Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Somali piracy may cripple global logistics

Rarely, if ever, in the annals of piracy have so few cost global logistics so much as the 1,000 or so Kalashnikov-toting Somali pirates. And rarely has the international response been so supine and dismissive that, in earlier times, would have appalled and shamed less spineless generations in dealing with an age-old crime.

At the IMO London offices' handover of a piracy petition on World Maritime Day, September 23, David Cockroft, general secretary of the ITF (International Transport Workers Federation), chastised the majority of those who make most from shipping for "doing little or nothing." But are the ship owners themselves contributing to the crisis, helped by the insurers, because they have adopted the 'calculated risk' approach which arguably is much cheaper than a final solution to the problem?

The anti-piracy petition, bearing nearly one million signatures, is the centrepiece of a campaign to persuade all governments to commit the resources necessary to end the increasing problem of Somalia-based piracy. It calls for:
1) Dedication of significant resources and work to find real solutions to the growing piracy problem,
2) Immediate steps to secure the release and safe return of kidnapped seafarers,
3) Work within the international community to secure a stable and peaceful future for Somalia.

The stakes are high and will simply get higher without effective action. In ransom monies alone an estimated $150 million have been paid to pirates and extra insurance premiums cost at least $400 million more annually. Then there are the increased crew costs while they are transiting the pirate zones plus the warships on patrol. All that, however, pales into insignificance against damage to the global supply chain, which may even cripple just-in-time (JIT) practices. On top of all this is the cost in human misery. Some 1,500 crew members have been taken hostage and kept in squalid conditions since 2008, at least 36 have been murdered, and currently 354 seafarers remain detained along with 16 ships.

Many ships, particularly oil tankers, are being re-routed via the Cape of Good Hope. An idea of just how costly re-routing a super tanker is on a liner trade for the Europe-Far East route can be gauged by the fact that it would raise costs by $89 million per year. Multiply that many times by the number of tankers bypassing the Suez Canal and the cost would soon reach billions for shippers. Yet this solution, if it could be called that, is apparently favoured by the International Federation of Shipmasters' Associations (IFSMA).

In an exclusive interview with Captain Bjorn Haave, vice-president of IFSMA, this writer was told that the whole area should be closed to shipping except to ships that have to go into ports in the area, escorted one by one. Such an approach, however, would have appalling cost implications, particularly for Europe, whose economies are geared to JIT deliveries. There would also be incalculable damage to Egypt's economy through the loss of billions of dollars in canal transit fees, which could destabilise the whole country. For a country which has so much at risk, Egypt has, to its shame, shown strikingly little action in deploying its 12 frigates to patrol the infested areas.

Captain Haave is only defending his patch when he says: "I represent the seafarers and masters and I don't think seafarers should be put at risk in the way they are today. They have to keep the area closed until the political situation in Somalia is solved."

Defeating the wisdom of Solomon

The political state of Somalia is the crux of the problem. A failed state torn by conflict for decades, desperately poor and governed by petty war lords in waters muddied by Islamist insurgent groups like Al-Shebab, a peaceful resolution to this problem would defeat even the wisdom of Solomon. Pouring in aid would simply not work without a prior desire by all Somalis to work for the common good. So what other proposed solutions does that leave?

There can be no doubt that shipping lines and their affiliated bodies have a genuine desire to see a prompt end to Somali piracy and the suffering of the 354 seafarers currently held in squalid conditions. Ship owners are also concerned that the impact of piracy will exacerbate the current shortage of skilled seafarers. But all of the proposals that the maritime industry have suggested seem doomed to failure. The piracy petition, for example, called for the the dedication of significant resources but Admiral Mark Fitzgerald, commander of NATO' Allied Joint Task Force Command, Naples, has said: "We could put a World War 2 fleet of ships out there and we still would not be able to cover the whole ocean." It is also questionable about how long the presence of a large naval force could be sustained, given the huge costs at a time when most states face increasing pressures to cut budgets, including the military kind. Instead, he advocates the arming of civilian ships in the Horn of Africa. Convoying has been suggested as a solution but this would be unattractive to shippers because it would be uneconomic and impractical.

The arming of merchant vessels has also been mooted and could be undertaken in different ways. One option would be to put armed security teams on board vessels. This has already been done, particularly on ships considered at high risk, but it has been said that, given the low risk of hijack, stationing security teams on all vessels would not be cost effective; all part of the 'calculated risk' scenario. A second and more controversial option is to arm the merchant crews but this has largely been rejected by shipping lines and port authorities because of the added security risks, costs and legal liabilities, all deemed to be too high.

There is, however, a third option, the secondment of weapons-trained naval personnel posing as civilians for use in the pirate zones. This would give some comfort to untrained civilian crews and would be like a return to Q-ships, which had significant success against U-boats in World War 1. At most, such naval guards would require no more than heavy machine guns and light firearms and they would have a huge advantage over pirates clambering over gunwales, where they would be extremely vulnerable.

However much ship owners may eschew the arming of their ships, more and more lines are seriously considering the option unless more is done to protect vessels. The world's second largest container ship line, MSC, is considering the option and working closely with Maersk Lines and CMA CGN. But what more can be done that has any chance of permanent success?

Insurance companies hold the key?

In this writer's view all the mooted suggestions so far can only be temporary at best. Shipping lines have clearly shown that their supine response is governed by the profit motive as enshrined in the 'calculated risk' approach. After all, it is insurance companies who ultimately pay the ransom money but they, too, are doing very nicely out of the piracy because their jacked-up premiums since 2002 far exceed the ransom monies paid. In any event, all these raised costs are ultimately passed on to hapless consumers. On account of this, when told that the insurance companies seemed under no pressure to bring their undoubted influence to bear, Captain Haave, of IFSMA, said: "I agree with you." His contention is that if insurance companies stopped insuring voyages through the pirate-infested waters most ship owners would re-route via the Cape of Good Hope, which would make voyages much safer. That said, however, they could then be attacked by Wast African pirates.

The current arming of merchant ships, preferably by trained naval personnel, deserves to gain ground. Shamefully, however, when pirates are caught they are often released without charge, sometimes within hours of capture, to resume their depredations. This clearly must stop. With a growing sense of immunity, Somali pirates will only be emboldened to raise the stakes, risking a human and environmental catastrophe at sea, not to mention staggering global economic damage. Alas, therefore, logic inescapably points to a military solution in the known pirate ports.

The current wave of piracy is primarily motivated by the desire for financial gains and exacerbated by lack of good governance and high poverty levels. Illegal fishing by foreign countries and dumping of toxins in Somali waters, for which Somalis themselves must share some of the blame through their own bad governance, may have played some role in turning to piracy during the early days but the current level of piracy cannot be explained by such activity. Rather, piracy has become a lucrative business, generating huge incomes, which Somalis are unlikely to give up unless military action no longer makes the game worth the candle.

There is, of course, a problem with such a response -- the safety of the 354 crew members still held hostage. These numbers will decline to zero provided that the ransoms are paid but it is essential that no further ships are hijacked and that is where the armed merchant vessels must play a role. An alternative might be well-planned Entebbe style rescues. When it comes, as is likely, any attacks on pirate ports should be aimed primarily at the fishing vessels large enough to act as mother ships. The tragedy of this, of course, is that innocent fishermen's vessels could suffer along with the guilty, as there are no more than an estimated 600 to 1,000 Somali pirates. But would it not be a far greater tragedy still if Egypt and other countries were destabilised by adopting an indefinite exclusion zone around the Horn of Africa?

The reason no military action has yet been undertaken on shore stems from political rather than legal constraints. The UN Security Council resolution 1851, in fact, authorises military action against piracy on Somali territory. If the piracy problem persists or, more likely, worsens, such escalatory steps would look increasingly more plausible and pressing. There are historical precedents which show that the application of superior force against piracy, the only language that all pirates respect, can work well. In 1816 and in 1824 the bombardment of Algiers by British and Dutch fleets forced the release of 1,000 Christian slaves unharmed and broke the hold of the Barbary pirates permanently.
This story first appeared in Bob Couttie's Maritime Accident Casebook, for whom this writer is the UK correspondent, under the headline: Piracy: Is closing Africa the Answer?

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Ireland's shameful role in migrant fishermen exposed

A complaint to Ireland's Broadcasting Commission over an Irish television series called "Skippers" has exposed deeply-ingrained abuse and illegalities in the country's trawler fishing industry that would have brought shame even in the pre-industrial era. The complainant is the International Transport Federation who believe that RTE, Ireland's national television and radio broadcaster, showed an indulgence to the Irish fishing industry in stark contrast to what is happening in Britain. It goes further by saying: "We believe that the block on cleaning up this appalling situation is at the political level and reflects the power of the fishing industry in Ireland, as indeed does the sycophantic documentary broadcast by RTE."

But how bad are the infringements, is RTE being unfairly pilloried and who is ultimately to blame for the exploitation of non EU nationals, many of whom are working illegally? In its defence, RTE claimed that it was 'an observational documentary series' and that it could not be expected to cover every aspect of the conditions on the trawlers in a few episodes. It would also be naive for viewers to expect hard-searching questions from RTE on issues of badly-treated illegal migrants as the skippers would clam up and prevent any more trips by cameramen. There has also been a similar television series in Britain called "Trawlermen", and it seems no such awkward questions were asked on that series, despite the fact that Scottish trawlers are also up to their necks in migrant abuse and illegalities. A whiff of double standards, perhaps?

Examples of shabby abuse claimed by ITF are many and serious. Ken Fleming, ITF's inspector for Ireland, says that in his experience helping fishermen, particularly non EU nationals working illegally and who form a high proportion of the workforce, "the industry is rife with exploitation." Illegal crew members have been dumped on quays without any pay to make their own way home, he says. Others have been seriously injured, spending months in hospital, while many were grossly underpaid. They live in cramped conditions on land in caravans or sleep on board because they cannot afford to pay the rent, says Mr Fleming. There have even been cases where foreign migrant workers expecting to work on deep-sea cargo ships on three or six-month contracts have been shanghaied onto Irish fishing vessels even though they have had no training on trawlers, and so pose a risk to themselves and other crew members. "When we met the fishing industry owners," said Mr Fleming, "they actually refused to contemplate paying the national minimum wage. It appears that they enjoy immunity from the laws that apply to the rest of the community. Fishermen, many of them non-EU nationals working here illegally, are picking up the tab by working in hazardous and harsh conditions on our behalf."

Pusillanimous Government?

There seems to be some justification for the claim that the Irish Government is foot dragging because it does not want to offend a powerful industry. As ITF explained, back in 2008 the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment drew up regulations to govern the Irish fishing industry. ITF received the impression that these regulations would be introduced shortly to ensure workers were treated in a fair and humane way. Nothing was done.

There is no doubt that the Irish fishing industry is a powerful one, employing 11,000 workers at sea, which has been stable since 1997. If UK fishing figures are any guide then the 11,000 fishermen support 10 times that number of land jobs. Their fishing fleet has actually grown to almost 2,000 vessels, up from 1,800 in 1997, while at the same time the overall EU fishing fleet has fallen by about 20%. Between 1954 and 2004 the total volume of fish caught in Irish waters rose from 160,000 tonnes to 530,000 tonnes. Irish boats now catch about 25% of fish caught in Irish waters, up from an average of 16% in the 1970s, and currently Irish fish exports are worth about Euro360 million.

These figures are in stark contrast to what has been happening in Britain, where currently only 12,700 fishermen support about 10 times that number of land-based jobs. Between 1973 and 2006 the UK catch fell by 45% and in 2007 its vessels landed 610,000 tonnes of fish, including shellfish, worth about £645 million. These figures show the much greater, relative importance of fishing to Ireland's economy and suggests that conditions are not such that Irish trawler owners are hard pressed by declining incomes and therefore have no excuse to underpay illegal migrant workers who are too frightened by their status to raise objections.

Ireland has done relatively well out of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) since joining the EU but that policy has been an indisputable catastrophe for Britain's fishing industry and the economy. According to a comprehensive investigation by the Taxpayers Alliance, the total annual cost to the UK of the CFP is £2.8 billion. It could also be argued that the CFP has been an unmitigated failure and obscenely wasteful, as by the EU's own admission between 40% and 60% of all caught fish is dumped dead, owing to quota regulations. In some trawl fisheries the dump rate is 70-90%.

British trawler owners could be said to have a much greater grievance than Irish owners and therefore a higher incentive to cut corners and abuse foreign crews to improve profitability but to the authorities' great credit the UK Border Agency began a massive crackdown on similar abuses after fishing boat owners and operators failed to respond to an amnesty. They now face fines of up to £10,000 or two years imprisonment if they continue to ignore regulations. Owners, masters or agents caught bringing in non EEA crew into the UK intending to use them in breach of the law may also face prosecutions for facilitation, which carries penalties of up to 14 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine. The concessionary visa arrangement was in effect a three-months amnesty introduced in March 2010 that would allow up to 1,500 migrant fishermen working illegally in British ports to be registered with the authorities and thus be allowed to work legally until September 2011, provided they received proper employment contracts.

MAIB rebukes MCA over fishing accident

A serious accident on board the beam scalloper, Olivia Jean, on October 10, 2009 has not only revealed abuse of unqualified, sleep-deprived crew, three of whom were Ghanaians, but shows shortcomings in the Maritime and Coastguard Agency's administration of survey and inspections, despite a previous internal review, says the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB). It also found that the main trawl wire which had snapped, not for the first time, was not subject to inspections under LOLER. Consequently, there is a need for the fishing industry's exceptions to compliance with LOLER to be reviewed. Following this, the guidance on LOLER and PUWER to both surveyors and the industry should be clarified to ensure that lifting and working equipment on board fishing vessels is properly maintained and surveyed. MAIB also suggests that to reduce the risk of fatigue-induced accidents the fishing industry's extensive exceptions from the working time regulations should be reviewed to ensure that the risk of crew fatigue is properly controlled.

MAIB believes that a policy change within the MCA is required to improve fishing vessel standards and fishermen's occupational safety. "While safety remains the owners' responsibility," says the report, "MAIB believes the deep-rooted failings in the MCA's procedures require significant policy changes to improve fishing vessel occupational standards and to ensure the safety of fishermen."

For long now, fishing has been the most dangerous of occupations, but the deep-seated greed of many trawler owners is now adding to the risks of injuries and deaths and nowhere is this more glaring than among Irish trawler operators. Back in the 1930s Ireland was roundly condemned for its filthy trade in live horse exports. Must it now be condemned for its filthy trade in migrant fishermen?
This story first appeared in Bob Couttie's Maritime Accident Casebook under the headline: "Ireland's trawler fishing shame exposed"