Supporting the fight against corruption

Nick Fisher, the CEO of Masterbulk, calls for an industry-wide zero-tolerance approach to corruption, warning we are all tarred by the same brush.

Today, 9 December, is International Anti-Corruption Day. On this day we look to raise awareness of corruption and of the role of the United Nations Convention against Corruption has in combating and preventing it. The shipping industry, as a sector, comes face-to-face with the issue of corruption more than most. From significant demands for funds and threats to seize and detain vessels, through to demands for cigarettes, alcohol and ships stores from low ranking officials – corrupt practices affect our industry and our reputation.

International Anti-Corruption Day also kicks off the Maritime Anti-Corruption Network’s (MACN) collective action against specific points of concern for the shipping industry. Masterbulk will be joining a pilot group of shipowners and operators in “saying no” to demands for bribes and facilitation that plague maritime operations.

Too often the shipping industry relies on regulation to guide maritime practices – be it conditions for crew, emissions, and anti-corruption. Yes, the good owners, operators, and managers set themselves higher standards, but when things go wrong we are all tarred by the same brush. One way to combat corruption is for shipping to adopt and enforce industry-wide zero-tolerance standards and practices.

Easier said than done? MACN is a global business network working towards the vision of a maritime industry free of corruption – enabling fair trade to the benefit of society. Admirable sentiments and a good place to start for those in the industry who want to make a stand.

Shipping and ‘petty corruption’

Seasoned seafarers will tell you it has been going on forever and in certain ports around the world it is the norm, and the only way to get things done – another one of the world’s oldest professions. If a vessel does not comply, it may go to the ‘back of the queue’, encounter delays for services, not receive a clearance or official stamp on important documentation, crew change may be prohibited or stores not delivered.

In some ports the equivalent of ‘protection money’ is required to ensure smooth passage. Worse still, fines are invented for spurious misdemeanors or non-existent or non-applicable regulation, and demands made for a ‘clean’ inspection report. All the while, this is being perpetrated by government officials such as immigration, customs, environment inspectors, port state control etc., and in part, abetted by the port agents acting as the ‘go between’. Often times the administrations turn a blind eye to the actions of their employees, thus seeking to escalate a protest is useless.

Masters are in a difficult situation, under pressure to uphold the owners’ policies and the charterers’ demands to speed through the process, while facing sometimes-hostile demands, intimidation, or even threats of violence or imprisonment. Facilitation takes the form of many things, from cigarettes and alcohol, pantry stores, even paint, to cash, from petty cash to significant five figure sums.

Many companies out there have a detailed handle on exactly how much of this is going on, including location, frequency, quantities, and perpetrators. Those companies have recognised their corporate and legal responsibilities to stamp out these practices and are trying to do something about it. This cannot be done alone, and that is where MACN has created this coalition of the willing to lobby and take collective action in a systematic and targeted way.

However, some companies choose to bury their heads in the sand and ‘ignore the elephant in the room’. Owners and managers are often equally caught between doing what is right and upholding the law and commercial pressure to kowtow to demands or face being off hired or losing the contract for a seemingly minor issue – after all, what’s 200 cigarettes versus a multi-hour delay?

Where to from here?

Global attitudes towards corrupt practices are changing, and one only has to look at the world of football to see how rapidly the authorities can act if they so desire. And it is not just seafarers who need to pay attention. Increasingly those are the top of the food chain are being held accountable for the illegal actions of those in their organisations.

As an industry we should be looking at how we can lead on this issue, rather than waiting for the regulators to make rules, or the authorities to come knocking.

Nick Fisher’s concluding part of his anti-corruption article can be found here.

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