As we gather in this meeting, we are a broad mix of men and women who have some
interest in the maritime industry. We cannot assume that we have the same
understanding, though, because we each have our own concerns, principles and
driving forces. Even a fundamental, and common thing as the definition of a
ship is probably understood differently by each group present at this meeting.
I am not talking about that age old maritime debate between when does a boat
cease being a boat and becomes a ship. Rather, I believe that each of us here
looks at a ship in a different way according to the interests and concerns
which we have. Let me take a moment to explain what I mean.|
For the ship owner, the ship is a major capital investment. He or she has gathered together either his or her own funds, or those of a consortium of investors, and has converted them from currency into a steel machine in order to produce a return on that investment. The ship owner may have other interests, but they must be secondary to the primary one of sufficient return on investment. If there is not sufficient return on investment then the owner will withdraw what can be salvaged, and enter into a different investment which will bring a greater return. If the ship fails to make any return on investment at all, but rather loses large sums of the capital investment, then there will be the inevitable day in which there is no investment left, and the creditors will come and take the ship. Therefore, for the owner, the ship must make a return like any other investment. No owner ever sees himself as a charity or public utility. That is, providing a service to the community betterment of the common good irrespective of the costs. We can all acknowledge that if there was ever such an owner, he or she would both gain a special place in the history of the maritime industry, and also be the shortest lived shipping company in that history.
For the seafarer and his or her union, the ship is not a capital investment. It is both a work place, but unlike shore jobs, it is also home. When a mariner is employed for six months to a year, the ship is not the work site, but becomes his or her residence. Important issues are not just pay for work on done on the ship, but it is also living environment, the home that one lives in while at work. Seafarers in my union will often forgo a particular ship, or voyage because of the conditions on board, the time at sea, the length of port stay, and the over all living conditions on board the ship.
So much of a contract between a seafarer's union and the ship owner has to do with the regulation between work and off time, and the conditions and type of food that is served on the ship, and the general standards for living aboard ships. I believe that this point is very clear in the history of the international maritime industry. In the 1960's and 1970's when the Western maritime unions were at there greatest strength, the ships that were being produced in the ships yards in Germany, Britain, the United States and Japan had amenities like large and comfortable lounges, single occupancy rooms, exercise facilities and swimming pools. I still marvel at the quality and comfort of these ships even today. Though, they have been sold two or three times, and the present owners are not concerned with these issues, these ships still show their grandeur even their through the tattered carpets and drained swimming pools. The new ships we visit just do not have these facilities, and e like factory floors than homes.
It seems clear to that once the strength of maritime unions weakened because of flagging out of national fleets, the concern for the amenities on the ships also declined. As the collective voice of the seafarer became less audible in the decisions of process of ship production, so did the concern for the living environment on the ship also fall to a whisper.
A third group represented at this meeting also has another view of the ship. They recognize that it has to be an investment for the owner, and that it is a home for sailor, but this groups realizes that men and women are not just called to be born, work and then die. Rather they see that there is a spiritual dimension that is part of every human being, and if one is to live full as a person, then this spiritual dimension must be respected and fostered. These are the port chaplains, whether they are the local Christian minister at any given port, or the national or international representatives of the different denominational organizations, the ship is a community of men and women, and as a community it is also Church.
Each member of the International Christian Maritime Association holds strongly to the scriptural passage where Jesus tells his disciples: Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am with you. Therefore, each crew on a ship is potentially a basic spiritual community, or it has already formed itself into one. The port chaplain, then sees the ship as a community which he or she is called to minister to, support, and assist in its salvation journey that eventually leads back to union with God.
The fourth group which I would like to comment on is the spouses. Even though fifteen percent or so of all seafarers are now, women, I will use traditional terminology and structures in my description of this group, but the point is still relevant whether the spouse at home is a man or a woman. For a wife at home, the ship is that necessary whore that takes her husband away from her, but pays her, the wife while she has him. For so many deep sea seafarers, being a mariner is not just a job, but it is also a vocation and a love. The wife knows that when her husband arrives home after being away for six months or a year, he is not there to stay, but rather his presence is only a temporary sojourn until, the mistress calls him back. The wife hates this other woman, the ship, but she also needs her for the care of the home and the family.
The wife also knows that this is a love relationship between the seafarer and the ship. She can see how after three or four months on the beach, her husband begins to become nervous, pacing around the house, looking to the time to get back to the ship, even though he loves his wife with all his heart.
This call which a ship can have on a mariners is not just romantic gibberish, it is very true. I personally recall being at the Port of Houston and looking at a U.S. flag tanker that had been at a ship yard for months, and was then going back to the reserve fleet. Looking at her lines stretching to the docks, I could literally hear her calling me to come aboard, and set sail with her. And that evening, I was very ready to go.
The spouse of a seafarer then does not look upon the ship in the same way as the other groups do. She may intellectually agree that the ship is an investment, or that it is a home away from home, or that it is a basic Christian community, but for her, what she sees when she sees her husband's ship, is another woman who takes him from her over and over again. She never really reconciles to this other woman, but she most often learns to live with her.
There are also other groups which I will not spend much time on. There are the shipping accountants who sees the ship as if it is a spreadsheet. Each thing that occurs on the ship is either an asset or a debit. There are the local land pilots and chandlers who see the ship as a giant breast floating to their towns. The goal is to suckle to that breast as long and hard as possible, until it leaves and another follows behind. And there are the local community leaders who see the ship as local prosperity, but too often see the human cargo inside as foreign and to be taken when the ship leaves.
PART II: THE IMPORTANCE OF RECOGNIZING THE ROLE EACH VISION OF A SHIP PLAYS
If we wish to hold a discussion on the future development of Seafarers' Welfare, then we must recognize that none of the above groups exist in a vacuum, or have monopoly, or greater importance than any other group. All must be coordinated and placed in relation to one another or there will be problems that drastically effect the whole shipping operation. This truth is laid out in the old adage: A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Or as a port official from Oakland, California, U.S.A. once described the development of greater container handling from his port. They can only be as efficient as what the smallest bottleneck would allow. In other words, no matter how efficient the port was, cargo could not move faster than what the trucking and rail industry would allow it go. What good would it do to be able to unload 1000 teu's in 5 hours, if the railroads could only move 500 hundred that same period. Transportation constipation would ensue very quickly.
This same truth is also valid for ships and those who have interests in them. We have seen the demise of Adriatic Tankers over the last two years. This did not occur alone and isolated. Rather, because the owners were not taking care of business, were not paying their crews, were not maintaining their ships, their business plan did not matter, nor did their income projections. When their ship the Ionian Sun arrived in my home port of Port Arthur, Texas, U.S.A. It was not necessary for the ITF to arrest the ship because the crew had not been paid in four or more months. The ITF had to wait in line behind the U.S. Coast Guard who had already put a pilot hold on her for being unseaworthy, and a list of chandlers, stevedores and agents who arrested her for unpaid debts. The lesson that can be drawn is that all interests must be kept in balance, or one or a consortium of interest groups will eventually cause difficulties for the dominant group.
The reason that this very organization has come into existence is because there has arisen an awareness of a need for dialogue between the different shipping interest groups so that efficient, safe, humane and profitable shipping can be carried out.
When I look over the horizon, I see many of reasons why bottlenecks occur. These must be identified, enumerated, acknowledged and eradicated. The worst issue which has always brought about problems between the different maritime interests groups is GREED. When greed becomes the dominant factor in decision making, then everything is interpreted and judged by greed. And since there is no limit to human greed, there is no value that can compare with greed in human decisions. Everything becomes second to greed, the earth and human life itself. As pastoral ministers, we can also say that those who are closest to a particular evil are also the most likely to be over come by it. And in light of this, I ask my brothers and sisters who are ship owners and operators to be most careful of greed. All of us can fall victim to this sin, but because you have both the most to gain and the most to lose, the temptations of greed can more easily blind your vision and decisions.
In the June/July issue of Professional Mariner, the story of the Rumanian flagged bulk carrier M/V Giurgiu was told. In a few sentences, the author, Mr. Ivo Labar traces the ability to substandard shipping to operate on the basis of greed. He says:
While the story of the Giurgiu is a fairly common one in the world of substandard shipping, what made this case exceptional were the poor, almost medieval conditions the crew endured before the Coast Guard and seamen's advocate groups forced the owners to make repairs and improve crew living standards on a ship that, some say, wasn't fit for use as razor blades. Even in this age of worldwide regulation, some ship owners still fail to provide for their ships and crew - primarily for monetary reasons.... Even when one factors in the considerable charges accrued when a vessel is detained, a substandard operator can still come out ahead. As long as ship owners can make money off poorly maintained vessels, it's likely that ships like the Giurgiu will continue to sail into American ports.
The next reasons for bottlenecks to develop in the maritime industry has to do with a whole group of issues that deal with the quality of life on board the ship. The first one that arises is the length of contracts, especially in regards to the unlicensed members, who tend to have longer contracts than the officers. Fr. Guy Pasquier, a Roman Catholic priest and a marine electrician describes his on the M/V Lonue in 1995. He writes:
The length of the contract helped me to understand certain throngs. The fact is that for long months one is cut off from a family environment, from a network of friends, and from all the events marking the life of a country. Even when seafarers live together and relationships are good, a void remains which nothing can fill. One must carry on like this for months. All of a sudden one finds that the cooking has not taste, and (one) doesn't feel like being with others or working.... Solitude can weigh heavy on people. A nine - month contract has a character of inhumanity about it. The attraction of dollars needed to feed the family, allow the children to go to school or build the house cannot possibly erase it. Only the community we built on board among ourselves can cross that inhumanity.
In the past, seafarers signed articles for about six months, then it was eight months, and now I often speak to Filipino seafarers who have contracts for 11 or 12 months. In that time, they are worried about their wives and children. Their children are four months old when they leave and a year and a half old on their return, and then three years old when they return form their second voyage. A tremendous burden falls on the wife who must cope with the emotional loss of her beloved, the responsibility of overseeing the whole house and play the roles of both father and mother.
In response to this situation, the seafarer may become lonely, depressed, irritable, angry and even violent because he is living in the tension between having to work at a job that is necessary for his family's livelihood, and which also denies him the ability to be with the family that he works so hard far. And no matter how many seafarer centers, exercise rooms on board ship and videos that are available to him, his heart will not be quenched until he is back with his family.
A second quality of life issue has to do with the mixing of crews on board ship. I still recall the conversation I had in 1987, with a representative of the Gulf Oil Company's Tanker Division. He insisted to me that nationality played no role in the selection of crew members for Gulf's flag of convenience fleet. I can still remember his words clearly today: If we can get Koreans or Indians for .10¢ less an hour than Filipinos, then we will send the Filipinos home and fly in the Koreans or Indians. When we need a seaman, we will get them from wherever it is the cheapest.
The international acceptance of mixing crews from different nationalities, languages, races and religions runs directly contrary to everything we know about society and community. Just as we tend to live on land in communities that reflect our nationalities, languages, ethnic backgrounds and religion, so it is also the case on ships. To think that what we value and think as ordinary on land is also ordinary on a ship. A seafarer does not cease to want to associate with people similar to himself simply because he or she is employed on a marine vessel.
The third quality of life issue is the constant pressure in the industry to reduce the size of the crew. It troubles me greatly that some ergonomic engineer on land determines that it is possible to do away with a radio officer, or the ordinary seamen because it is possible through automation to do the job without him or her. The logic of the industry is that if one can do it, then one should do it, therefore, one must do it.
That radio officer is not missed in nice summer sails across the Gulf, but he or she may be very missed when all hell is breaking loose in a Pacific typhoon that is occupying the entire attention of all the deck officers and the crew. Who then will send the messages, monitor the hardware, maintain its repair and separate the important incoming information from the radio clutter.
I often think how this whole logic would change if the decision makers lives were tied inextricably with the wellbeing of the ship. I cannot help but believe that suddenly the importance of qualified personnel would be seen as more important than multi-layers of automated redundancy.
There is another issue besides safety that is tied to the reduction of crew sizes, and that has to do with the loneliness and isolation that develops from long watches alone. As fewer and fewer members of the crew remain, the opportunity to interact as human beings become less and less. Seafarers are not just workers, they are also social beings, and must have time to re-create themselves through rest, conversation, interaction and play. If they do not, they will cease being effective seafarers.
The final quality of life issue that I wish to bring up is the time a seafarer has in port. As the ability to handle ships at ever greater and greater speeds continues, the time a seafarer has to get off the ship and stretch his or her legs, stop vibrating with pulse of the generators and touch something that is not steel diminishes. A 28 day voyage to Japan, leads to a 24 hour stay in a port that is fifty miles from a town or city, which leads to another 28 day return voyage, that has the same quick turnaround. This cycle continues from month to month for the life of the contract. There should be no wonder why the men and women of the sea are dispirited and depressed.
Finally, the third bottleneck that I wish to touch on that hampers seafarers' welfare is refusal of the industry to police itself, but rather to allow those who run substandard operations to exist on the margins of the industry. Just as first world fleets were not able to compete against second registries and flag of convenience shipping, so those same second registries and flag of convenience operators who work hard to abide by the international conventions will be undermined by those in the industry who sail substandard ships, classified by questionable classification societies, crewed by men and women of questionable skills who are paid on a irregular basis.
Until the whole industry, the classification societies, the insurers, the ship owners, unions and the chaplains with one voice say: No, then the leeches of the industry will continue to hang on to the maritime body until they suck the last bit of profit, and thereby, the last bit of life out of the industry.
PART III: SEAFARERS' WELFARE IN THE YEAR 2000
As we look to Seafarers' Welfare into the year 2000 and beyond, the first thing that we must care for is that all aspects of the maritime industry are protected and maintained. This does not mean only taking care of the those powerful elements which already bring to the table a significant amounts of influence during any maritime discussions. Groups the ISF, the IMO, the ITF, classification societies and governmental organizations already have the ability to raise their voices in maritime discussions. Special efforts must be made by all participants, though, to include and protect the interests of the weakest elements of the maritime industry. This would have to be the families of seafarers and the seafarers themselves.
As Pope John Paul II said:
Every effort should be made so that the family will be recognized as the primordial and, in a certain sense sovereign society! The sovereignty of the family is essential for the good of society. A truly sovereign and spiritually vigorous nation is always made up of strong families who are aware of their vocation and mission in history. The family is at the heart of all these problems and tasks. To relegate it to a subordinate or secondary role, excluding it from its rightful position in society, would be to inflict grave harm on the authentic growth of society as a whole.
If the family is essential for the good of society, its health and wellbeing is also important in the maritime industry. The shipper will not get the most work out of his seafarer if he or she is distracted by worries about the family when the allotment has failed to come for months. Qualified and experienced seamen will decline to return to sea at the high point of their careers, because they do not want to miss for a year or so the growing of their children. Finally, to many family problems that go unresolved by the industry will eventually stir the home governments to act. They will then seek means to make sure that the responsibility for the seafarers' families is clearly tied to the ship owner by national legislation.
For the seafarer, what commitment will he or she make to maritime company in developing skills, when they feel that they will be dismissed the first time cheaper seafarers can be found to take their place? What will be the response from the local communities, municipalities and national governments when they seafarers who are injured at work are dumped back on the streets after they are no longer useful. Can we see some legislation beginning to be generated to take care of these human beings.
If bottlenecks are to be avoided in the industry, all parts of the industry must care for the other parts. The first place that one member of the industry thinks that it can act unilaterally, selfishly and greedily, will be the place where the first signs of bottleneck should be.
What is the first step in preventing bottlenecks and breakdowns among the different elements of the maritime industry? That is really easy. The industry must hold to the standards that it has written and agreed to with unwavering devotion. I assume that all those here present support ILO 147, then we must make sure that it is carried in spirit and in the letter. And if there are persons or entities that wish to circumscribe the agreement, the entire industry must drive them into compliance, or out of the waters. The STCW conventions must be honored in all their dimensions. No attempt should be made to short circuit them. The SOLAS Agreement must be the minimum standard for the shipping industry. If these basic agreements continue to be weakened, reinterpreted, overlooked or undermined, than any thing that we could possibly do for seafarers' welfare would be as I said, "Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."
On the other hand, once these conventions become the international standard by which everyone plays by, and there no longer exist organizations that operate on the margins of the industry, then the industry will be ready to sit down in all its many parts, and ask this question: What should seafarers' welfare be like in the year 2,000 and beyond?