Three shipmanagers discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Chinese seafarers.
What are the best characteristics of Chinese crews?
The average age profile of Chinese crew is younger than the ages of Indian and Filipino crews which is getting higher, points out Benny Lee, the East Asian regional manpower director for V.Ships.
Lee reckons the basic educational standard of Chinese crew is on average at a high level.
Officers from China are generally well educated and motivated, thus there is no need to exercise permanent control or always show them what and how should be done, observes Sergey Popravko, managing director of Cyprus-based Unicom Management Services. In general salaries of Chinese officers and ratings are less then salaries of Filipino or Indian seafarers, making Chinese seafarers competitive in the global market, Popravko says.
“They are dutiful with great respect to authority, eager learners who are quick to grasp what is taught, clear-headed individuals and especially good at work that requires good discipline such as machinery maintenance,” claims Aaron Ruan, managing director of Bernhard Schulte Shipmanagement (China).
What are the worst characteristics?
“Many Chinese seafarers don’t have an innate sense of safety or responsibility,” says V.Ships’ Lee. He puts part of this down to Beijing’s one child policy where children have become very insulated and have not grown up learning by their mistakes.
“Although taught, and many pick up their training quickly, trainees haven’t had the opportunity to learn to risk assess themselves,” he adds.
For Unicom’s Popravko and Ruan from Bernhard Schulte picks up on the age-old issue of English competency as a key weakness still.
Also Ruan observes Chinese seafarers’ limited exposure outside the Chinese context also causes a strain in their understanding of cultural differences and common practices.
Are you finding as the nation gets richer, you are having to source crews from different areas, such as inland provinces?
“It is no surprise that a lucrative salary drawn as a seafarer attracts a large pool of candidates from inland provinces, which tends to house some of the poorest of the nation,” says Bernhard Schulte’s Ruan.
Recruitment used to be done in cities near to the coast. Now this pool of potential staff have better job options and are not joining the maritime sector.
Recruitment is now taking place inland in western China in cities up to three or four hours inland by plane, points out V.Ships’ Lee. Graduates are being attracted from schools and collages by recruitment networks.
Is it tricky — compared say to Filipinos or Indians – to get Chinese ratings to stay the course to become officer material?
Most Chinese officers are trained as cadets onboard and then they continue their career growth in officer positions, reckons Unicom’s Popravko. Cases of reeducation to officers from ratings are not so common, he adds.
V.Ships’ Lee takes issue with Popravko’s views here. “It is very difficult to develop Chinese ratings to officers,” he says, “as the present practice puts new entrants into two tiers – youngsters with lower education can only start as ratings. The system makes it very difficult for them to develop themselves to officers in their career path. This shortens the time youngsters stay in the industry.”
Unless a graduate is well educated they are less likely to develop to officer class and the better educated have many better opportunities open to them, Lee says. “They are not interested in ratings jobs,” he stresses.
“In a highly competitive industry, crew retention and loyalty building are the two most pressing issues for any shipmanager,” notes Bernhard Schulte’s Ruan. His company has recently launched a seafarer career development programme called ‘Seafarers coming Ashore’. Aimed at second and third nautical and engineering officers, the programme offers a fast-track career development similar to management trainee programmes. Aged around mid-20s, with at least two to three years of sailing experience, this particular profile of seafarers sees the most turnover amongst the seafarer population. Coincidentally, it is also typical of this demographic to begin settling in life, as such alongside a lucrative career, a clear long-term advancement and financial promise will be highly attractive for these individuals.
Price-wise, how do Chinese seafarers compare to Filipinos or Indians?
Although wages have picked up fast in recent years, Chinese seafarers are approximately 10% cheaper than Indians and Filipinos, notes Lee from V.Ships. However, the gap is closing and they are no longer enjoying wage competitiveness, he warns. This is because of the cost of social welfare contributions and insurance, which is a major cost factor for employers. China has one of the highest social contributions in the world.
They are still cheaper however, says Unicom’s Popravko, who notes that during the last 25 years the number of Chinese officers and ratings has quintupled.
Yes, they are still competitive with both Filipino and Indian crew wages, concurs Ruan from Bernhard Schulte, however he warns wage inflation with Chinese crew is inevitable due to economic and crew sourcing reasons.
What more could Beijing do to help promote the rise of Chinese seafarers on international deepsea ships?
The vast majority of Chinese seafarers are working on Chinese ships. This is largely down to the present education system, says Ruan.
“The current education system possesses career limiting options for Chinese seafarers, particularly at the level of ratings,” he says. “Consequently, this creates a barrier for Chinese national ratings to further develop into officers. The current system, which places emphasis on certification, needs to be further revised to focus on training seafarers for the purpose of their roles so as to better equip them for the actual challenges of the role. This will place them at competitive levels against their counterparts from the Philippines or India.”
A second area for improvement suggested by both Ruan and Lee is related to personal income tax for Chinese seafarers. Earlier this year, one of the budget proposals within the Indian parliament presented a tax exemption for Indian seafarers serving onboard Indian-flagged ships. If passed, this proposal will come in addition to the already placed income tax exemption for Indian crew who work onboard international waters for 182 days or more within a financial year. In the Philippines, crew serving on international waters, have for long enjoyed tax exemptions.
“Aligning the welfare and tax reliefs of Chinese crew to meet international practices, will increase seafarer’s income making the job much more attractive and consequently mitigate the shortage of seafarers,” Ruan says.
However, Lee cautions that Beijing making these changes is very unlikely. Beijing has to generate 12m new jobs each year in the country for new graduates, he points out. The seagoing career is only a very small sector – there are approximately 40,000 seafarers on foreign flagged ships which is a tiny percentage. “It is unlikely due to the small size of the sector that there will be any government dispensations,” Lee says.
A third area that could be improved for Ruan, the Bernhard Schulte executive, focuses on standardising and regulating crew recruitment practices across the country.
Unicom’s Popravko suggests greater maritime English training is still an urgent priority.
“Opening the crewing market to foreign ship owners could also vastly improve Chinese crew pool and quality on an international front,” concludes Ruan.
This article first appeared in the just published summer issue of SinoShip magazine. Readers can access the whole magazine online for free by clicking here.