Written By: Shah Faisal
Most of us know that, being the cheapest mode of transportation, 90 % of global trade is conducted through sea via variety of ships. It means that seafarers are involved in one way or the other in our daily lives. As we leisurely use delicate imported items, we owe a vote of thanks to people from this community. While they perform their tasks with utmost diligence braving the odds at sea, surely not many of us know about problems that are being faced by the Pakistani mariners.
Like every year, International Maritime Organization (IMO) under the auspices of the UN, held World Maritime Day on September 28, 2017. This year, theme of the Day was “Connecting Ships, Ports and People”. These are the three main pillars on which the Global Maritime Industry thrives. According to IMO, this day is held to highlight the significance of maritime sector, international seaborne trade and its relationship with the world economy. While we all understand and acknowledge the importance of first two components of this year’s theme that are Ships and Ports, the third component i.e., People (the Mariners; who serve onboard ships), despite being the most important of all, is often less acknowledged. As the world celebrated this day, for Pakistani mariners it passed as an ordinary day full of challenges and hardships of sea-life with no or little recognition at home.
Mariner is a term generally used for those brave men who choose the daring profession of serving onboard ships. Most of us know that, being the cheapest mode of transportation, 90 % of global trade is conducted through sea via variety of ships. It means that seafarers are involved in one way or the other in our daily lives. As we leisurely use delicate imported items, we owe a vote of thanks to people from this community. While they perform their tasks with utmost diligence braving the odds at sea, surely not many of us know about problems that are being faced by the Pakistani mariners.
Seafaring is a respectable profession filled with adventure, excitement and promising returns. Yet, not many among Pakistani youth choose it. First and the foremost reason is the fact that despite being located at an important geostrategic location in the Arabian Sea, awareness about the seas and their importance is almost nonexistent among the general populace in Pakistan. For instance, you may ask young college students some basic questions about maritime geography and you would be astonished to find that the results are dismal.
Talking about maritime training and education in Pakistan, we find that we have a historic institution in the government sector that is Pakistan Marine Academy (PMA), located in Karachi since 1971 and a handful of private institutions. PMA conducts pre-sea cadets training for marine officers and almost 150 cadets pass out every year belonging to both Nautical and Engineering branches. PMA also conducts General Purpose crew training for ratings who can then search jobs onboard ships. Equipped with large training infrastructure with adequate facilities, PMA is the only government academy in maritime field. Despite challenges like funding and manning issues, PMA has been doing its job tremendously. However, do these cadets and seamen possess necessary basic competencies to compete with cadets from other countries searching for the same jobs in the field? It remains a simmering question keeping in view the tremendous competition that they face in the international maritime market. Another contributing factor in this regard is that unfortunately, Pakistan’s national flag carrier, Pakistan National Shipping Corporation (PNSC) does not have sufficient number of ships to accommodate these fresh mariners who do not have any practical experience. Resultantly, these young fellows have to apply for jobs in international market through manning agents. There are instances where they have paid hefty amounts as commission to get initial sign-in on not-so-safe and seaworthy ships. Furthermore, some of them have even been deprived of their money by fake and fraudulent agents. According to one former PMA cadet, almost 40% of his batchmates failed to secure initial sign-in despite concerted and prolonged efforts after completion of their training. Resultantly, as he sadly narrated, some of them even switched their fields thus abandoning their dream of becoming a mariner.
When it comes to maritime training and education in Pakistan, we find that there is only one institution in the government sector and that is Pakistan Marine Academy (PMA), located in Karachi since 1971. PMA conducts pre-sea cadets training for marine officers and almost 150 cadets pass out every year belonging to both Nautical and Engineering branches. PMA is the only government academy in maritime field and it has large training infrastructure with adequate facilities.
Problems of the mariners do not end after completing their basic mandatory service. Even after completing their initial sign-in and having gained considerable experience at sea, they face further challenges in addition to the inherent risks of the life at sea. Pakistani seafarers despite being hardworking and efficient crew members have also suffered due to the menace of terrorism. Although no significant terrorism related incident has occurred in the maritime arena involving Pakistani seafarers, however, precarious security conditions in the country particularly in the past and Pakistan’s negative image have contributed towards strict visa restrictions. Many countries deny/delay visa to Pakistani seafarers and some even do not allow them to step down from the ships when visiting their ports. There were some 7300 Pakistani seafarers prior to 9/11 which later reduced to less than 6000. Such problems have not only rendered these skilled men unemployed, rather Pakistan’s economy has also lost substantial foreign exchange as they get paid in foreign currencies. Although, our seafarers possess computerized requisite documents including machine readable passports but the problem still persists due to negative image of the country.
Let me highlight another worth mentioning factor that this all is happening in an industry which is currently short of manpower, particularly in officers’ cadre. According to one estimate there is a requirement of 0.8 million officers worldwide and there is a shortage of approximately 16,000 officers. Pakistan’s share among the global seafarers has reduced over a period of time. Presently, countries like China, Indonesia, Russian Federation, the Philippines Ukraine and India form mainstay of global demand. Interestingly, population of the Philippines, Ukraine is almost half of Pakistan but it is often ranked second in the list of seafarers providing countries after China.
Hence, there is an urgent need to address the issues being faced by mariners. Ministry of Ports and Shipping can resolve problems concerning employment of Pakistani seafarers. PMA should be supported to conduct training of our seafarers on modern lines so as to produce efficient cadets and seamen at par with their counterparts of other nationalities. Moreover, system may be devised to facilitate employment of our mariners particularly new graduates. In this regard, suitable arrangements/signing of MoUs with friendly maritime nations may be considered so as to accommodate our inexperienced cadets and seamen. And lastly, their reservations about delay and denial of visas for boarding ships should also be addressed.