October Issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 4 years ago

Adnan Panjeri, general secretary of the Pakistan Seamen Union (CBA) for over a decade, has been involved in merchant shipping for the last 41 years. And his opinion on the decline of merchant shipping carries a lot of weight. He says, “The ports and shipping ministries under different governments share common traits. They were deaf, dumb and blind, and unable to do anything to stop the decline of a major source of employment for the people and foreign reserves for the country.”

According to Panjeri, who has been part of the consultative process at the national and international level and who has formulated training courses and safety regulations for seafarers, “Successive government focused only on the ports and lands owned by the Karachi Port Trust (KPT) and shipping was hardly given any importance. This is the reason behind the deterioration of the shipping line and the sinking of the Pakistan National Shipping Corporation (PNSC), which has only nine ships in its fleet now as compared to 64 in the early 1970s.”

Panjeri refered to the 1970s as a golden era for shipping, when the country, along with its own fleet, had many private companies who chartered their own ships here. Not so, anymore. Along with that, the independence of Bangladesh has left the field short of manpower, both among officers and labourers. This allowed the space to be filled by labourers from Swat, Malakand, Attock and various other districts from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab.

But, at the same time, the seeds of the destruction of the shipping industry were sown at the same time, mainly through the bureaucratisation of the industry due to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s policy of nationalisation.

Panjeri says, “I am an admirer of Bhutto, but the first blow to the shipping line came from him through his nationalisation of private shipping companies owned by Pakistanis. This left no space for any further expansion of the industry.” He added, “Go and ask some of the shipowners from those days; many received nothing after their ships were taken away by the government.”

The dire situation became even worse after 9/11. Workers and officers of Pakistani origin faced discriminatory treatment at international ports, especially in the US. Pakistani ships, or international ships with Pakistani crew members, were quarantined and treated worse than others. Pakistan, along with a few other countries, had been placed on the list of countries considered a security risk by US immigration and customs. Pakistanis were profiled and interrogated and even their photographs and fingerprints were collected.

Shipowners were told to hire additional security guards to keep an eye on Pakistani crew and the profiling process would take days, adding an unnecessary financial burden on those who hired Pakistanis.

Other countries followed the American lead. In Singapore, ships with Pakistani crew members had to dock at a separate anchorage and were subjected to scrutiny from immigration officials. Many countries started denying visas to Pakistani seafarers.

But, say those who are part of the shipping industry, 9/11 is only one of many factors for the continued decline of merchant shipping. The shrinking fleet of the PNSC and the resultant loss of jobs has further contributed to the malaise.

images“There are over 1,500 seamen registered with the PNSC but, at any given time, there are only 150-180 jobs available. After a seaman completes a six- or nine-month job on board a ship, he has to wait another 24 to 30 months before getting another job,” said a seaman registered on the PNSC roster. “During this long wait, he has to find some other job to make a living.” A former second engineer at the PNSC said, “Due to this long wait, seamen tend to desert their ship at the port of a European country or the US.” Referring to athletes and academics who tend not to return to Pakistan if they have an opportunity to escape, he asked, “Why do you expect a seaman to behave any differently?” He adds that this causes major problems for ship- owners, who have to pay huge penalties if any crew member deserts the ship. In addition, the owners also have to pay repatriation costs and the money spent on a replacement employee. This is why shipowners prefer not to hire Pakistani crew members.

Another seafarer, who has worked with a foreign shipping company for 25 years, contends that some of the crew aboard Pakistani ships have been involved in smuggling narcotics to western countries. He claims many mid- and low-level officers and some people associated with the labour unions were part of this racket.

He referred to one of his relatives who was sentenced to nine years of imprisonment in the US when a huge cache of US dollars was found in his cabin and his only explanation was that he had been made a scapegoat. “When he was released, the first thing he did was form a jirga against a local drug dealer in this village in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which awarded him half -a-million rupees for the nine years he spent in prison,” said the seafarer.

Despite this sorry state of affairs, government institutions still continue to recruit seafarers, as it is a money-making business for the shipping department, its subsidiaries, the marine academy and the dozen private institutes licensed to train seafarers.

In 2009, the International Marine Organisation ran a “Go to Sea” campaign as it faced a shortage of seafarers, both in the officer and ordinary worker class. But Pakistan had no reason to be part of this recruitment and placement drive since its workers are not in demand internationally.

Yet Pakistan continues to recruit and make seamen go through training courses for reasons that have everything to do with making money and nothing to do with demand. A seaman working on a foreign cruise ship says, “After completing my nine months on the ship, I was asked by my company to acquire security and safety training certificates from the Pakistan Marine Academy (PMA) in Karachi. After attending classes, we were called for lifeboat training. When I arrived at the training facility, I found that they were using obsolete manual equipment. I was told by others that this process was little more than a formality. It was only after we had collected enough money to buy a 19-inch LCD TV for the PMA employees’ lounge that we were given the certificate.”

The government has shown no interest in reviving the merchant shipping industry. The Pakistan Merchant Shipping Act of 1923 was replaced with an ordinance by Pervez Musharraf in 2001. But since then, successive governments have not made any progress. The ordinance is yet to be reviewed and its articles and clauses approved and implemented as an act. Captain Haleem Siddiqui had established the Pakistan International Containers Terminal, a private venture, on KPT land while former ports and shipping minister Babar Ghauri used KPT land to build Port Grand.

In 2007, a former shipping master in the Ministry of Ports and Shipping, Captain (retd) Faisal Farooqui, was accused of misappropriating and accumulating illegal assets worth Rs. 70.53 million after NAB filed a reference against him. Among the accusations were irregularities in the recruitment process and issuance of Seamen Service Books in bulk. He was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and  fined Rs. 78.11 million in 2008, after which he committed suicide. In the same year, there were two fires in the PNSC building within a span of seven months.

The current government is yet to emerge from its stupor and try to correct this dysfunctional state of affairs. Meanwhile, thousands of seafarers remain stranded, unable to make a living.

Run Them Ashore

Amost a dozen institutes in the country are licensed to offer training courses to prospective seafarers that would make them eligible to acquire the Seamen Service Book (SSB) — which is considered a kind of sea passport. The task should be left only to the Pakistan Marine Academy, but thanks to the influence of former navy officials — who run these institutes — and massive irregularities in the shipping department, the job is left to the private sector.

These institutes offer six months of training and have two batches of students per year. This has led to the creation of thousands of SSB holders in the last few years, most of whom are unable to get jobs and are out of pocket for the fees of the institute.

“These institutes have newspapers ads with attractive phrases like, ‘Sea service join karain, dollars mey kamain aur dunya ki sair karain’ (Join the merchant navy, earn in dollars and travel around the world). Now people from far and distant places of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab travel to Karachi, spend thousands of rupees, get the certification but are still unemployed.

The shipping department should be asking the institutes how many of the recruits trained by them were able to find jobs before renewing their licenses, but these certification mills have been able to avoid any accountability.

After acquiring these certificates, the seafarers are chosen by one of almost 50 licensed manning agents. These agents lure new recruits, promise them placement in ships of foreign companies, get paid a hefty amount and then do absolutely nothing. Adam Panjeri and many other veteran seafarers describe them as little more than “briefcase manning agents.”

To get their licenses renewed, the manning agents forge documents showing the seafarers are aboard ships. The names of the vessels picked up from the internet are mostly of those which are grounded at shipbreaking yards or have met with accidents and sunk.

Silent House

IMG_0884The Seamen’s Hostel, located in Keamari near Jackson Market, is both a reminder of the good old days of merchant shipping and a reflection of its ongoing decline. The hostel provided seafarers with living facilities for short stays before they went on board.

The entry gate to the hostel has a plaque on the wall with text in both Urdu and Bengali giving details of the foundation stone being laid on July 30, 1968, by Qazi Anwarul Haq, then the minister for labour and social welfare. Another plaque is from the inauguration of the hostel, dating back to December 14, 1974, when the then minister for labour, Abdul Sattar Gabol, opened the hostel.

That is where the grandeur ends. The hostel is a virtual haunted house with the lawn strewn with garbage and burnt wood. A broken sewer adds a pungent stench to the place. The dining lounge is dark and empty, with broken doors and windows. A wall has been erected to partition the canteen, which is now rented out as a tea stall.

The rooms upstairs have been assigned to unemployed seafarers and those waiting to board ships. Some of the unemployed seafarers are doing other jobs but living here to save on rent. Others make the rounds of the PNSC building or meet with manning agents. The door of each room has the name of a district or town in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Punjab. Piles of iron boxes bearing the names of the owners are lined up against the wall. The seafarers live in groups, with everyone contributing their share to the daily expenses.

Fazal Subhan, a leader of one of the three or four factions of the seamen’s union, lives here along with others from his hometown, Swat.When asked about the state of disrepair at the hostel, he blamed government negligence, corrupt officials and divisions within the union.

IMG_0883The hostel is supposed to have a staff of 10 people, including a superintendent, four guards, two sweepers, an electrician, a librarian and a peon. But none of these 10 people are to be found anywhere, even though they still draw salaries.

In 2012, K-Electric shut off the electricity supply to the hostel after its dues reached 10 million rupees. It is now run on illegal connections. A dozen shops and banks on the hostel premises pay only a nominal amount in rent, according to a decade-old agreement.

“If the rent is received as per the market rate, that income from the rent is more than enough for managing the hostel and doing regular maintenance work,” said one of the seafarers living there. “Just rent received from the bank could be enough to pay the utility bills of the hostel.” He added, “Living there for the last three years, I do not know who collects the rent.”

Officials from the shipping department claimed that new rules for the hostel had been formulated and the rent agreement would be renewed. They also promised that maintenance work would soon commence. So far, these words have not been backed by any action.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s October 2015 issue.

Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order