EMPLOYMENT OF OUR SEAFARERS

by F R Chowdhury

 

To the best of my knowledge seafaring is perhaps the only profession where nationality is normally not a barrier. Ships built in China or Korea may have been financed by Hong Kong banks for owners in the Norway or United States. Such ships may be registered in the Bahamas and insured through Lloyds in London. Such a ship may be managed by a company in Cyprus or Glasgow and manned by Indian officers and Filipino ratings. There is nothing more international in nature than shipping. Only a few ships genuinely owned and operated by developing countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar would provide employment to their own seafarers. Other ships, especially those under open registers would employ seafarers from any country they think more economic for them. It is in this global environment that Philippines turned out to be the number one supplier of seafarers to the world of shipping.

Philippines also supply more nurses than any other country to USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and United Kingdom. In the oil rich Middle-East all the airport shops and hospitality industry is manned by Filipina girls. Philippines do not have so many universities as we have but they have far more vocational training centres producing IT technicians, electricians, plumbers, carpenters and other technicians. Filipinos working abroad send the third highest remittance back to their country – only behind India and China. We stand at tenth.

With a rich seafaring tradition for hundreds of years, Bangladesh has been trying to make headway into exporting seafarers. It is a wide open competition and we have not made much success. It is mostly because we have not been able to draw a well planned strategy and coordinated action. Not bothering to know much about it, some people thought if we could have many more marine academies we could perhaps flood the world market with our officers. The short sighted policy resulted into back log of hundreds of unemployed cadets begging from door to door for jobs. They have become demoralised and are unlikely to make good officers even if they eventually get employed.

Manning and training cannot be viewed separately. They are an integral part of the maritime industry. We have to look at the maritime sector in totality. Marine academies provide the pre-sea training only. Thereafter these young cadets need to perform mandatory minimum period of supervised sea-service (with record of training) before they can take the examination for first professional certificate of competency. The engineer cadets are also required to complete a mandatory period of mechanical and electrical workshop training before joining ships for the final phase of training. The young officer will have some value or demand in the employment market only when s/he got a COC. It is not a mandatory requirement for ships to carry trainees and foreign ships are under no obligation to recruit our academy trained cadets. They are very reluctant to do so unless a degree of reputation has already been achieved through past recruitments. By now the readers must have understood the need for a sizeable national fleet to provide initial training berth. Similarly Seamen’s Training Centre provide pre-sea training for ratings and they need to complete mandatory minimum period of sea-service before they can take the examination to obtain a qualification as a rating in a defined capacity. Here again we have to have our own flag vessels to provide the necessary training berth. These two aspects are complimentary to each other.

Nowadays foreign ship-owners and managers prefer to recruit the full complement of officers and ratings from the same country. In Bangladesh we must have competent crewing agents (licensed/ registered RPS) who have contacts with international shipping companies (owners and managers). These crewing agents must be prepared to meet total requirements of officers and ratings. The role of the government shipping office is not clearly understood. It cannot ship any cargo anywhere then why call it a shipping office. It should rather be known as directorate of employment and welfare of seafarers (DEWS) under the department of maritime affairs (DMA). DEWS should oversee the process of employment to ensure that national laws and regulations reflecting ILO-MLC-2006 and IMO-STCW-1978 are duly complied with. The real business (procurement of orders, recruitment and placement) must be done by authorised/ licensed RPS. Government should facilitate business but business must remain with private entrepreneurs.

The crewing agents (Licensed RPS) must supply master and crew as per SMD (Safe Manning Document) issued to the vessel by the Flag State but must also exert its best influence to convince the owners to take at least two cadets (one of each discipline) and two trainee ratings for each ship. The training institutes (including marine academies) may also invite foreign ship-owners during graduation ceremonies and try to make advance deal to take cadets and trainee ratings. The director general of the department of maritime affairs must hold meetings at least twice a year with all training institutes and crewing agents to review the status of employment of trainees and decide on national intake for the next year. We should be able to find employment for 50% of the trainees on Bangladeshi ships and the other 50% on foreign flag vessels for which we have to undertake vigorous marketing efforts.

There must be a national maritime board comprising the ship-owners, ship-builders, crewing agents (RPS), training institutes, officers’ association, ratings’ union, local representatives of NI and IMAREST. The director general of DMA and the director of DEWS must attend all meetings of the board to inform members on status of their activities. The minister should chair the board and it must meet at least once every year to review the progress and development of the maritime sector. The board shall take important decisions for development of the national fleet and any incentive, ship-building activities and any incentive, status of various conventions and need for any legislation for maritime sector, review matters relating to recruitment, training and employment of seafarers. The NMB may also decide for national participation in any international exhibition or even about having such exhibition in Bangladesh. Ship-building falls within the broader purview of maritime sector though it is under ministry of industry. The discussions and observations of the NMB should be forwarded to the ministry of industries. The government should decide if the ports should also be included in the NMB or keep them separate. Having stated all that now let us see how things shaped up so far.

It was certainly a big blunder for the government to increase the intake in the marine academy and allow so many privately owned marine academies to operate without making any evaluation of employment prospects. The result is the present glut. Those who are responsible for creation of this situation are nowhere to be seen. Instead it is the merchant navy officers association that is trying to find employment for the cadets so that they can complete the period of service required for taking the first professional examination. There is still no coordinated effort between the training institutes and the RPS. They are still considering the employment of cadets as a separate case instead of total manning of ships. The greatest blunder is the projected new academies in Pabna, Barisal, Sylhet and certain other places. It is sheer waste of money though those associated with new projects will be making money and the graduates will be roaming around the streets looking for jobs. Unfortunately with very specialized marine knowledge they will not fit in anywhere. No one has a right to destroy the potential future of these bright young men and women.

Now comes the story of the biggest white elephant – it is the Banga Bandhu Maritime University. Headed by a Rear-Admiral with a few other commodores as registrar and dean, it is difficult to recognize it as a maritime university. What is the purpose? Is there any need for such a thing? There is a World Maritime University in Malmo, Sweden. Generous funding from UNDP and other donor agencies, the university provides a number of scholarships to students from third world countries. We all know about China as a major emerging power. They want to exert their influence over smaller nations in Asia, Africa and South America. They have established a maritime university and they provide scholarships to students from those countries. I wonder if Bangladesh wants to extend its influence through the BB Maritime University. I am more than certain we can do very well without such a white elephant. The money spent for this university could be better spent in education sector in general to raise the standard of education in Bangladesh.

Recently I have come across an electronic advertisement by a crewing agent who wants to recruit certificated marine officers from Bangladesh. We have all the reasons to feel happy about it. The very next sentence in the advertisement says applicants must hold certificates issued in UK or Singapore. All excitements evaporated. Why not Bangladeshi certificates? The advertisement should open the eyes of all those connected with training, examination and certification of seafarers. This matter deserves serious investigation. Is it the poor standard in general or is the system totally corruption ridden? We have been hearing about several cases of forgery of certificates and documents in maritime sector. In some cases, it is alleged that, officials are involved in such activities. Unless we sort out this mess we cannot expect our seafarers to find employment abroad. This is of first and foremost priority. This is more important than setting up more marine academies and maritime university.

The most disturbing news that I got last week is that the principal secretary to the prime minister has asked the director general to ensure that all those who graduate from fisheries academy are issued with CDC (a book where sea-going services performed on merchant ships are recorded) and that they should be allowed to take merchant marine examination. These actions will be in clear violation and contradiction of STCW Convention to which Bangladesh is a party. This will mean the final nail in the coffin and the janaza of our seafarers’ employment. Informatively IMO has a separate Convention known as STCW-F relating to training and certification of sea-going fishermen. They cannot be mixed together.

I write this article at a time when the prime minister is going to visit the marine academy on or about 14 January to take salute of the graduating cadets. If the prime minister really cares about our maritime sector then she should know the real picture. She should order for immediate necessary actions to save the maritime sector before it is totally destroyed by the corrupt and ignorant officials. Otherwise we will have none left to be known as a seafarer. There would be no more marine academies and no more graduation parades.

I would also like to bring to her kind notice the fate our seafarers in Nigerian jail. I would request her to ask the foreign ministry to get into the matter and apply utmost diplomatic pressure to secure release of our innocent seafarers.

Through this paper I appeal to the prime minister to save our maritime sector.

London, 11-January-2016.                                               <fazlu.chowdhury@btinternet.com>

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