soon I’m afraid, smoking zero-tolerance. Still, people drink, people use drugs, and of course, people smoke – most part of seafarers are smokers, as all people having a hard dangerous life do, in all the world, including the US and NATO non-smoking armies, when they’re in action. Tell people who don’t know in the morning if they live through the day, how dangerous smoking is. You’ll be in real danger trying to do it, and it won’t be danger of secondary smoking, it will be a different kind of danger.
At such a speed of zero-tolerance advance, we’ll soon enter the age of human rights zero-tolerance, because human rights are the main obstacle on a road to safe and secure haven.

They say they’re doing this in the name of seafarers good, for better safety and security. I sometimes imagine a time-travel machine, which can bring here in our times merchant shipping of 70-s or 80-s, and I believe, people will flee modern fleet, or protest, or riot, because the change will be too abrupt to get accustomed.
Safety and security are not something our do-gooders can guarantee, and by the way, they are not responsible when those above-all safety and security fail here and there, all the time. Merchant marine was and is responsible, but not lawmakers and inspectors. They control and punish. Even be it true (which is not), do we need ideal safety and security at such a cost? Do we have to give up our basic rights, freedoms and privacy, in order to achieve a mirage of absolute safety and security?
Bureaucracy, both national and international, understands only one way of beefing up security and safety, the way of implementing more control and more regulations over society. Some communities, like shipping community, are more vulnerable to bureaucracy attacks, than others.

Those who condemn bad guys, greedy ship owners, say, that all flaws considering, MLC is a good thing, because it’s paving the way to obliterating malpractices of the ship owners with regards to maritime labor. It’s a disputable statement. What is the ultimate goal of ILO, ITF and the likes? It’s the ban of FOC, as the main evil and curse of modern shipping. Now, let me illustrate the dubious nature of this goal on an example of Russian shipping. Before year 2014 (when Russia annexed Ukrainian Crimea and fell into a pit of economy crisis) Seamen’s Union of Russia SUR (ITF’s branch in Russia) was actively agitating Russian seamen to leave FOC vessels and companies for good, and work on board of Russia-flagged vessels. Crisis halved Russian Ruble, so those who work on board of Russian vessels now, have an income at least 1.5 times less than before, and look very pale in comparison with their FOC colleagues. Actually, those who work abroad enjoyed bigger salaries before 2014, too, but now the difference is sometimes startling. SUR of course, forgot about recent campaign and just dropped the whole theme, blaming instead, for all present difficulties, sanctions imposed on Russia, and Russian countless enemies, from Mr. Obama to Ukraine’s “junta”.
Implementation of new rules and restrictions, all for the sake of good things, of course, has economical costs, too, but those costs require a special study.

The main cover-up for professional do-gooders, like trade unionists, is of course, the theme of abandoned crews and unpaid wages. It’s their waving banner, their main excuse for violating basic rights and quite often, violating the laws, too. It’s a sacred cow. Who’s to oppose such a noble motif? Well, I am, for one. In year 2013 I made a study of SUR activities and profits in Russian, main findings in English can be found here In general, it’s a pure robbery of shipping, both owners and seafarers. It’s a bunch of violations both of national and international laws. And all for what? For helping out abandoned crews? In year 2013, only Sovcomflot, the biggest Russian ship owner, was paying some $300,000 monthly to SUR and ITF, including owner’s payments and seafarers’ “member fee”. According to my most conservative estimation, ITF and affiliated national trade unions harvest more than $300 million annually.
In year 2009, known as one of the worst in history of merchant shipping, 57 vessels and 647 seafarers were abandoned. It’s a 0.12% of total world fleet, 0.03% of total maritime labor – in, repeat, a crisis year. With annual $300,000 million of extorted money, ITF could at least cover the cost of repatriation, and wage debts. ITF can cover the cost of repatriation in each and every case, ITF has more than enough money for that. We know, that it doesn’t happen. ITF is a tremendously successful business enterprise, enjoying total immunity from commercial, or political, or economical risks, it’s a one-way win. ITF is an epitome of a successful quest for power and money, decorated in populism and demagogue.

In our era of revolutionary communications technologies and social networks, a virtual trade union, transparent (while ITF finances are a black box) and controlled by all its’ members, is no big deal, technically. The same goes for ship owners association – not big ones, but small- and middle-sized ship owners, the main to suffer from self-proclaimed advocates of working class, and from greedy State in forms of different agencies. They can at least, establish an information and communications portal, if for nothing else, at least for voicing problems and woes. Nobody likes ITF or ILO, or PSC inspectors. But as well, nobody wants to do anything about it. Go have a smoke and chat with seamen – they’ll deride and curse ITF, inspectors, CG and the rest of the pack of those who claim themselves to be Dobermans of safety, security and general well-being. Go to the ship owners, you’ll hear the same, and more. Still, they delegate their rights exactly to those, whom they curse. Shipping is very individualistic in its’ nature, but in our times of globalization it’s a poor excuse.

Those do-gooders, in the process of striving for society’s safety, security and well-being, advance step by step, taking away our rights, and gaining more and more control. We, as can be seen on example of shipping community, seem no to mind, surely not to do anything about it. It may be too late, when, finally, we wake up and find ourselves in a different, hostile world.

Voytenko Mikhail
Aug 24 2016

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