Sep 172009

“the root of the problem is rampant, uncontrolled greed” says MAC’s UK correspondent Bill Redmond.

image The worst shipping slump since the 1930s, says the International Transport Workers Federation, ITF, has left many crews abandoned without pay, provisions and contact with their ships’ owners. A typical example was the Russian-crewed Yeya 1 which saw their victuals down to just macaroni and flour after lay up on the river Fal, England, in June this year. Without pay, they relied on the Mission to Seafarers’ gift of £400 of fresh fruit, vegetables and meat to prevent malnutrition.

A worse case was the 1,324 dwt reefer, Rioni, stuck at Banana in the Democratic Republic of Congo. With little food and water, the Ukrainian crew on the Bolivian-flagged vessel saw one crew member die with the ship owners reportedly refusing to repatriate the corpse or pay overdue wages to the survivors.

The river Fal is no stranger to cold lay ups, having seen as many as 50 ships laid up for want of work during past recessions but the pace of change has been stunning.

Last year there were no lay ups due to recession. Today there are nine up river and another nine outside Falmouth harbour, mainly container ships and car transporters.

The Fal experience, however, is only a microcosm of the global problem as shipping companies go down like nine pins, their vessels arrested and auctioned off to pay creditors. And in the middle, often suffering in stoic silence on derisory pay, are the hapless crews whose uncertain futures undermine their morale.

Crew morale on the Fal ships has been better than on those arrested ships there, explained the Rev Mark Mesley, chaplain to the Mission’s Falmouth branch, as many had their laptops and mobile ’phones. Elsewhere around the world, however, few ships have such facilities for their crews, and so the sense of isolation and abandonment leads to rising conflicts and quarrels. “For the seafarers it feels like being locked up in prison,” says Christian Schmidt, chaplain to the Lutheran mission to Seafarers at Singapore.

All these increased demands have left the various missions struggling to cope on dwindling reserves. Already, the Mission to Seafarers, a charitable global arm of the Anglican Church, is responding by streamlining its operations. Without outside help, however, its global network will be seriously impaired as conditions inevitably worsen.

Another institution, the ITF, an umbrella organisation of 640 unions representing over 4.5 million transport workers, it doing splendid relief work and so far this year has helped in recovering US$16.4 million in unpaid crew wages. But it, too, is under pressure as crew abandonments are now commonplace and could be unprecedented, says the United Filipino Seafarers Association. Off Singapore, some 1,200 ships are laid up while at Istanbul 400 to 500 ships lie idle.

The ITF describes the plight of seafarers at Istanbul as desperate as skeleton crews are forced to exist on barely subsistence wages and provisions for many months, and in numerous cases have been effectively abandoned by their vessels’ owners, many of whom are unknown. The ITF has approved funding to enable its local seafarers’ union affiliate to provide direct humanitarian assistance to the seafarers concerned.

It is also asking the Turkish authorities to request that they put pressure on the flag states concerned to assist the crews in accordance with their obligations under maritime law. Given that such flags of convenience countries, like St Vincent, are often tiny, poor economies, their only help is likely to be sympathy without the tea. For over 50 years the ITF has fought in vain to outlaw flags of convenience and shipping slumps only strengthen the case for their abolition.

The downturn in trade may match the 1930s, says John Bainbridge, Assistant Secretary of the ITF’s seafarers’ section, but the trading situation is different. “Most developed countries have to trade to survive and there are different players like China that drive trade and they are still actively stockpiling.” Given that today’s ships are 20 times as large as in the 1930s, with a third of the crew, “a lay up of ships does not have quite the same effect on seafarers,” he says. But Bainbridge does warn that there is a worsening shortage of qualified seafarers and the bigger problem will be getting hold of them in an upturn. “Wise ship owners will be positioning themselves so that they are able to respond to an upswing,” he adds.

How soon that upswing will come is anyone’s guess. “If, as some predict, there is a second downturn then maybe it will take many years for the industry to recover,” says Bainbridge. Pascal Lamy, the World Trade Organisation’s director-general, forecasts that world trade will contract by 9% this year while another estimate suggests that more than a third of all shipping companies may go bankrupt this year. A worse case scenario, suggest one source , is that by 2011 the number of lay ups could reach 25% of the world’s cargo fleet.

Dealing with the fallout on shabbily-treated crews will be protracted and never entirely satisfactory. The ILO/IMO Working Group on Financial Security for Abandonment, for example, was intended to alleviate some of the seafarers’ problems and at the last meeting early this year got an agreement with both social partners and flags, says John Bainbridge. But this may not apply for some time and may be rolled into the Maritime Labour Convention.

ITF maritime coordinator, Steve Cotton, has also made overtures to owners and flags who are having problems to contact the ITF to see if it can help find a solution at the earliest opportunity.

These approaches, however, are like hosing the flames after a serious fire has taken hold. But there is a more fundamental approach, albeit difficult to implement, and that is to smooth the trade cycles and so reduce the worst excesses of a shipping slump.

Four years ago this correspondent began to warn in print of the serious global consequences stemming from a bubble economy built on a surging tide of irresponsible consumer lending and borrowing, leading to unsustainable debt levels and subsequent mega asset losses. As in previous slumps, the root of the problem is rampant, uncontrolled greed. Such greed will never be excised but it can be trammelled through legislation that forces more responsible lending and borrowing worldwide. If enacted, there will be fewer, less choppy voyages from Wall Street to Skid Row.


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