21/06/2016 Feature
The Dirty Murky World Of Shipping
How we are all sailing into a dead sea.

Govt figures show most 'British' ships are flagged elsewhere
The shipping world in recent times has changed beyond recognition for most of us, indeed, for the vast majority of the public, especially in the UK, it has disappeared altogether.

At one time this island race were so involved in their maritime affairs, the very language they used came from the sea. For centuries these islands rang to ships bells and hooters, every town on the coast or a sea-bound river had a port and at least one pub where talk of the sea and ships was everyday. Few families were not linked in some way to the maritime world, be it in fishing, the docks, ship and boatbuilding, or going coastal or deep-sea as mariners.

Did we become so self-reliant in the last half century that we no longer need ships? Have our farmers grown all our needs? Has industry became so completely home grown that we find little need of foreign goods? Have we discovered huge new regions within the British Isles to serve us metals, minerals and fuel?

The answer to all of those is of course the opposite. We import more 'stuff' than ever before. Perhaps exports have dried up? Indeed no, where we do make 'stuff' largely it is for export. Consider the UK automotive industry - the majority of vehicles and engines made in England, NI, Scotland and Wales is destined for abroad.

So what has happened?

The shipping industry has gone offshore. Don't laugh, as self evident as that may sound, what I mean is that we no longer have as many ships owned or operated here to service our needs. And even though there are some companies that do operate in the UK, few of their ships fly a British flag. Let us take one company that is close to home here. It has a number of large ships. But none of them are UK flagged and their homeports are nowhere in the UK.

Odd isn't it? Not only do foreign owners serve us, but our own owners often don't have their ships registered here at all. The figures for the British Ship Registry paint an odd picture, namely that the vast majority of British owned or managed ships do not carry the British flag.

So if the ship is owned or managed here, surely it would make perfect sense in a rational thinking mind that a British flag should fly from it? No, not so.

The reason for this isn't hard to find. Wages, conditions, liabilities and so on, are much less onerous on shipping companies if the vessel is registered in a more lax regime. Recently this was highlighted by two ships in the UK working in the North Sea that were owned by an Indian company that virtually contained slave labour aboard them. This has shocked people on social media, but it is no shock at all to industry observers or now-unemployed UK seafarers. This is precisely how the shipping world largely operates.

For an exercise, try and find out a ship's owner and you will find that you have a very complicated road to follow. The ship may be beneficially owned in one country, its company owned in another, managed commercially somewhere else, managed technically elsewhere again and flagged somewhere that's barely seen an ocean going ship. Or flagged in a port the ship has never seen nor ever will. To Joe Public if they ever do see a ship and notice its stern they will see some exotic place name and they imagine it to be a vessel from a faraway place making a merry call in old Glasgow or Liverpool. But no, its probably technically managed two streets away and owned by someone in an office in a totally different part of the world whilst being commercially managed in Singapore.

All of this is to offset any potential risks in each field required to run a ship and its not just lumbering cargo vessels of shady identity. Close to home our very own Calmac, so familiar and cheery and surely a place where any lad or lass can find a career by stomping down to the pier - well that lad or lass is in for a shock when they discover that Calmac have offshored staffing offices to Guernsey. No they don't have to go to Guernsey, that's just where the crewing office is registered. Again all part of the murky odd world that is shipping.

In fact, lets look at the introduction to Calmac on their site. Remember, this is a concern that is state owned in Scotland:

CalMac Ferries Ltd (CFL) is a wholly-owned subsidiary of David MacBrayne Ltd, which is wholly owned by Scottish Ministers.

Previously operating as Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd, CalMac was created in October 2006 to bid for the Scottish Government contract to operate Clyde & Hebrides Ferry Services, which it subsequently won.

At the same time Caledonian MacBrayne Ltd changed its name to Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL) and retained ownership of the vessels and piers which it leases to the operator of the Clyde & Hebrides Ferry services (currently CFL). CMAL is also wholly owned by Scottish Ministers but is entirely separate from CFL. Although they have the same shareholder, each has its own Board and their relationship is solely contractual.

CalMac Ferries Limited has one wholly owned subsidiary; Caledonian MacBrayne Crewing (Guernsey) Limited, which employs and supplies all sea going staff (approx 770) to CFL.

The above is a perfect example of how convoluted the shipping industry is. We have to thank a Glasgow man for this though, one Wm Burrell who pioneered ship management, effectively making redundant the idea that you owned, operated and had total responsibility for your ship. He had the clever ruse of making one ship companies, that is to say, each ship is responsible for itself, and legally, owned by its own company, so if it sank or was otherwise in troubled waters, the rest of the fleet stayed afloat as it were. And this is all very good, but now it has gone to extremes where flagging, registry, ownership, management, crewing, and all manner of associated liabilities are spread so that the shipowners (the beneficial ones who ever they may be!) can cherry pick conditions to their hearts delight.

Just as in all globalisation (and to understand that concept you only need look at its greatest proponent, the shipping industry) there are downsides and the main one is employment and careers as well as of course, the overall common good of a nation or port. Where at one time all manner of trades were centered round the ships home port, now they are farmed out to the most beneficial place that balances skills with costs. Nothing wrong in that you may say and indeed there isn't, its to be expected in any business, but the real darkness comes when we consider that across this globe and increasingly in our own waters, low paid and abused staff are servicing our needs whilst we ourselves are cutting ourselves out of a future.

At this present time the UK is fairly healthy in terms of ship management and there are a number of training agencies that are providing valuable current employment and future skills for us all, but there will come a time when these can be easily dispensed with. Yet at the same time, the UK, still and island, still a place that needs goods imported and exported will find that the shipping industry is merely a foreign owned and staffed conveyer-belt to assist in our ever increasing trade gap with the world.

And furthermore, due to its lack of visibility no-one will care to legislate or protect those on the high seas at all and we will all be the poorer, morally, in terms of infrastructure and security and indeed financially in the long run. Very soon too automation will come to ships as it has already done to many ports, and then, only the poorest of mariners will be required and one master, if indeed a master is needed. By then of course, the dwindling community of the sea will be so divorced from the body politic we will not be an island race any more but merely a moribund state in a deadening sea.