Think of any ONE industry where employees can be considered "criminals" when any operational incident happens while they are on duty? Guess what our prestigious profession of "merchant navy" is that ONE industry.
Over the years we have only been "reactive" to any such news which has been increasingly been reported over the years but hardly find usual "proactive" course by the Owner or Industry that we are being taught always to inculcate for "cleaner n safer" seas. In this "no blame culture" being promoted across the maritime industry it seems the only time this mantra is forgotten by the marine stake holders is when any major incident happens and then seafarers the weakest link are made the scapegoat for all the trouble caused! Further, we have a usual "Risk Assessment" for numerous operational issues in our Safety Management Manual but when did we see one for the "act of criminalization" by the authorities, against the vessel and its crew, where such incident would have happened.
Also, thanks to our media which can help this cause of "criminalization of seafarer" by their aggressive reporting to catch public attention at all cost. Further, such high profile cases can be their once in a while but the regular harassment on many ports by the officials is usual nuisance that may have to be dealt with and often lead to "settlement" before its proclaimed as "criminalization" and further stringent action or penalty.
Obviously there will always be some cases where "gross negligence" of the seafarer may be evident or cases of intoxication which led to such a disaster or such typical individual isolated cases of concern which may be considered within the frame work of "act of criminalization" but still be dealt with "professional psychologist therapy" methods to help seafarer rather than accusing of such harsh blame.
Working at sea has its own special needs for the seafarer to be more stronger mentally and accept the issues of being away from family for a long time, live with a group of people who he may have met for the first time and to top it off the various cultural issues that may be evident with various nationalities on board. The ever growing legislation that has caused transformation in the seafarer life and it is no way we think a fancy seafarer enjoying realms of each country exotically. The fear among the seafaring community is increasing for this nuance of being at sea and more and more new legislations and political issues all over the world are now one of the cause to create havoc in the maritime community to avoid new recruits to join this profession.
Finally, there could be frequent cases also of "procedural & human rights failure" in simple incident investigations by authorities that may cause such "criminalization" be more evident than high profile cases creating tsunami waves.
We find that due to the lack of understanding about this relevant topic, which can take its toll to a great extent on the seafarer and the profession, its best to educate the maximum number of seafarer with some insight into it through our relevant experience and limited literature available on it. Although, the number of such cases may not be a very large number but its increasing and needs to be controlled before it becomes giant. It may not be possible to make an expert of such cases through our articles but we look to empower our maritime fraternity with the understanding of the legal system controlling such incidents, rights of the seafarers during such incidents and the basic do's and don'ts during these times is the best way to move ahead to ensure no harm is caused to the ship's crew and Master.
We hope our efforts in next few weeks with detailed study of the various aspects of such issues will help to improve public perception about seafaring community and we would be able to highlight the valour of the seaman in helping us keep our economies running and not only shoddy professionals who keep spoiling the environment in their usual merry making on board with disdain.
In the series of articles to be shared by us in this context we will discuss in our next :
1) What is "criminalization of seafarer"?
2) What are the different criminal charges/investigations which seafarers find themselves at risk for?
3) Why are seafarers soft targets for such criminalization?
Best Regards Adv Capt Rahul Varma (Ex Master Mariner n DPA)
The author sailed for 13 years and served as a DPA for 12 years before becoming an advocate and founding Ally Maritime And Legal Services, Mumbai, India.