Port corruption in the global shipping industry is a stubborn problem that persists despite individual countries' efforts to pass anti-corruption laws. It's not easy to turn down demands from a local official who is blocking the progress of your ship, but it can be done if we all act as one, writes Vivek Menon of the Maritime Anti-Corruption Network
The nature of the maritime industry brings several unwelcome 'traditional' practices. One of these is the demand for 'compensation' by port authorities, a practice still strong in many parts of the world. In the past this was a request for a small gift, or a need to 'grease the wheels' to get things done; today we call it petty corruption. The acceptance that this practice is now illegal comes slowly to those accustomed to such payments and, in many cases, this leads to relentless discussions with port officials who often threaten the vessel and its crew with expensive delays if these illegal payments are not made.
As a global industry that interacts regularly with government agencies, the maritime industry is exposed to multiple layers of integrity risk, such as frequent demands for facilitation payments including cash or in-kind benefit for a job that is already paid for, or should be part of the day-to-day operation of a port. Often these demands are made indirectly to the Master in private. This corruption gives rise to operational disruption and increased operational costs.
A captain's log – 2002
This is a narrative of an incident during a port call when I was a junior officer.
About an hour after berthing, port health officials boarded the vessel to issue 'free pratique' (licence to enter a port). Two officials attended. They checked through the vessel's sanitation documents and the crew vaccination cards.
They then continued to inspect the galley and bond stores. Whilst inspecting, various minor discrepancies and breaches were pointed out, all of which were questionable and led to discussions.
The duration and degree of these discussions led to a growing feeling of harassment. The approach varied between the two officials, but it was mostly mild in nature. They then threatened fines to the vessel and requested the master sign papers admitting responsibility, which he very kindly refused to do. After hours, literally hours, of negotiation, we eventually got free pratique.
Shortly after, the vessel was boarded by customs, immigration, the local drug and law enforcement agency, and related boarding agent representatives. The officials from these agencies were aggressive and intimidating, with each group checking through the arrival documents and inspections of various spaces onboard.
The inspections were extremely thorough. After about three hours, the officials returned to the master's office threatening fines and producing forms for the master to sign admitting responsibility. Heavy arguments followed, pushing the master into the position where we felt compelled to make unethical payments to resolve the spiralling situation.
At no given point during the discussions were the officials careless enough to overtly ask for any gift or bribe, but it was implied such payments were required to mitigate this situation. The boarding agents became stressed in this situation and were consistently unhelpful. At the same time, cargo operations were suspended, awaiting the conclusion of the official 'inspections'. As a seafarer, you are quite aware of the fact that every moment vessels spend in port costs the owners and operators. Time is money.
In this scenario the true nature of the maritime industry reveals itself, when vessels arrive in ports, harbours, or terminals. They didn't teach us about this part of the business at maritime school! The outside world believes the primary mission of seafarers is to ensure vessels sail safely without interruption, and that ships spend the shortest amount of time in port. Few would think our job is also to pay corrupt officials to ensure they can maintain the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.
The above example is a classic situation that seafarers face. A state of duress, where on the one hand they are vulnerable to public officials who have the power to fine, detain, and cause delays, which affect the reputation of a vessel and company. In some cases, rejecting demands endangers the safety of seafarers, the vessel, and its cargo.
On the other hand, if masters and seafarers reject these demands, they are vulnerable to reprimand from their companies and to the possibility of criminalisation and imprisonment at the hands of port officials. Because seafarers are never trained nor educated to handle corrupt public officials, managing such situations is only learned through 'doing', thereby potentially facing compounded challenges in various ports as this becomes an accepted practice.
Resilience-building in the maritime industry
The focus on corruption has increased in the international community. The extraterritorial reach of regulations such as the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the UK Bribery Act increases the exposure of anyone engaged in corrupt practices; so if a company engages in corrupt behaviour, this may lead to significant investigations, potential prosecution, high fines, and liability both for seafarer and senior management ashore. Companies now need to change the way they operate and be ready to both internally address these demands, and externally prepare their seafarers to refuse demands.
As a seafarer and among peers, I have heard many times that such illegal demands and behaviours are eternal: 'This is how the industry has always been' and 'What can one do alone to make any change?'
But change is happening in the industry, where some shipping companies have taken a stand against such practices and have achieved successful results through clear communication and collaboration between the vessels and the stakeholders who interact with them. By making it very clear that they support their masters and crew in avoiding any payments, these shipping companies ensure the safety of the seafarers they employ and preserve the integrity of the company.