Sep 262010

Recently a frisson of excitement quivered its way through the industry as an American court found a ship’s master not guilty of using the notorious magic pipes to illicitly discharge oil. Dark tales, probably true, were told of barrack-room lawyers coaching Filipino seafarers in Singapore on the money they could make as whistleblowers and how to fake evidence of magic pipes. The industry may have only itself to blame.

To get things into perspective, a whistleblower does not really count for much. An accurate Oil Record Book will count for more. Oil Record Books are quite complicated instruments that must match with oil products on board. Evidence has to add up. If there are identifiable holes in ORB records, then that is evidence enough. Evidence of magic pipes hardens the case, but are not the case by themselves.

The evidence for false whistleblowing on any significant scale is actually slim. Nobody has ever been found guilty on whistleblower testimony alone. Over a large number of cases, two have been thrown out because of alleged false whistleblowing, one of which was abandoned because the whistleblower was found to have child pornography on the cellphone on which he claimed to have photos of illicit oil discharge.

It would be unwise to simply dismiss whistleblowers as using the system to take revenge on perceived slights and to make money – the financial rewards may be attractive but the personal cost to the whistleblower can be enormous.

By whistleblowing they lose respect of their peers and their superiors and their fellow seafarers. For Filipinos that is an intensely difficult position.

It’s worth noting that the reward offered is only payable if there is a successful prosecution.

Reducing the threat from a whistleblower has much to do with attitude, especially attitudes within the industry towards seafarers generally and, at another level, the attitude of ships’ officers toward those they command.

For too long, and too widely, seafarers have been treated as a disposable commodity. For the most part they are hired by manning agencies to work on ships that are managed by another company on behalf of the shipowner.

At best their loyalties are divided and probably strongest to whoever directly pays their salary.

Many seafarers are hired on a single contract with no guarantees of long term employment. Not surprisingly their commitment is short term and based on “what’s in it for me?” So if the opportunity arises to make some big money from a big corporation that does not treat you decently then, not surprisingly, whistleblowing can be a way out and a way up.

Companies should not expect loyalty from seafarers until they demonstrate long term commitment to their employees – obvious really.

You’ll get loyalty from people you treat with respect and if you put systems in place to ensure that crews are treated with respect.

One way of showing that is to have a system through which seafarers can report their concerns in confidence without putting their jobs or shipboard relationships at risk, and by making it very clear on a fleet-wide basis that breaches of Marpol are not acceptable and will be firmly dealt with.

Then the seafarer becomes the watchdog you need to enforce compliance.

In a recent case it was found that a company had rehired an engineer who had already committed Marpol violations. He then proceeded to commit further offences. No monitoring was put in place to make re-offending difficult. It is self-evident, and clearly evident to crew, that Marpol violations are acceptable on the company’s ships.

It would have been pointless reporting the engineer’s activities to the company management in such circumstances, which left the US Coast Guard as the only alternative.

Apart from that, social attitudes to environmental protection have changed significantly and it is unwise to assume that seafarers are unaffected by that change. The majority of seafarers come from countries classed as “developing economies” where environmental protection is a low priority when measured against daily needs for survival. They see first hand the deterioration of the environment around their homes but are powerless to do anything due to the enormous power gap between them and the local governing authorities. Consequently they have high expectations that the foreign owner of the ship they work in will live up to the standards so frequently espoused by corporations based in developed economies. In some cases it is more than just the money, it is being able to do something to stop the pollution.

Simply put, they want to do the right thing.

There is a number of defences against false whistleblowers: First make a commitment to your seafarers to ensure that they receive proper training and understand the how and the why of compliance with Marpol.

Second, reward them for supporting and complying with company environmental policies and procedures.

Third, have in place a system by which your seafarers can tip you off and actively investigate those tip-offs that suggest non-compliance.

Fourth, provide seafarers employed in your company with a career path and a system to manage competency that will guide and monitor their development.

Take care of their professional and personal needs and they will take care of your company.

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