Who would dare criticise the International Maritime Organization (IMO)? It is a leviathan — immense, powerful and rich. To assail its actions, one would have to be as intrepid as Musashi, the legendary Japanese swordsman shown battling a whale in Utagawa Kuniyoshi‘s circa-1848 woodblock print (pictured above).
For many in the international shipping community and the maritime press, the IMO is a sacred cow. Anyone who finds fault with this venerable institution is seen as disrespectful. That person is to be ignored, scoffed at or even blacklisted. But why should this be the case? For all its good work, the IMO is not without sin.
I have listed here three regrettable acts or failings by the IMO. The first two suggest a hankering for power and profit. In my view, they run counter to the ideals and noble intentions of the United Nations, of which the IMO is an important part.
Hijacking of the seamen’s rights issue
Workers’ rights have always been the responsibility of the International Labour Organization since its creation in 1919. It is so laid down in the ILO Constitution. The ILO sets labour standards and develops policies and programmes promoting decent work for all men and women — including merchant mariners.
So why is the annual celebration of the ‘Day of the Seafarer’ headed by the IMO? The latter decides the theme of the event, which it concocted in Manila in 2010. It is both conductor and lead singer of the global choir singing tired praises to seamen every 25th of June. Not content with this role, the IMO has dipped its fingers into the issue of abandoned crews in an apparent bid to project itself as the champion of seamen’s rights.
Profiting from STCW and other IMO Conventions
Anyone interested in the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 — the so-called ‘bill of rights’ for mariners — can read the full text together with the amendments on the ILO website. The same is true for all other ILO conventions.
Such openness and accessibility to information seem alien to the IMO. Want to get the complete text of the STCW (International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, 1978)? Then be prepared to cough up $65.79 for the e-book format. That is Witherby Seamanship International’s list price (excluding any applicable taxes) for ‘STCW including 2010 Manila Amendments (2017 Edition)‘.
Sorry, no freebies from the IMO. This savvy UN agency has a worldwide network of distributors peddling the IMO titles in print and digital formats. What an irony. IMO officials have been calling for wider compliance with the STCW regime. And yet, they won’t give maritime schools, training organisations and seamen free online access to the Convention and the supporting STCW Code.
Failure to address the training overload
In case the IMO does not know it yet, merchant sailors are reeling under a training overload. The burden, in terms of time and money, is getting heavier. What has the IMO done to lighten it? If the good folks at IMO London really care about the men and women who work at sea, they would find ways to help them cope somehow with the STCW training requirements.
The IMO runs the World Maritime University in Malmo, Sweden, where maritime bureaucrats from various countries get to pursue postgraduate studies as scholars. Why not an IMO programme to subsidise the skills upgrading of deserving ship officers from developing countries? Mariners, after all, are the real foundation of the STCW. A three-masted sailing ship dedicated to the training of officers and cadets and proudly flying the IMO flag also would not be a bad idea.
Ah, but that might hurt the IMO’s pockets.
~ Barista Uno
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