Thursday, 26 August 2010

Sexual shame before the mast

In the South African village of Nxarhuni, Eastern Cape province, a freshly-dug grave marks the last resting place of Akhona Geveza, a 19-year old female officer cadet just short of qualifying as a navigation officer. Ordinarily such a grave would have passed unremarked but this is no ordinary grave, for it exposes a deep canker that infects and shames much of the world's mercantile marine. That shame is sexual abuse, often by officers, including female rape and sodomy. The lash may have gone but rum and sodomy remain deeply ingrained, to which must now be added the growing scourge of rape, despite the attempts by organizations like Nautilus International and ITF to eradicate the shame.

An only child and hope for her unemployed parents, Akhona Geveza was found dead on June 24 floating near the port of Rijeka, Croatia, after her ship's captain raised the alarm on board the British-registered container ship, Safmarine Kariba. Suicide is suspected but murder has not been ruled out by the South African police who are conducting their own enquiry.

The South African newpaper, The Sunday Times, reported that Akhona Geveza alleged being repeatedly raped by the ship's Ukranian chief officer but was reluctant at first to report the issue to the captain because, according to a fellow female confidant on board, she feared that she would not be believed. When she finally complained to the captain he immediately confronted the chief officer and convened a meeting with him and Geveza for 11 a.m. When she failed to arrive, a search was conducted, and following the discovery of pills and thinners in the foc'sle, the captain raised the alarm. Safmarine ordered the chief officer to be relieved of duty.

Akhona was one of over 100 young South African women to have gone through the Transnet National Ports Authority's maritime studies program as part of the campaign to encourage young women to become seafarers. In a sense, she was a pioneer in a male-dominated industry and her tragic and suspicious death risks setting back the issue of equal opportunities by decades, warns Mark Dickinson, general secretary of the maritime officers' union, Nautilus International.

Some 10 years ago Nautilus issued its own report, Fairplay, which showed serious problems of sexual harassment in shipping. Although only 35 questionnaires were returned, a response rate of 13% and therefore deemed not be be statistically significant, it nevertheless confirmed findings of other surveys and research that had been carried out by the ITF and the Seafarers International Research Centre at Cardiff University. The report revealed "alarming levels of sexual harassment," with over three quarters replying that they had suffered sexual harassment at sea. This included unwelcome physical contact, leering and rude gestures. Half of respondents said that the harassment affected their morale and 38% their health and safety.
As a result, the union developed equal opportunities policies with the UK Chamber of Shipping and these have been subsequently taken up across the European Union.

The 10-year old report, however, is revealing in that there was no mention of the most serious sexual offence of rape. Following the story of Akhona's death, other Transnet cadets have come forward alleging male and female rape, bullying and harassment. Speaking under conditions of anonymity, several cadets told South Africa's The Sunday Times that there was systematic abuse of power by senior officers who threatend cadets' careers if they did not perform sexual acts. The sex abuse allegations include claims that two male cadets were raped by senior officials while at sea. One female cadet terminated two pregnancies following alleged rape and three female cadet trainees were made pregnant by the end of their 12-month training stint. One male cadet was sent home a month before finishing his training program because he refused to have sex with a senior official.

This form of blackmail, i.e. the threat to cancel cadets' contracts, is probably what keeps many more cadets from coming forward to expose shipping's hidden vices. It is all part of the odious marine culture which says the captain is God, that the sea is no-man's land and that what happens at sea stays at sea.

Spurred by the failure of the industry to clean up its shameful act, Nautilus International is reviewing its existing arrangements for enabling members to report problems on board their ships and has approached the Chamber of Shipping to discuss ways in which the industry can reassess its equal opportunities policies and to ensure lessons are learned from the case of Akhona Geveza. "We have a 30% wastage rate among young people entering this industry," said Mark Dickinson, "and we really need to make it very sure that bullying and harassment and discrimination are not tolerated in shipping and that all seafarers, regardless of sex, sexual orientation and race are not treated in ways that were not even acceptable 100 years ago." Nautilus is also calling on the UK Transport Minister and Home Secretary to highlight the need for Britain to play a leading role in the criminal and accident investigations.

Akhona Geveza's tragic death marks the tip of a very ugly iceberg but if her case can galvanise the marine industry to clean out its Augean stables her death will not have been entirely in vain.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Recession exposes Just-in-Time failings

Just-in-Time (JIT) supply chain practices have done much to make manufacturing leaner and financially fitter and although the problems of and solutions to JIT interruptions have been well documented from the outset there is, perhaps, one aspect no experts have warned about. This is the impact of a sudden, global recession on suppliers and the lack of support for them from leading manufacturers. Such a scenario is now unfolding as suppliers are unable to meet the demands of leading manufacturers experiencing an upturn, and thus threatening to delay the nascent global recovery. Ultimately, there can only be one solution to this problem -- the elimination of violent, cyclical swings in the global economy through better governance to excise the casino-style mentality that the financial industries and acquiescent governments have wrought upon the world in recent years.

It has been said that JIT mainly benefits the leading manufacturers, who have effectively offloaded their costly stock holding problems onto their suppliers. This is not entirely true as some leading producers have helped their suppliers to become leaner through better logistics practices but there is some justification for the accusation, though less so for Japanese producers whose Keiretsu arrangements protect suppliers.

In the current downturn, leading companies were quick to turn off the tap, which caused suppliers to cut back sharply on capacity or go out of business altogether. Now that demand is picking up again, leading manufacturers are plagued with shortages of parts, particularly from the electronic component makers. The problem is worse than in previous recessions since many large companies have outsourced their parts supply, putting the onus on suppliers to raise deliveries more so than in the past. A good example of how this can trip up manufacturers is the recent strikes in China which disrupted supplies and output at Honda & Toyota's Chinese plants.

There is, however, another problem holding back suppliers. This is the apparent reluctance of banks to lend to manufacturers at acceptable interest rates. American small businesses, for example, are having to pay more to borrow relative to the Federal Reserve's benchmark rate than at any time in the last 25 years. To be fair to banks, they may only be trying to restore their financial strength as quickly as possible because many have still not come clean on their exposure to bad commercial property loans and huge, multi-billion pound potential losses from loans to shipping lines, most of whom are probably bankrupt.

Supply chain companies may also be reluctant to invest heavily in new capacity to meet rising demand because of volatile, uncertain, global economic conditions. China's vigorous growth rate appears to be faltering and the impact of government spending cuts across Europe and the dreadful US housing market has still be be felt.

A double dip in the global economy, expected by many, may well ease the supply chain deliveries problems but companies, nevertheless, are now committing JIT sacrilege -- stockpiling scarce components as a buffer in case supplies run out. The leading producers, however, are now beginning to realize that they should have paid more attention to their supply chain partners, at least towards their tier one suppliers. This could involve extending easy credit terms to suppliers who feel that they are being fleeced by their traditional lenders, a common practice in Japan.

Ultimately, however, governments and business institutions must work more together to smooth the economic cycle, and above all that means trammeling the greed culture which has seen so many financial institutions throw caution to the winds. As ye sow, so shall ye reap.