A reward idea that sticks in the throat
As the Year of the Seafarer draws to a close, ship-based staff still seem to be searching for the empowerment and respect they deserve
Monday 13 December 2010
DECEMBER sees the last knockings of the Year of the Seafarer, and I just wonder whether one of its unexpected effects might have been to make those who serve at sea rather less tolerant of the treatment they sometimes endure from those who work ashore.
Sociologists would call it empowerment, although I would suggest everyone has a level beyond which they will not be pushed by the beancounters who rule our lives.
I am considering these matters, as Wikileaks continues to entertain us, no matter how reprehensible we might consider the role of electronic anarchy.
It was not this website, though, but a friend who sent me an extraordinary series of emails that have been whizzing around the fleet of AP Moller-Maersk , since they received a message from their chief operating officer Morten Engelstoft.
This invited those aboard the ships of the fleet to celebrate the success of the company in turning a vast loss into a respectable profit with a traditional Danish cream cake.
Undoubtedly, he meant well, but as the ferry executive who made ill-advised remarks about overweight and disobliging ferrymen discovered to his cost, offence can be caused quite easily these days.
In the case of Mr Engelstoftâ€™s invitation, it went down rather like the words of Marie Antoinette about brioche for the less well-off.
The senior officersâ€™ reactions did not call for the use of the guillotine, but left nobody who read their emails in any doubt about the gulf between ship and shore, and the dire state of morale among those who feel their hard work and sacrifice have been unrecognised.
The cream cake, to mix a metaphor, was the last straw.
As these messages from containership masters reverberated around the fleet, each supporting the others, a picture of serious discontent was built up.
The officers spoke about declining standards, the consequences of too many experienced people having been â€œlet goâ€ or walked of their own volition to find something better, of salary reductions and contracts unrenewed, and the huge budget cuts being felt aboard ship.
They spoke of demotivation, of their evident anger at the increased bureaucracy, additional work being thrown their way without the resources to do it, of instructions from inexperienced and ignorant shoreside staff that were demeaning to the professional and senior recipients of these messages.
Stress levels were â€œat tipping pointâ€, said one master, while another spoke of the inexperience of the officers aboard his ship, another of the anger of his Filipino crew members, who had been informed that their contracts could now be extended by an additional three months when the company wanted.
Another saw the company that he had served for more than four decades aligning itself with other companies â€œof a more shady characterâ€.
There were accusations of â€œarrogance and ignoranceâ€ among the management and a sad question: â€œI wonder what Mr Moller would say to this, if he knew.â€
Clearly, there have been rumblings of discontent from this company of proud professionals before. Some genius decreed that cheap kitchen rolls should replace the paper napkins in the cafeterias, which was almost symbolic in its crassness, while there was great anger at the announced sacking of Danish chief stewards, who did a lot more than catering and effectively assisted masters a good deal.
There was the news that cadets who thought they had a job to go to when they had finished their training would not necessarily be employed.
Somehow, it seemed that a company that had been at the technical forefront of ship design, with a declared ambition to be number one in the world, was losing the confidence of its sea staff.
AP Moller-Maersk has always been a centralised company. Years ago a British chief officer in the Danish fleet laughingly told me that if the crew wanted an extra meatball for dinner, Copenhagen had to be consulted.
I am toldthat a master has to ask permission to use his stabilisers, or to retract them â€” and I do not think that is an exaggeration.
But it was a Rolls-Royce outfit in the shipping world, and one whose officers were really proud to serve in its beautiful blue ships. Somewhere in this focus on the bottom line, humanity seems to have suffered.
I do not think for a minute that Maersk is alone in this ship-shore division. There have always been tight-fisted shipowners who have regarded their crews as a commodity, or barely different from truck drivers, and accorded them little respect.
There are still plenty of lousy operators out there that employ spotty clerks who love to fire off impertinent emails to masters of their ships. But there are others that retain a certain reputation, perhaps even a mystique, and Maersk used to be one of them.
It is tempting for others to look at this slump in fleet morale at Maersk and chuckle, but it is a stark sign that everyone in the industry needs to look closely at this relationship between people who manage ashore and those who manage aboard ship.
Fundamentally, it is about respect and modern management practices. It is about sensitivity and humanity.
What does Maersk do about this problem? There will be some who would suggest the employment of management consultants â€” disaster on stilts.
I would suggest that, without delay, a very senior officer of the company is tasked with the exclusive duty, within a strict time frame, of identifying the problems and producing practical recommendations for their remedy.
They need to get aboard the ships and talk. And stay away from the cake.